The Evolution of the Game
November 9, 2013
We're hearing a lot of complaints from coaches about the new college officiating guidelines. These coaches are concerned about the high number of fouls being called and long games decided by an increasing free throw count. What we haven't seen as frequently are reasoned defenses of the new guidelines.
In the 1980's, NBA fans were treated to a brilliant brand of fast-paced basketball, with Magic and Bird adding beauty, moxie and flair. The Showtime era was fun basketball, no other way to look at it. For many fans, those were the golden days. Magic and Bird helped to revitalize the NBA and paved the way for a guy named Michael Jordan. By his fifth year in the league, coaches realized that Jordan would be virtually unstoppable in a free-flowing game, and his very existence (the Jordan Rules) contributed to the creation of smash-mouth teams like the Pistons, Heat, Knicks and Pacers. It wasn't so long ago that NBA fans were the ones complaining, increasingly frustrated by the state of a game that had evolved into wrestling matches involving the likes of Anthony Mason, Charles Oakley, Alonzo Mourning, and even Jeff Van Gundy, attached to Zo's leg like a pit bull. What fans were seeing in the 90's didn't so much resemble Dr. Naismith's game as a mixture of wrestling and rugby. Scoring plummeted and fan interest waned. So what did the NBA do to fix its game?
The league instituted defensive 3 seconds and outlawed hand-checking on the perimeter. These two changes had the effect of opening the lane and led to a direct increase in scoring. Fan interest and satisfaction is up. Ironically, we find that many of the college coaches complaining today considered the pro game unwatchable a decade or more ago. And these are the very same coaches who love to watch modern NBA basketball with the bigs out high, leading wide pick and rolls, or the entire team with the floor spread using Vance Walberg dribble drive concepts. We submit that change is sometimes hard if you're the one living it, particularly if you pride yourself on having an "old school" mentality. For comfort that it will all work out for the college game, let's take a further look at the evolution of the NBA.
The NBA rules changes that shifted the style of play predictably also changed the nature of the players in the game. If you allow teams to hand-check and pack the paint, you value slow, low-scoring basketball games dominated by true defensive centers paired on your front line with the likes of Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason. This corresponds to the following overall #1 picks from 1983 to 1992:
In direct contrast, the modern game with an open lane leads to the top draft picks of 2008-2013:
Notice that the bigs chosen in recent years aren't historically true bigs, these newer guys can run the floor and play in space. What you're seeing here is a trend in which prior to Derrick Rose, the NBA rarely had lottery picks 6'3" or under (exceptions were players like Bob Cousy in 1959 and Allen Iverson in 1996). These days, in addition to top picks like Rose, Wall and Irving, the game has high draft esteem for players like Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook, and CJ McCollum.
What it all boils down to is a matter of preference. The game goes through periods of change. You may like fast break basketball, or you may rather watch the 1990's Knicks/Heat. But stop complaining about the officials and their new guidance. If the rules have shifted, tell your players to play defense without fouling. If they can't do that, they're not very good defenders. The NBA players adjusted very quickly. We didn’t see long games plagued by fouling as the rules were modified. Coaches and players adapted, and so they now should in the college game.
Yes, your teams will give up more points in the paint, but so will the other team. The high school and college games are lagging the pro game in a shift back to open court basketball. A lot of it may have to do with the AAU/Club circuit, where tournament directors are motivated to keep games on schedule and refs generally swallow their whistles. Parents and college coaches will attend those games regardless of how ugly they get. But in the NBA, they have to put a watchable product on the floor. For the good of the game (and in honor of the original rules of Dr. Naismith—read them), college coaches now have the same obligation: teach good defense that doesn’t involve fouling as a core strategy.