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The death of defense?
by Roland Lazenby / October 20, 2006

It remains one of the enduring images of NBA lore Joe Dumars guarding a determined young Michael Jordan in the 1990 Eastern Conference playoffs.

Dumars of the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons, the league’s two-time defending champs, looked like a gaucho corralling the ultimate toro, his feet moving furiously (maybe the best defensive slide in the history of the game), one forearm firmly barred into Jordan to keep contact, the other bent arm thrust into the air, giving Dumars his only hope of keeping his balance while trying to ride the Jordan whirlwind.

Jerry West watched the performance and remarked privately that most people considered Isiah Thomas the Pistons’ superstar, but West pointed out that it was Dumars who was the supreme talent.

Why?

Well, West said, both Thomas and Dumars could push the envelope offensively, “but Joe’s defense sets him apart.”

Just how good was that defense?

It left a supremely disappointed Jordan sobbing at the back of the team bus when the series was over (it’s also probably the only NBA defense ever to spawn a best-selling book: Sam Smith’s ‘The Jordan Rules’).

Indeed, it was a formative moment in pro basketball history because it brought Jordan the ultimate challenge and propelled him toward a greatness that fascinated a global audience. Whether they liked pro basketball or not, people felt compelled to watch “His Airness” grow up against the Pistons’ physical challenge.

“I think that ‘Jordan Rules’ defense, as much as anything else, played a part in the making of Michael Jordan,” said Tex Winter, who was an assistant coach for that Chicago team. The 1990 loss forced Jordan and the Bulls to find an answer to Detroit’s muscle.

“Those Jordan Rules were murder,” Winter explained. “The fact that we could win the next year even though they were playing that defense says everything about Jordan as a competitor. Any lesser player would have folded his tent.”

Jordan had to dig deeper to respond to the Pistons, and his effort pushed his Bulls to six championships over the next eight seasons.

The unfortunate footnote to this legacy is that under an interpretation of the rules adopted by the NBA last season, if Dumars were playing today he would not be allowed to guard Jordan so physically, or perhaps even guard him at all.

Today Dumars is the chief basketball executive of the team he once led as a player. He’s an honest man, which means he chooses his words carefully.

Asked in July if he could defend Jordan under today’s interpretation of the rules, Dumars first laughed, then offered a long pause before replying, “It would have been virtually impossible to defend Michael Jordan based on the way the game’s being called right now.”

THE NEW WAY

Just how is the game being called these days?

New Jersey Nets executive Rod Thorn, a longtime expert on NBA rules, acknowledges that last season the league adopted a dramatic shift in how it interpreted the rules of the game.

No longer would a defensive player on the perimeter be allowed to use his hand, a barred arm or any sort of physical contact to impede or block the movement of either a cutter or a ball handler.

In a recent interview, Thorn said that the NBA had changed the rule to give an advantage to the offensive player.

“It’s more difficult now to guard the quick wing player who can handle the ball,” Thorn said of the change. “I think it helps skilled players over someone who just has strength or toughness. What the NBA is trying to do is promote unimpeded movement for dribblers or cutters.”

Thorn said the change was made because muscular defensive players had gotten the upper hand.

“My opinion is that the game had gone too much toward favoring strong players over skilled players,” Thorn said. “The NBA felt there was too much body, too much hand-checking, being used by defenders to the detriment of the game. There was a feeling that there was too much advantage for a defensive player who could merely use his strength to control the offensive player.”

The new rules interpretations have attempted to address that issue, Thorn said.

“If the refs perceive that a defender is bumping the cutter, or bumping a ball-handler, then they’ll blow their whistles.”

Blow their whistles is exactly what officials began doing in both the NBA and its Development League (where many nights officials were whistling a whopping 60 to 70 fouls a game).

This new way of calling became increasingly apparent with each regular-season game last year, and it really made an impression during the playoffs. Free from the physical challenge of defenders, offensive players found many more opportunities to attack the basket and draw fouls.

As a result, the new rules interpretation helped promote the emergence last season of a new generation of super stars, from Kobe Bryant scoring his 81 points during a regular season game, to LeBron James, Vince Carter, Gilbert Arenas and Dwyane Wade making big splashes in the playoffs.

