The people who run the National Basketball Association have been thinking quite a bit about which weapons their fans prefer -- rapiers or broadswords.
The rapier is offense. It is thrust and parry, skill and smarts, daring and savvy. It is the stuff of highlights.
The broadsword is defense. It is sweat and grit, strength and will, stamina and machismo. It is the stuff of a common man well motivated.
The NBA season opens Friday, and for those who have neglected to watch an exhibition game, know now that this is supposed to be the year of the rapier.
For the fan, it will be the year of the midnight snack. There are going to be some long games, because there are going to be a lot of whistles, because a number of new rules have been adopted.
A group of these rules represent a crackdown on physical play and fighting. Another group is designed to open the floor and make the game more conducive to scoring.
The latter group will radically change the game:
--The three-point line has been moved to a uniform 22 feet. From 1979-80 through last season, the line was 23 feet, 9 inches at the top of the key and 22 feet in the corners.
--Hand-checking, a tactic which has forever had the tacit approval of officials, has been strictly forbidden in the backcourt and above the free-throw line. Contact with the forearm -- from the wrist to the elbow -- is all that’s allowed. And the elbow must be bent.
--Below the free-throw line, one-hand contact is allowed -- but two-handed contact has been outlawed.
--New illegal defense rules make it difficult to double-team because a defender can no longer drop below the free-throw line when his man is above the top of the key. That would be a technical foul.
Rod Thorn, director of NBA operations, was a key figure in devising and implementing the new rules. Thorn said the new rules should produce two desirable results: No. 1, bring the NBA closer to the standards set by FIBA, the governing body of the international game; and No. 2, stanch the defensive methods that have been practiced since the Detroit Pistons began hanging banners.
Remember those loveable Bad Boys? Rick Mahorn? Bill Laimbeer? Dennis Rodman? Those fellows proved that Showtime can be bested by Slowtime. They bear-trapped the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers and won back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990. They set a trend.
“When defense gave a team a chance to get to the Finals, it became like anything else -- other teams were going to start playing defense,” New York Knicks coach Pat Riley said.
The Chicago Bulls came along and won three consecutive titles. Granted, they were built around Michael Jordan, the greatest scoring machine of the modern era. He was showcased in the triangle offense -- a perfect device to take advantage of Jordan as a basketball god while allowing every other Bull to touch the ball.
But make no mistake: As lovely as the triangle was to watch, it was the Bulls’ pressure-and-help defense, devised by then-assistant coach John Bach, which put the stranglehold on the Lawrence J. O’Brien trophy from 1991-93. Like the Pistons, the Bulls won with defense.
And then came last season.
“Detroit used defense to win it all, Chicago did, and we got to the Finals with it,” Riley said. “You start emphasizing that part of the game, things are going to get a little physical.”
Broadsword basketball peaked with the 1994 NBA Finals, which pitted the league’s top-rated defensive team (Riley’s Knicks) against the fifth-rated defensive team (the Houston Rockets).
The series went seven games. The Rockets averaged 86 points and won. Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich compared it to winning a fight in the mud.
“We looked at the games and saw that the physical contact had gone to the outer extremes,” Thorn said. “I’m not talking about the fights, but all the grabbing, holding and shoving was making it almost impossible to move from place to place on the basketball court.”
The recently completed exhibition season proved that the rules governing physical contact will have the most significant and immediate impact.
“The players in this league are talented enough to start playing defense the way it is supposed to be played,” Boston Celtics Coach Chris Ford said. “There’s no longer going to be the grabbing, holding, wrestling matches which take away from the beauty of the game. I like the players having the ability to move out there on the floor. That’s the way the game is supposed to be played.”
The floor has definitely been opened. “Tactile contact” -- the rule-book reference to what used to be an allowable hand check -- has been suspended. Cutters have been cutting without impediment. Every night, ESPN has a new highlight of Pistons rookie forward Grant Hill throwing down an alley-oop dunk in Detroit or Magic guard Anfernee Hardaway ripping through the lane for a finger-roll in Orlando. The post has been freed. Even Celtics center Acie “Jurassic” Earl has been scoring (7.3 ppg).
Said Knicks teammate Anthony Mason, “The game has become sissified. Let us play. People started appreciating banging and defense -- it became a skill thing, offense against defense. ... If they leave things the way they are now, you’re not going to have any choice but to make it work, but people are going to get bored with the games. It’s going to get ridiculous.”
