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Original Issue

Desperation Shot? No longer so fantastic, the NBA opened its playoffs amid debate over its daring--or is it reckless?--attempt to reinvigorate its game

The Miami Heat was desperate. Because it was trailing by 23 points
entering the fourth quarter of its first-round playoff series
opener against the Charlotte Hornets last Saturday in Miami, the
Heat had to abandon its favorite style of play, the one that has
become symbolic of today's NBA. Gone was the packed-in half-court
man-to-man defense. Gone was the grind-it-out pace on offense.
Miami began pressing and trapping all over the floor, trying to
force the Hornets into turnovers. On offense the Heat raced the
ball up the court, looking for fast-break opportunities.
Charlotte, in turn, sped up its game, trying to make Miami pay
for gambling on defense.

Eddie House, the Heat's quick, stutter-stepping guard, beat the
Hornets down the floor for scores, while Baron Davis and Eddie
Robinson answered with slashes to the hoop for Charlotte. The
lead didn't shrink much--Miami never drew closer than 16--but the
somber crowd turned raucous nonetheless, energized by the game's
suddenly rapid flow.

Although commissioner David Stern would be more likely to appoint
Rasheed Wallace supervisor of officials than to characterize his
league as desperate, the NBA as a whole is in nearly as dire a
situation as the Heat was. The league's version of that 23-point
deficit is its dwindling television viewership, and the sleepy
Miami crowd was a small sampling of a public that has shown
declining passion for the pro game. The expansion into Canada has
failed on one front, with the Vancouver Grizzlies almost certain
to relocate to the U.S. by next season, and other franchises,
such as the Hornets and the Orlando Magic, are alienating their
fans with requests that taxpayers help finance new arenas to
replace, well, fairly new arenas. That the Grizzlies and the
Hornets have both targeted small-market Memphis as a prospective
home illustrates how few untapped areas of potential fan interest
are left for the league to mine.

Beyond that, an NBA player or coach seems to offend some segment
of the public more often than Dr. Laura. This season there has
been Wallace's hotheaded behavior, a continuing travesty that
earned the Portland Trail Blazers forward his 42nd technical foul
of the season in Game 1 of the Blazers' playoff series against
the Los Angeles Lakers; rap lyrics from Philadelphia 76ers guard
Allen Iverson that featured derogatory references to women and
gays; and offensive comments directed at Asian fans by Sacramento
Kings point guard Jason Williams. A few weeks ago New York Knicks
coach Jeff Van Gundy angered some people when he was quoted as
saying that religion had become too prominent in the Knicks'
locker room, and on Sunday one of New York's devout Christians,
point guard Charlie Ward, was booed at Madison Square Garden
after being quoted in The New York Times Magazine saying that
Jews are "stubborn" and persecute Christians.

Despite those missteps, there's very little wrong with the NBA's
image that the league can't fix by putting a more entertaining
show on the floor. To that end, the league is taking a gamble and
trying to accelerate the pace of play. The rules that will go
into effect next year--including the elimination of strictures
against zone defenses and the reduction (from 10 seconds to
eight) of the time a team can take to cross half-court--are
intended to make more games like that fast-paced stretch of the
Miami-Charlotte opener. That's why these playoffs, which began
last weekend with Game 1 upsets by three lower-seeded teams, the
Hornets, the Indiana Pacers (page 44) and the Phoenix Suns, may
represent the end of the NBA as we know it. "This will be one of
the few times that whichever team wins the title won't
necessarily have its style copied by the rest of the league,"
says Golden State Warriors general manager Garry St. Jean.
"What's successful this year may not have a whole lot to do with
what's going to be successful next year."

The only thing that's certain is that the league needed to do
something drastic. The minor adjustments of previous seasons,
including attempts to cut down on the amount of physical contact
allowed, haven't been enough to stop the steady decline in an
average team's per-game scoring--from 106.3 points in 1990-91 to
94.8 this season--or the erosion of fans' enthusiasm for the NBA.
Network television ratings plunged from 7.7 in 1995-96 to 5.1
last season, a 33.8% dip that could get even worse when this
season's final numbers are in. (The rating was 2.9 at the end of
the regular season, compared with 3.3 at the same point last
year.) By comparison, baseball's ratings dropped by 26.2% and the
NFL's by 13.9% over the same five-year period.

Stern correctly points out that TV ratings have been falling
across the board with the proliferation of channels and the
growing popularity of the Internet, and that the national ratings
don't measure the number of fans who keep up with the NBA by
visiting its website, by tuning into regional or satellite
broadcasts or by watching the league's 24-hour digital cable
channel, TV. "I think that the absolute ratings are
becoming less important," he says. "Just look at what's leading
prime time now. When you get past the shows that have a huge
impact, like Survivor, the staples of prime time are way down
from where they've been over the years. You can bet I'll be
explaining to as many networks as want to listen that a product
like the NBA, which can be very important prime-time viewing come
May and June, is an extraordinarily valuable property to have."

It's clear that Stern also wants to be able to show the networks
that the league has taken steps to address its declining TV
viewership. Although the NBA's four-year, $2.6 billion
television contract with NBC and Turner Sports doesn't expire
until after the 2001-02 season, there is a one-month period,
beginning on Sept. 15, during which NBC and Turner have
exclusive negotiating rights with the league. If no agreement is
reached with one or both networks, the NBA will then be free to
negotiate with others.

