So many people tweeted it while watching ESPN’s “30 for 30” about the Lakers and Celtics rivalry earlier this month: The game doesn’t even look the same as it used to.
In truth, it isn’t the same. In an effort to create more offense, the NBA put restrictions on defensive players. Hand checking is gone. There became a defensive three-second rule like the one implemented on offensive players for generations. There’s a circle around the rim called the restricted area; in that area, a defender can no longer take a charge.
In 2001, when freedom of movement became a league focus, these changes were needed. At the time, only four teams were averaging 100 points or more per game. Consider that, during the 1986-87 season, 23 teams averaged more than 100 per game.
Today, however, the pendulum has swung too far. 29 teams are averaging triple digits per night. The entry pass to an interior offensive threat is gone. There are only two real ways to win games in today’s NBA: Have your top player take an opponent’s player in isolation or shoot close to 40 percent from beyond the arc.
That’s it. Either you follow the Cavs/Thunder/Rockets model offensively or you follow the Warriors and Spurs. Pick your poison.
But now the league has become too top heavy. And, while ratings were up for this year’s postseason, one can see a future where fans are fatigued by another Cavs/Warriors Finals matchup that ends in five or six games. Add to that concern the void that will be left when LeBron James’ skills begin to diminish. At 32, it will probably happen sooner rather than later. Father time is undefeated.
To fix what ails it, the NBA needs to look to its past. There are two basic ways the NBA can create more parity and a more recognizable game to those clamoring for its glory days.
The first is to scale back freedom of movement.
Modern NBA players prefer an open-court game, and there’s no reason to completely reverse current freedom of movement rules. Where freedom of movement went too far was in ending the interior game altogether. To keep a better flow to the game, hand-checking rules should remain intact.
By removing the defensive three-second rule and eliminating the restricted area, big men would become a larger part of the game again. Post players would have more value for teams. No longer would there be a free path to the bucket for a team’s primary ball-handler on virtually every possession.
The game still has big men, but they are relegated to floor spacers with the outside shot and rim protectors if and when a defensive rotation can be made quickly enough.
In the days of Magic, Bird and Jordan, a driving player knew they were going to have to take on more than one defender at the rim. That rarely happens anymore. In past eras, an entry pass was used to get a high-percentage shot. If a post player were double-teamed, that left an open shooter or a perimeter player cutting to the basket. Rarely do we see these plays in today’s game.
Scaling back these rules would also allow for a third way to win basketball games: by having a dominant inside game. In today’s NBA, greats like Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon and Bill Russell would have far less value due to their lack of a face-up game.
The second way to improve parity and ensure a return to the glory days is to increase the minimum age for draft eligibility.
One reason there was a need for freedom of movement rules was the lack of skilled, finished products coming into the league. Many players opted to skip college altogether, meaning players were drafted based on potential, not ability.
Like the NFL, the college game offered the NBA a free minor league for generations. When players began entering the draft straight out of high school, skills weren’t honed like they were in years past. Players were also given millions of dollars at the ages of 18 and 19. Players in generations past matured in college. They didn’t just improve their skills; they learned character and work ethic.
Few of us had the work ethic and sense of responsibility we have in our twenties and thirties when we first leave high school. Basketball skills and life skills suffered, and the league went through the Jail-Blazers era, along with a growing number of players who struggled to play a team game.
By forcing players to be two or three years removed from high school before becoming draft eligible, the NBA can rely on college coaches to help mold men for them. The learning curve, in terms of both basketball and life, becomes shorter.
The move would also protect teams from themselves. Quite frankly, some teams are simply better at evaluating talent and character than others. Having a larger sample size of a draft prospect’s game can allow the more poorly run teams to narrow that gap.