Zone D: Let It Be?
The league is open to all sorts of changes, including an end to
its man-to-man tradition
Two years ago the NBA addressed its financial viability by
persuading the players to accept a ceiling on salaries in a new
collective bargaining agreement. Now, with criticism from fans
mounting, league officials have turned their attention to the
product on the court. When representatives of the 29 teams meet
in Washington before the Feb. 11 All-Star Game, they will be
asked to consider a major overhaul of the way the game is played.
"We need to look at the whole thing," says a high-ranking NBA
official who confirms that commissioner David Stern, deputy
commissioner Russ Granik and senior vice president of basketball
operations Stu Jackson are open to changes. "How does the
three-point line affect the game? The illegal-defense rules? Why
don't teams fast-break? Why is there so much isolation play? How
is the game called by the refs? Maybe we need to look
internationally for a new system."
Each team has an executive or coach on the competition committee,
which will convene and submit potential rules changes to the
Board of Governors--the owners--for a final simple-majority vote.
Because the league is open to the most important rules changes
since the introduction of the 24-second shot clock in 1954, no
action is expected to be taken in time for next season.
Expect yelling and screaming at the committee meeting. The
hottest topic will be the illegal-defense rule that was installed
in 1981 to prevent weakside defenders from clogging the lane.
While it has many passionate proponents, others deem it one of
the most incomprehensible laws in sports. The fans don't
understand it. "Neither do a lot of the refs," says one general
"I know an illegal defense when I see it, but it's very hard for
me to explain it," says another G.M. Stern, Granik and Jackson
are willing to consider abolishing the rule and allowing teams to
play any defense, including--gasp!--a zone. Except for the first
two months of its opening season, in 1946-47, the NBA has banned
zones, fearing that they would allow shot blockers to camp under
the rim and limit penetration.
The current quality of play, however, is making many team
officials rethink that fear. Of the executives from 24 teams who
responded to an SI survey last week, 11 favored revising the
illegal-defense rule; seven of them would even allow zones.
"That's a sudden change," says Sonics president Wally Walker.
"The proposal [to legalize zones] was brought up before the
competition committee two years ago and was voted down 27-2. The
only people who supported it were [Nets G.M.] John Nash and me."
The pro-zone faction now has some powerful voices, including
Larry Brown, the 76ers coach, and Rod Thorn, who before becoming
the Nets' president last spring spent 14 years in Jackson's role.
"Five years ago I could never have imagined being an advocate of
playing any defense," says Thorn. "I believed it would slow down
the game. But now the game has slowed down to an extent that I
don't know if it would make any difference."
Coaches have learned to exploit the illegal-defense rule by
running plays that isolate top scorers on a single defender.
Often they send three or four offensive players to the far side
of the court, where they stand surrounded by three or four
defenders--looking altogether like a group of guys waiting at a
bus stop. Ball movement ceases, the pace of the game slows and
the stars often wind up looking selfish.
On the other hand, some executives argue, writing new rules
doesn't guarantee change. Despite a series of adjustments over
the past decade, scoring is down this season for the 11th time in
12 years. "The issue is complicated," says Kings vice president
Geoff Petrie, whose acquisitions of highly skilled players have
shown that it's possible to field a winning, entertaining team
within the current system. "We keep changing the rules every
year. At what point do we stop?"
"The single biggest change that has happened in the league over
the last 20 years is rotating defenses," says a G.M. who wants to
maintain the illegal-defense rules. "Back in the early '80s, if
Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] got hot, he was going to score his 44
points, and we single-covered him the whole time. Everyone
thought about offense, and no one thought about defense. Then the
coaches started rotating the defenses and double-teaming to try
to force the ball to a player who was not as good a shooter. Now
you come to our practices and we spend half to three quarters of
our time working on defense. Offense sells tickets, but defense
Thorn thinks the emphasis on D has overwhelmed the pro game.
"There have been lots of innovations on the defensive end, but
when was the last time you saw anything innovative being done on
the offensive end?" he says. "There's a sameness about our game
now. Virtually everybody plays exactly the same style of offense,
and because of that, it's easier to defend against it. But if you
allowed any defense, you wouldn't see that. You'd see a lot of
defenses, a lot of offensive sets. There would be a lot more
movement. You could use some really good shooters who can't make
it in the league because they can't guard anybody one-on-one."
