It’s good sport in some sports to compare the top performers of various eras and debate which were best, but basketball isn’t among them. With the possible exception of the Michael Jordan-versus-LeBron James argument, there’s no doubt that today’s players are the best ever, with the trend line pointing upward.
The reasons behind this are several. Coaching has improved throughout the sport, and with coaches at the microphones and stop-action and slo-mo video technology advancing, every televised game is a clinic for young players. Add better nutrition and physical-training methods and you have a level of athleticism that’s unmatched historically. High-school kids today can do what top collegians couldn’t 15 or 20 years ago, and ditto for the collegians and pros. Watching games in the current NCAA men’s big-school tournament is like watching “The Matrix” with the players providing their own special effects. The Flying Wallendas had nothing on those guys.
Amid all the wonderfulness, though, are a few head-scratching facts. One is that team scoring averages in NCAA Division I have declined over the last 40 or so years to just a tad over 68 points a game last year, the last for which full-season figures are available, from a peak of almost 78 points in 1971 and ’72, when shorts were short and sideburns were long. That’s despite such offense-friendly rules changes as the shot clock (introduced at 45 seconds in the 1985-86 season and cut to 35 seconds in 1993-94) and the three-point basket, which debuted in 1987.
National field-goal shooting percentages are down, too, to about 44 in recent seasons from a high of about 48 in 1984. Last year’s mark of 43.6% was the lowest since 1966. That decline has led some to ask the question “Why can’t Johnny shoot?” more earnestly than those concerning the lad’s other failings.
The usual answer to the above is that John-boy is a showoff who’d rather spend his playground time slammin’ and jammin’, rehearsing for an ESPN highlights reel, than putting in the hard work needed to improve his marksmanship. But for those who prefer to think well of the young there’s an alternative explanation that rings truer, and is endorsed by the game’s leading thinkers. It’s that there’s been a whole lot of defense going on of late, and its effectiveness is most responsible for the scoring dearth.
The technical side of that proposition should be apparent to even the casual basketball fan. Back in the day most college teams played either man-to-man defense or zone and pretty much left it at that. Today there’s a whole zoo of exotic schemes (the zone press, box-and-one, triangle-and-two) with variations aplenty, and teams switch among them from one ball possession to the next or even during the same one. You don’t have to be an x’s and o’s person to recognize these—the TV commentators will do it for you. It’s one of the main ways they display their knowledge.
More importantly, the increased athleticism of today’s players is making itself felt more on the defensive side of the ball than on the offense. Any coach will tell you that great athletes aren’t necessarily great shooters but anyone willing to move his feet can play defense, and the better one moves them the better one does it.
“Coaches always stressed defense but now they have more kids who really can play it,” Eddie Sutton, a three-decade veteran of the major-college coaching ranks, told me some years ago, and what he said then is even more true now.
I think there’s another side to the game’s current D-domination, though, and it isn’t nearly as upbeat as the first. It’s that the refs are permitting more rough stuff than ever before and this is turning the game into a scrum. Indeed, with all the slapping, scratching, grabbing and bumping that’s ignored on the court it’s a wonder a shot ever gets off.
The NBA has set the pattern for this, and probably with reason. Today’s pros are so skillful that they can score under any regime short of house arrest, and without giving the “D” an edge every game’s score would be on the order of 125-123. The collegians aren’t quite that good, so defensive permissiveness often leads to turgidity.
A certain amount of physical contact is inevitable in basketball, especially around the hoop where the behemoths grind for position. Recent-year changes have been on the periphery, where the ball handlers operate. The refs used to enforce some open space out there, but lately defenders have gone beyond an in-your-face stance to in-your-shirt, often contesting the ground on which ball handlers stand. If I were a collegiate guard I’d load up on garlic before games in the hope my breath might earn me and extra inch or two of daylight.
The refs could reverse this pattern if they chose, but the word from their bosses at conference and national headquarters seems to be “let the boys play.” One upshot has been to reinforce the sense of unfairness that’s felt when close fouls are called. The other day I was watching a tight Georgetown-Syracuse game in the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden when a foul was whistled against a G’town player in the late going, setting off a storm of protest from his team’s bench and fans. The play was reviewed several times on TV, and both commentators agreed that a foul had been committed, but one noted that “they don’t call that foul in this league,” and the other concurred.
The natural follow-up question—What fouls do they call?—went unasked. If it had been, the truthful answer would have been “not many.”
The game would be better if they called more.