Even some of the team owners and general managers who support the
new rules believe that the changes were pushed through quickly so
that league representatives could open the TV-rights talks with
proof that measures are in place to make the game more
entertaining. As recently as February, when the Board of
Governors met during All-Star weekend, there wasn't enough
support among owners to adopt the new rules, but by the time the
board voted on April 12, the league had the 20 votes necessary to
enact them. According to several sources, among the six teams
that voted against the changes were the Heat, Knicks, Houston
Rockets and Utah Jazz. The Dallas Mavericks abstained.

Several team executives say that the rules passed largely as a
result of persistent lobbying from Stern and Suns owner Jerry
Colangelo, chairman of the committee that recommended the
changes. "If there were five years left on our TV deal," says one
team exec, "you can bet that a lot more time would have been
taken to test these things and see if they're really going to
have the effect they're supposed to have."

One reason the committee recommended the changes without testing
them in summer league play or during preseason games was the
awareness that the transition to the new rules might be rough;
trial runs might well have made people want to return to the old
rules. The committee members admit that next season will be
something of an experiment. "It's important to be willing to make
the change, understanding that you don't know exactly how it's
going to turn out," says Colangelo. "This is a work in progress.
It's something we're going to continue to monitor. It may need to
be tweaked here and there as it's put into practice."

Players and coaches appear to be evenly divided on whether the
new rules will enliven the game. Some believe zones will not only
increase ball and player movement, because one-on-one play will
be less effective against them, but will also encourage teams to
fast-break to get shots before the zone can set up. "The great
players could be affected in the half-court, but we'll have more
transition now," says Seattle SuperSonics president Wally Walker.
Others think that allowing zones is more dangerous than Charles
Oakley at a shootaround. Van Gundy says he'll be disappointed if
the Knicks give up 80 points in a game. "It's a huge mistake,"
says Heat coach Pat Riley. "No one will be able to drive. With
these rules, you're going to be back in the 70s in scoring." If
the league is worried about half-empty arenas, says Riley, "throw
in a zone, and the other half will be empty."

The decision to modify the rules is founded on two beliefs: One
is that the changes will render ineffective the often boring
isolation plays that reduce the four players without the ball to
bystanders; the second is that the public will appreciate a style
that involves all five players in the offense, even if that means
fewer of the one-on-one matchups that distinguish the NBA from
college and international basketball.

There's no question that some of those man-to-man battles will be
missed. In Game 1 of the New York-Toronto Raptors series on
Sunday, the Knicks held a two-point lead in the final minute when
they gave the ball to swingman Latrell Sprewell and cleared one
side of the court for him to go against his defender, Vince
Carter. Sprewell blew into the lane, forcing Carter to foul him
with 38.5 seconds left; Sprewell's two free throws helped secure
New York's 92-85 win. The drama of two stars, isolated in a duel
with the game on the line, now may be lost. Under the new rules
the Knicks wouldn't have been able to draw the other Raptors
defenders to the opposite side of the floor, and thus Carter
wouldn't have been left alone to guard Sprewell. "You've got to
let the stars be the stars," says Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal.
"People want to see certain players in this league do their
thing, and this makes it easier for guys who can't play to gang
up on guys who can."

The Trail Blazers undoubtedly would have liked the new rules to
have gone into effect before their 106-93 loss to the Lakers on
Sunday. If Portland could have packed into a tight zone or
double-teamed O'Neal before he got the ball, it would have had a
better chance of keeping him from abusing big men Dale Davis and
Arvydas Sabonis. Instead, O'Neal muscled inside for 24 points and
20 rebounds and sent a frustrated Davis to the sideline
scoreless, muttering to himself after fouling out. "It's going to
affect Shaq, it's going to affect Iverson, it's going to affect
any big scorer who has individual ability to beat players," says
Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson of the new rules. "But this is, I
think, for the betterment of the game overall." O'Neal begs to
differ. "David Stern wants to pay a guy $30 million to block
shots and average four points," he says.

The good news for O'Neal and other shot-blocking big men such as
Dikembe Mutombo, Theo Ratliff and Marcus Camby is that even with
the new prohibition on defenders staying in the lane for more
than three seconds unless they're closely guarding an offensive
player, they should be able to protect the basket more
successfully under next season's rules. "I should be Defensive
Player of the Year every year," says Mutombo.

That's as reasonable a prediction as any. The truth is that even
the most experienced NBA minds can only guess at the influence
the rules changes will have on the game. Even if the doomsayers
are correct--and the guess here is they're not--it's hard to blame
the league for taking a chance. When you're down by 20, you'll
never catch up unless you pick up the pace.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MANNY MILLAN Childs abuse The sight of Camby snuffing a shot, as he did against Chris Childs in a Game 1 win over Toronto, could be more common next year when zones will be O.K.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Shaq-eled O'Neal overpowered the Blazers with 24 points in Game 1 but fears his average could be reduced to four points next season.

"The new rules will make it easier for guys who can't play to
gang up on the guys who can," says a disapproving O'Neal.