Anything the Knicks say must be taken with a grain of salt, of course. Harper, the hand-checkers’ poster boy, was the featured star in the video the league produced to show what would no longer be allowed. Mason, for all his heart, has two of the heaviest mitts in the league.
It was their rough-and-tumble team that held opponents to 91.5 ppg in the regular season before contributing to falling television ratings in the Finals. It was their team that typified the defensive trend -- and spurred the league’s rulemakers into action.
“The nature of our team is being a good defensive team, a hard, physical team,” Riley said. “Because we got the most notoriety we (were targeted). It was always, ‘The Knicks, the Knicks, the Knicks.’ When (Bulls forward) Scottie Pippen was asked about the new rules, he said, ‘This is going to hurt the Knicks.”’
Riley believes the hand-checking rule should not have been thrown out, but modified to delineate between tactile “hand riding” and true impediment. He said the players would have preferred a stiffer hand-check rule to the new forearm rule.
“When you’re on defense, the only thing you have to balance yourself is these,” Riley said, holding up his hands. “That one rule (banning hand checks) has changed dramatically how players have played their whole life. If they’re going to take those (hands) away ... “
After a pause, a thin smile crossed Riley’s face as he said, "(League officials) want points. And they’re going to get them -- from the free-throw line.”
At this point, Dick Harter should be introduced. He figures heavily in all of this.
Harter, 64, is a coaching lifer. Tough defense is his legacy. Of Harter’s University of Oregon teams, John Wooden, the legendary UCLA coach, once said, “We don’t want to go play the bullies in Eugene, Oregon.” (Harter’s “Kamikaze Kids” had ended UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion streak of 98 consecutive victories, by the way. The 65-45 upset in 1976 was a defensive orchestration).
As an assistant under Chuck Daly from 1986-1988, Harter helped invent the Bad Boys in Detroit (before he left to become first coach of the Charlotte Hornets). As an assistant under Riley, it was Harter who nurtured the Knicks’ “Tough Town, Tough Team” defensive mien from 1991-94.
If there is any one person the new rules are aimed at, it might be Harter.
“I’d love to claim any part of the rise of defense, but I don’t know if I can,” Harter said, a twinkle in his eye. “These new rules are not the ‘Harter Rules’ -- I don’t deserve that kind of credit.”
Now an assistant under P.J. Carlesimo in Portland, Harter is toeing the NBA line. “A number of very smart people decided that these rules will be good for the NBA,” he said, “and as an NBA person, I give my fullest support.”
At the same time, he has some reservations. He believes, for instance, that the new illegal defense rules could produce the same isolation plays the league attempted to legislate away three years ago.
“Certainly the rules are aimed at adding more points to the scoreboard,” he said. “I think sometimes when you aim to do one thing in a game you might lose in other areas. It’s really too early to judge what’s going to happen.
“I just like to point out that basketball is meant to be played both ways. I think you’re supposed to be able to play defense as well as you’re supposed to play offense. I think you’re supposed to be able to play with strength as well as you’re supposed to be able to play with finesse.”
Harter said that one should not tinker with this balance.
“I don’t like people messing with it either way,” he said. “I wouldn’t like it if they tilted it too much toward defense and power, either.”
Harter and many others associated with the NBA acknowledge that the rules changes were inevitable. The game needed an image change -- which can certainly be achieved by cutting down on physical play.
League officials are aware that scoring in regular season games dropped 17 points between 1986 and last season. Defense became the best route to the Finals, if not the championship.
But why? If it was the rules, how was it that Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, as well as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, ever had room to do what they did? They operated under the old rules.
“I think what happened,” Harter said, “was that expansion took its full grip about four years ago. If not for expansion, all those top players would have been dispersed throughout the league. Think about it. I’m not convinced that the scores would have been in the high 80s and low 90s if you added a top player to each of the final four teams last year.
“Let’s make this case: Put Penny Hardaway in the backcourt for either the Rockets or the Knicks. Don’t you think that team would have averaged over 100 points in the playoffs?”
That would have been one significant rapier added to a team of broadswords. In this day and age, it seems impossible to achieve such a balance. Rare, rapier talent has been dispersed. Broadsword defenses leveled the playing field. Another expansion is on the way.