Charlotte's Baron Davis
Delayed Payoff From the Lottery
Last season top draft choice Elton Brand of the Bulls and No. 2
pick Steve Francis of the Rockets were on their way to becoming
co-Rookies of the Year. The fourth selection, Lamar Odom, was
starring for the Clippers, while point guard Andre Miller (No. 8)
was a fixture in the Cavaliers' lineup. By comparison Baron
Davis, the third pick, from UCLA, didn't start one game for the
Hornets and averaged 5.9 points and 3.8 assists in 18.6 minutes.
Of the four point guards selected in the 1999 lottery, there was
speculation that Davis might be the biggest bust.
"Baron needed to work on his outside shot," says Charlotte coach
Paul Silas. "I knew teams would sag off him, invite him to take
that shot. I didn't want to have teams almost embarrass him."
Silas no longer has such reservations: He and the Hornets are
promoting the 6'3", 212-pound Davis for the Most Improved Player
Award. Through Sunday he was averaging 13.4 points, 7.3 assists,
2.22 steals and 5.2 rebounds in 39.4 minutes while becoming one
of the NBA's most spectacular penetrators and dunkers. "He gives
us an explosiveness and an ability to push the ball that we
didn't have," says Silas.
While Davis sat through most of last season, he didn't sulk. "I
look at myself first before I blame anybody," he says. Determined
to make up for lost time in the off-season, he returned to Los
Angeles and sometimes played in three summer-league games a day.
He worked out with Celtics assistant coach Lester Conner, a
longtime friend; studied videotapes of everyone from Isiah Thomas
to his teenage idol, Jason Kidd; and sought advice from Magic
Putting it all together, Davis realized he had been playing in
too much of a hurry as a rookie. "Magic was telling me, 'This is
going to be your year,'" Davis says. "He knows that you have to
be confident in this league."
Davis had no aversion to hard work. After tearing the ACL in his
left knee while dunking during the NCAA tournament in his
freshman year, he recovered from surgery quickly enough to start
26 games as a sophomore and enter the draft. Some of his most
difficult practices over the summer were spent reinventing his
jump shot with Hornets assistant G.M. Jeff Bower. Davis fired
only 100 to 200 jumpers a day, but he took great pains to achieve
a consistent tempo and release. "People don't understand how
important the grip is," Bower says. "You want to keep your index
finger lined up in the middle of the ball. Baron had his middle
finger lined up there, which was why so many shots were going
wide left last season."
After a 20-9 start, Charlotte has slumped in the last month,
falling 3 1/2 games behind the Bucks in the Central Division at
week's end. Many blame the collapse on the Dec. 26 return of
forward Derrick Coleman, who had spent six weeks on the injured
list for being out of shape; through Sunday, the Hornets were
5-12 since he came back. Over the last three seasons they are
64-69 when Coleman plays and 35-9 when he doesn't.
It was Coleman's absence in the preseason, while he was adapting
to medication for an irregular heartbeat, that allowed Silas to
restructure his backcourt. Jamal Mashburn moved to Coleman's
forward spot and was replaced as shooting guard by last year's
point guard, 6'1" David Wesley. The muscular Davis often helps
lighten Wesley's load by covering the opposing two guard. "Baron
isn't like a lot of young guys," Wesley says. "He'll listen, take
criticism and try to get better."
Olajuwon and the Rockets
A Dream Run Nears Its End
Last week Hakeem Olajuwon rejoined the Rockets after missing 12
games with a cyst in his right knee. While he was sidelined,
Olajuwon asked Houston to consider trading him or releasing him
outright because he didn't feel that he fit in with the Rockets.
The center's $16.5 million salary made it almost impossible to
trade him, and the Rockets were adamant about not waiving him
because they think he can help them make a run at the playoffs.
After meeting with owner Les Alexander and coach Rudy
Tomjanovich, Olajuwon apparently felt better about finishing the
season with Houston.