“The good wing players LeBron, Kobe, Arenas, Wade, Carter shot a lot of free throws with the way the game is now called,” Thorn admitted.

The change became quite apparent during the NBA Finals in June as fans saw time and again Miami’s Wade attacking the basket against seemingly helpless Dallas defenders.

When they did try to stop Wade, those Dallas defenders often drew foul calls, which sent Wade to the line to shoot free throws.

The new approach even played a role in determining the NBA champion, as Wade played majestically in leading Miami from a two-game deficit to a four-games-to-two victory for the title.

NOT EVERYONE’S HAPPY

The results were immediate and pleasing to the league’s front office.

Offensive players were freed as never before and fans were thrilled by high-scoring games. Television ratings jumped with the excitement, and reporters began filing stories signaling an NBA revival not seen since the days when Jordan played for the Bulls.

The league had made an obvious move to try to pick up scoring averages that had been in decline since the late 1980s. And it seems to have worked.

But not everyone is enthused about the changes.

Tex Winter, now 84 and the veteran of more than a half century of coaching, has serious misgivings about what the league has done.

Winter acknowledges the outgrowth of the new rules interpretation is the rise of the super dominant offensive player, led by Wade’s performance in the NBA Finals and Bryant’s string of 40-, 50, even 60-point games during the regular season.

“It’s brought all these 40-point scorers,” Winter said. “They can’t score 40 points unless they get 15-20 free throws.”

And that’s exactly what they were getting on their big nights.

“They should be protected, but not that much,” Winter said of the current generation of talented offensive players. “I don’t think that just touching a player should be a foul.”

Yet there were key foul calls in the playoffs last year that came down to touch calls, which in turn sent the offensive player to the line for bonus points that ultimately decided games.

Ironically, this attempt to pick up scoring also slowed the pace of NBA games last year because numerous foul calls mean a parade of free throws on many game nights, Winter said.

“The fans are not going to like that whistle blowing all the time. It’s slowed down the pace of the game.”

Winter’s other complaint with the new officiating is that the game now allows the same old physical play in the post while turning the perimeter and wing into a no-touch zone.

“That doesn’t make sense to me,” Winter said. “If you can do all that tough stuff inside, why can’t you do it outside?”

“Defense has basically stayed the same in the low post. Out on the court there’s no doubt that the interpretation has changed,” Thorn conceded.

FAVORING ONE STYLE OVER ANOTHER

Dumars put together a Pistons team that won an NBA championship in 2004 and made a return to the Finals in 2005. That team would have a harder time playing its defensive style in today’s game, Dumars said.

“We could still compete, but it would be a lot tougher.”

As one of the top executives in the league, Dumars is hesitant to criticize the changes. He articulates his misgivings cautiously, but he makes it clear that the new rules may not allow for much diversity of play.

“I think the game is best played when everyone is allowed to play to their strengths,” he said. “I don’t think any one style should be elevated over another style.”

He said the league was at its best back in the late 80s and early 90s.

“There were different styles. The Lakers had their Showtime style, getting out and running. We had our physical style as the Pistons. The Celtics had their style, as did the Bulls. There wasn’t anyone pushing for one style of play. That made it entertaining. When we played the Lakers, it was a battle of styles, their running against our physical game.”

Dumars said that clash of styles made for great basketball, great entertainment for the fans.

His comments beg the question: Has the league eliminated a defensive style with its new format?

OVERREACTION

Hall of Famer Rick Barry, a keen observer of the game, said he would love to see players of the past getting to attack the basket under the new officiating.

“They’d score a lot more,” he said.

Barry called the new rules interpretation “on overreaction by the league to the low scoring teams that have arisen over the last 15 years.”

Actually the league was perhaps trying to remedy the wrong problem, Barry said.

The problem of low scoring is that coaches with less talented teams, beginning with Mike Fratello back in the 80s, put “an emphasis on ball control, on keeping down the number of possessions. That was the way Fratello kept his teams in ball games. It was the smart thing to do to win.”

Soon other coaches, who needed to win to avoid getting fired, began copying Fratello’s approach.

