Remember how the new rules were going to ruin the game? Experts who know even more than I predicted that it would be the end of the NBA as we know it.
'They say it's going to create movement?' Sacramento coach Rick Adelman asked before the season. 'I don't believe that.'
'Some nights, teams will be lucky to score in the 70s,' then-New York coach Jeff Van Gundy said.
'If they don't foul in the last five minutes,' Milwaukee coach George Karl offered, 'scores can be 51-50.'
Nearly halfway into the inaugural season of the Great Experiment, the change hasn't been as dastardly as many feared. Matter of fact, the effect has been negligible.
Elias Sports Bureau reports that teams are averaging 94.8 points, the same as a year ago.
There was supposed to be a premium on 3-point shooting. But teams are taking 14.75 3-point shots per game, up only slightly over the 13.71 of the previous season, and making 35.2 percent compared with 35.4 in 2000-01.
Zone defenses are mostly situational. 'I'd say we see it about 10 percent of the time,' Seattle guard Brent Barry says.
Defensive three-seconds Ñ it still sounds funny, doesn't it? Ñ has been called 1.1 times per contest.
There still are nights when teams struggle to hit that 70-point barrier, but the reality is, the new rules have had little impact. And what impact they have had has been positive.
'We have a better game to watch,' says Ed Rush, the NBA's supervisor of officials, who was a member of the committee that devised the rules. 'No question, the game has more movement.'
Barry says he hasn't noticed a big difference, but he likes what he sees.
'Superstars are still scoring, premier players are getting their shots, and the game seems to be a little more fluid and a tad more up-tempo,' he says.
There was concern that teams would triple-team players such as Allen Iverson and Shaquille O'Neal and nullify the NBA's scoring sensations, to the detriment of the aesthetics of the game. Guess who tops the league in scoring?
In the zone
Zones have been only mildly effective, for two reasons, Adelman contends. 'One, the good teams can bust them,' he says. 'With our team, we pass and shoot it too well. Plus, guys aren't used to playing (zone). When their team goes to it, they relax and get out of position too quickly.'
The defensive three-seconds rule has helped keep the lane clear.
'I knew we had to have the rule, for one major reason,' says Rush, who retired in 1999 after 32 years as a referee. 'We didn't want a specialist, a slow, immobile player, to benefit from being able to stand in the middle of the paint in a 2-1-2 alignment and make it a jump-shot game.'
Team scoring averages had gone down annually since the early '90s, primarily because of an emphasis on defense, sophistication of defensive schemes and the proliferation of scouting. With the old illegal-defense rules almost indecipherable Ñ 'burdensome,' Rush says, 'and confusing to everybody' Ñ the game had evolved into isolation and two-man play.
'It seems like there is more ball movement and more player movement than last year,' Barry says. 'It's interesting to see how some of the defensive schemes (are employed) to slow teams down and the way coaches are counterattacking with zone offenses. It makes for a nice chess game a lot of nights. The product is improved from last year.'
Says the Blazers' Chris Dudley: 'The thing I like is, there is less posting up and having everybody else standing around. Instead of having two guys stand beyond the 3-point line doing nothing, you have a little more motion from everybody. That's better for basketball.'
One reason that Flip Saunders turned down Portland's offer to succeed Mike Dunleavy and stayed in Minnesota was that he felt the Timberwolves could benefit from the new rules. He was right. The T-Wolves trap and mix up defenses and use more zone than most teams, and they take advantage of Kevin Garnett's length to pose a lot of problems. On nights when their defense isn't dominant, they have been able to outscore opponents with their movement and outstanding perimeter shooting Ñ they rank first in field-goal percentage, third in 3-point percentage and third in scoring.
'They were a little ahead of the game,' says Stu Jackson, the NBA's senior vice president of basketball operations. 'Flip surprised everyone, and it probably gave him a few extra wins because he was out ahead of the curve.'
Jackson contends that the new rule forcing teams to cross midcourt within eight seconds created 'a greater sense of urgency,' but I'm not so sure. There haven't been many calls, and eight seconds have been enough for a team to get the ball into frontcourt.
Adelman quibbles with the other major change: A defender isn't called for hand-checking if he doesn't gain advantage on the ballhandler.
'It leaves too much to an official's interpretation,' Adelman says. 'If a player is driving with the ball, the defender can put a hand on him and take him where he doesn't want to go in such a subtle way, the official can't decide if there is advantage gained.'
According to ESPN's NBA expert, David Aldridge, Rasheed Wallace can qualify for the opt-out clause in his contract at season's end by meeting one of nine incentives, most of them team-oriented Ñ 55 regular-season wins, for example. The easiest criteria to reach is said to be a third straight All-Star Game appearance. Even that seems dicey now, with Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Karl Malone, Peja Stojakovic, Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Webber and Elton Brand as forward competition in the West.
But would Wallace benefit from an opt-out? He is set to make $14.4 million this year, $16.2 million next year and $18 million in 2003-04, the final year of his six-year, $90 million deal. NBA rules limit a player of his experience (he is in his seventh year) to either 30 percent of a team's salary-cap limit (the limit is likely to be about $45 million next season) or105 percent of the last year of his deal. Under those terms, Wallace would lose money if he opts out.
And, if he opts out and becomes a free agent, the desirable teams are over the cap, meaning he would have to settle for the veteran's minimum as his starting pay. Or, if he is insistent upon leaving, he could force a sign-and-trade scenario so the Blazers could get a return on their considerable investment. The bet here? Rasheed isn't going anywhere.