"We had been spreading the floor, but now we're going inside to
him more," says second-year point guard Steve Francis, the
Rockets' leader in scoring, assists, steals and rebounding. "If
he feels he needs to shoot 25 times a game, we'll do that. It's
in the best interests of the team, the best interests of Hakeem
Olajuwon and the best interests of the fans of Houston. We don't
have a guy besides him who is a bona fide presence. When he
didn't play [because of his injury], we struggled defensively."
Olajuwon is expected to depart next summer as a 38-year-old free
agent, and the Rockets will use his salary slot to rebuild. In
the meantime, Francis has established himself as the team's
leader. "I don't know if I'll ever be as much of a factor as he
is," says Francis, 22. "I just hope we continue to get better,
knowing this is his last season with us."
Outside the Box Score
Walker Not Sleepwalking
Celtics forward Antoine Walker, who is often thought to be too
concerned with his stats, shook off his 3-for-19 shooting against
the Hawks on Jan. 23 to seal a win with a game-saving floor burn.
With Boston up 83-82, Walker dived headfirst and knocked the ball
out of bounds from guard Jason Terry. After inbounding with 2.1
seconds left, Atlanta couldn't get off a shot before the
For scores, schedules and stats, plus the latest news and
analysis from Phil Taylor and Marty Burns, go to
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Some fear that legalizing zone defenses will free the likes of Shaq to plant themselves in the paint.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO
COLOR PHOTO: GARRETT ELLWOOD/NBA ENTERTAINMENT Always a gifted passer, Davis had to sharpen his shot before he got big minutes with the Hornets.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER
Around The Rim
Things could be much worse for Grant Hill, who is out for the
season after undergoing a second operation on his left ankle
last month. Last summer, as a free agent, the All-Star forward
was so confident that his ankle would be sound this season that
he almost signed a one-year contract with the Magic. "We had the
papers drawn," says Orlando G.M. John Gabriel, but "a
sign-and-trade was advanced by Detroit in the final hours." That
deal allowed Hill to max out at $93 million through 2006-07....
The Pacers are winless against teams that have players who
suited up for Indiana in the 2000 Finals: 0-3 against the
Raptors (Mark Jackson), 0-2 against the Trail Blazers (Dale
Davis) and 0-2 against the Warriors (Chris Mullin)....
Of the hopeless Bulls' six draft picks last June--including a
trio of first-rounders--only point guard Khalid El-Amin,
Chicago's last choice (No. 34), earned an invitation to the
rookie-sophomore All-Star game.
Pacers guard Jalen Rose
"I wore number 42 in high school, but Chris [Webber] and I talked
about getting single digits at Michigan, and 5 was perfect for
me. Being a Magic Johnson fan, I liked 32. Three plus two is
five, and I was the fifth member of the Fab Five to sign. I see 5
like an S, for Superman. I started monitoring who was wearing it
after I got to the NBA. When I see players with it, I get on
them, especially if they can't ball."
Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki (above), a 22-year-old native of
Germany, and Kings forward Peja Stojakovic, a 23-year-old from
Yugoslavia, each have a chance to have the highest-scoring season
ever by a European, surpassing the late Drazen Petrovic of
Croatia. Here's how their stats to date stack up. --David Sabino
Season Native Country Points per game
Drazen Petrovic, Nets '92-93 Croatia 22.3
Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks '00-01 Germany 21.5
Drazen Petrovic, Nets '91-92 Croatia 20.6
Peja Stojakovic, Kings '00-01 Yugoslavia 19.7
Dino Radja, Celtics '95-96 Croatia 19.7
On the surprising 76ers, who at week's end had the league's best
"If you had asked me two years ago if they could be this good
with Allen Iverson, I would have said no. They have a bona fide
shot at winning it all. A lot of games are won in 42 minutes--we
don't like to admit that, but it's true. But when you play the
76ers, you'd better play all 48 because they play every
possession at both ends of the floor. They may not have the best
talent, but their mental toughness is at the top of the league.
They're able to deal with injuries and still play at a high
level. I'll bet they don't have any fear of playing the Lakers or
the Trail Blazers in the Finals."