As his Houston Rockets prepared to trot back on defense after a
made free throw during a Feb. 4 game at the Toyota Center, coach
Jeff Van Gundy stood with arms folded, glancing down the
sideline. His look, however, was anything but casual. Like a
cagey catcher sneaking a peek at the third base coach, Van Gundy
was studying his Bucks counterpart, Terry Porter, who was
flashing a play call. "Dribble-handoff for Redd!" Van Gundy
stage-whispered, alerting his players that Milwaukee's
hair-trigger shooter, Michael Redd, intended to go behind point
guard Damon Jones and launch a jumper. Which is exactly what
Redd tried to do, except that the Rockets, forewarned, clogged
up the play.
Welcome to today's NBA, where showmanship and offensive
pyrotechnics are hyped but defense holds ever-increasing sway.
Through Sunday the average combined score was 185.6 points, a
hefty 4.6-point drop from last season and 25.9 fewer than 30
years ago, when each of the 17 teams averaged more than 100
points, a mark now surpassed only by the Sacramento Kings and the
Dallas Mavericks. The Kings' 82.4 shots per game were fewer than
the lowest average in 1973-74. And though franchises continue to
pursue athleticism the way networks pursue reality sleaze, all
that lightning-quick, high-flying talent is playing a slower
game: Points in transition are in decline, from 12.9 per team per
game in 2000-01 to 12.0 at week's end. Only the New Jersey Nets
and the Denver Nuggets are true turn-on-the-jets fast-break teams
Yes, those who cling to the notion that the NBA doesn't play
defense are the same people who still groove to disco. Ladies and
gentlemen, boys and girls: It plays too much defense.
Case in point: the Rockets, who, under the D-oriented Van Gundy,
were holding teams to a league-low 39.4% shooting at week's end,
substantially stingier than the 43.3% they gave up last year.
While that may serve Houston well in the postseason, when the
pace slows and stops are key to advancement, it has made a once
wide-open team into a deliberate one that, despite having
All-Stars Yao Ming and Steve Francis, is less than scintillating
to watch. "There are so many defensive principles to learn," says
the 7'6" Yao. "Some of the offensive techniques in China were the
same as here, but defensively we were not at all advanced." Van
Gundy devotes three fourths of his practices to D--which is what
his predecessor, Rudy Tomjanovich, spent on offense. "Rudy
coached the way he played," says forward Maurice Taylor of
Tomjanovich, a high-scoring forward in the 1970s. "Now coaches
And now they can coach zones too. Scoring was already decreasing
when, before the 2001-02 season, the NBA legalized zone defenses,
thereby giving already beleaguered offenses something else to be
perplexed about. The theory was that zones would force teams to
run fewer isolation plays, in which four players stand around
like mailboxes on one side of the court while their teammate goes
one-on-one on the other. The new rule's impact is hotly
debated--pack a bunch of NBA coaches into a room to discuss
zones, and it would sound like a diner in Des Moines before the
Iowa caucuses. While it's generally agreed that the rule has cut
down on isolations, it hasn't quickened the game's pace. "In the
NBA you always find a way to get the ball to your best players,"
says Taylor. The more options the defense has, the longer it
takes the offense to find that way.
The zone's influence has been limited by the number of teams that
use it. Only the Mavericks and the Minnesota Timberwolves are
truly committed to it, and only Minnesota is proficient at it
(poll, page 51). The T-Wolves run through zone rotations at
practice, most of them from an instructional manual coach Flip
Saunders wrote years ago. They have four basic half-court schemes
as well as several extended ones; their 75, for example, covers
three quarters of the court in a 2-2-1 alignment. Kevin Garnett
can anchor that zone or even play out front in a 3-2, his
pteranodon wingspan discouraging entry passes, though Saunders
hasn't used that D much for fear of taking the NBA's leading
rebounder away from the glass.
The league office has no plans to tinker with the zone rule, and
Stu Jackson, the NBA's director of operations, says he is
"absolutely thrilled" with the effect it has had on player and
ball movement. (He may be exaggerating a bit.) But it is clearly
past time for changes that energize offense. Even control freaks
like Van Gundy, a man-to-man adherent who's constantly exploring
ways to shrink the court and dam up offensive flow via
double-teaming and imaginative rotations, maintain that more
scoring and more running make for a more pleasing game. "I don't
know of any coach who would rather be methodical," he says.
Jackson agrees. "I've seen some 88-86 games, and I didn't feel
cheated," he says. "But, yes, I would love it to be 20 years ago
when teams scored 113 points a game."
Will that ever happen again? Before we get to how it might, here
are some of the reasons that scoring is down and the pace of the
game has become slothlike:
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO DANGER ZONE Thanks to its defensive schemes, Minnesota is holding opponents to a miniscule 42.1% from the field.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO CRUNCH BUNCH The Spurs' lane-clogging defense allows the league's fewest points per game (83.7).
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO (YAO) STINGY A new coach has transformed the 7'6" Yao and the rest of the Rockets into a team with more defense--but less pizzazz.
COLOR PHOTO: GREG NELSON A WELCOME BREAK The emphasis on transition D has made open-court dashes, like this one by Dallas, increasingly rare.
Those who cling to the notion that the NBA doesn't play defense
are the same people who still groove to disco.
Players aren't nearly as serious as one might assume about what
Francis calls "getting up and down and letting it fly."