With that slower style also came the rise of muscular some say illegal defenses, such as Dumars’ “Bad Boy” Pistons and Pat Riley’s New York Knicks.

The combination of a slower tempo and the muscular defense turned the NBA’s running game into a half-court battle.

Rather than calling touch fouls, the NBA really should have considered shortening the shot clock to 20 or even 18 seconds, Barry said. “That would speed the game up.”

Still, Barry, a prodigious scorer, admits to being angered by hand-checking defenses back in the 70s. And the modern game had become dominated by hand-checking and other physical ploys.

“With the way the game was being played, how much skill does it take to hold and push and shove and grab excessively?” Barry asked. “Now, with the new rules, the athletic players are much more exciting for the fans to watch.”

THE ADJUSTMENT?

Rod Thorn concedes that the increased foul calls were a negative last season because a parade of free throws ultimately slows the tempo of a game and subtracts from the quality of basketball.

“Once the players get used to it, they’ll adjust,” he said.

The changes will not bring the end of defense as we know it, Thorn said. “The good defensive teams are still good. It’s just more difficult to cover those wing players, there’s no doubt about it.”

It does, however, raise questions about the style of defense. Teams that like ball pressure are already rethinking their approach.

Both Tex Winter and Joe Dumars agree that there will be adjustments, just as they agree that now that the NBA has found some new offensive life, there will be no turning back to the old ways.

So the upcoming season becomes a matter of how teams, coaches and players adjust to a new game.

Dumars, always a stoic as a player, takes the same approach as an executive.

“Everybody is going to have to adjust to how the game is being called,” he said. “There’s no sense in complaining about it because it’s not going to change. That’s been the history of the league. The game changes and you have to make adjustments.”

Teams will have to adjust their personnel, coaches will have to adjust their strategies and tactics, and players will have to adjust their play, Dumars said.

There will be adjustments before the season, before games, even during games, he added.

Winter, though, thinks adjustments should not be made just by players and coaches.

He thinks officials still need to adjust how they call the game. They can’t make it a sport of touch fouls.

“It’s pretty hard to play defense against these quicker guards without touching them a little bit,” Winter said. “I think the officials are going to have to make an adjustment too. They can’t call all those touch fouls.”

A big issue for Winter’s Lakers is how the guards will play defensively. Traditionally, Phil Jackson’s teams have featured lots of ball pressure. That means the Lakers’ pressure style has to shift.

“I think you have to play more of a containing defense,” explained Winter. “You can still put some pressure on the offense. You can contain them and slow the ball up.”

But the new guidelines “change how you force turnovers,” Winter explained. “You can’t be as aggressive as you’d like to be with your hands. You can’t be ‘into’ the guy as much.”

As a result, defense now becomes a matter of waiting for the offensive player to make a mistake, rather than forcing a turnover, Winter said.

The Lakers would like to exert the kind of ball pressure they used to deploy when Derek Fisher wore the Forum Blue and Gold.

But the new guidelines are still murky, Winter said.

Before games, officials have visited with teams to explain the new approach, Winter said.

“They come in and tell us all this stuff. Then the first four or five plays of the game, you see them doing just the opposite from what they said. You don’t know what they’re going to call. So you have to adjust accordingly, depending what’s going on from game to game, even half to half.”

Barry agreed immediately, citing several incidents in the playoffs where veteran officials made questionable touch calls that had substantial impact on the outcome of a series.

Still, all in all, Barry says he likes the direction the league is taking toward eliminating hooliganism. Hockey finally did that, which now allows fans to see the brilliance of the world’s fastest, most athletic, skaters, Barry said.

As for Dumars, he’s already begun his adjustments. He signed Flip Murray in the offseason, primarily because he’s a young guard who knows how to move his feet and stay in front of an opponent with a killer crossover and lightning moves.

Dumars knows he’s got to find defenders who know that they can move their feet and look the opponent in the eye. They just can’t touch.

Roland Lazenby is the author of The Show: The Inside Story Of The Spectacular Los Angeles Lakers In The Words Of Those Who Lived It, recently released by McGraw-Hill

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