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Rules changes have freed shooters, allowed offenses to soar

By John Hareas,
Posted Apr 10 2009 1:44PM

With the NBA Playoffs ready to tip off, the NBA's executive vice president of basketball operations, Stu Jackson, sat down with to discuss how some important rules changes have affected the game in the last decade.

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Stu Jackson: In the late '90s and the beginning of the decade, the game had become too focused on isolation play, while other players stood around under the old illegal defense guidelines. The game had also gotten too physical and too slow. A special committee of basketball experts was formed in the early part of the decade to study the game and make recommendations as to how to make it more exciting to watch. In 2001, that committee made a rules package recommendation to the Board of Governors, which was ultimately passed for implementation during the 2001-02 season. The Board voted to eliminate our old illegal defense guidelines, to implement a new defensive three-second call, reduce the time allowable to get the ball across half-court from 10 seconds to eight seconds, and allow less contact. All changes were passed with the idea of trying to encourage more free flowing five-man offenses, open up the lanes for cutting and passing and speed up the game by encouraging teams to get into their offenses quicker. Since the hand-checking rule was interpreted differently beginning in the 2004-05 season, the game has opened up. Players are penetrating and the floor is spread. As a result, scoring has risen every season. Was this anticipated back in 2004?

SJ: No. The scoring increase was not our goal. Our objective was to allow for more offensive freedom by not allowing defenders to hand-, forearm- or body-check ball handlers. By doing so, we encouraged more dribble penetration. As players penetrated more, it produced higher quality shots for the ball handler as well as shots for teammates on passes back out to perimeter. When NBA players get higher quality shots -- having more time to shoot -- they tend to make more of them. Shooting percentages have risen since 2004-05 regardless of location -- at-the-rim shots, short- and deep-mid range and 3-pointers. Does this surprise you, especially the higher percentages from 3-point range?

SJ: It doesn't. With the rule and interpretation changes, it has become more difficult for defenders to defend penetration, cover the entire floor on defensive rotations and recover to shooters. This has provided more time for shooters to ready themselves for quality shots. With more dribble penetration, ball handlers are getting more opportunities at the rim. Additionally, teams now realize the 3-point shot is a great competitive equalizer, so they are taking more; they have improved their skill level on threes and are making them at a higher rate. The number of 3-point attempts has risen since the 2004-05 season, more so than the mid-range shots. Is this a positive development?

SJ: It depends on your perspective. We feel the 3-point shot has been an exciting play for our game and has put a premium on having skill players with an all-around game. Doesn't the wide-open style benefit certain types of players? For example, wing players vs. frontcourt players?

SJ: The benefits of an open game are not limited to just perimeter players. An open game can benefit a post player as well. Remember, if the players are spaced wider and using more of the court, then defenses have to play those players closely because they're good shooters. The style actually serves to open up the middle of the floor. If a team has an effective post player, he would have more room to operate in the post. From an Xs and Os perspective, how have coaches adjusted to a more wide-open game? What have they done differently?

SJ: Coaches have utilized more space on the floor so to create more room for dribble penetration, two-man pick-and-roll basketball and dribble exchanges on the perimeter. But to do that, they have attempted to place the right personnel on the floor -- more shooters and ball handlers that require defenses to play those players on the perimeter. How have GMs changed their thinking when building their teams as a result of these changes the last five years?

SJ: The biggest change that I've seen is that to be successful offensively in our league, it's almost become a requirement that you have one frontcourt player -- a forward or center -- who can shoot the ball from the perimeter, in addition to your perimeter players who also must be able to shoot the ball from distance. Having this type of personnel allows teams to spread the floor and create more offensive spacing. So, the days of the big man who is purely a defensive specialist and physical enforcer is changing toward having power forwards or centers who can rebound, pass and shoot the ball from the perimeter. When you watch the game today, does it closely resemble an international game or are there still distinct differences in the style of play?

SJ: Our game does more closely resemble an international game in terms of the style of play than it used to. However, there are distinct differences in the international game vs. the NBA game. The international game utilizes a pure zone defense (as opposed to the defensive three-second rule), which allows frontcourt players to stand in the middle of the lane and discourage cutting, passing and dribble penetration.

The second major difference is the international game is a 40-minute game as opposed to the NBA 48-minute game. Lastly, the 3-point line is not as far as our 3-point line so the spacing on the court is different. However, starting in 2010, FIBA will eliminate the trapezoid lane and move to our rectangular lane. They're also moving the 3-point line back to just over 22 feet from 20 feet 6 inches. So our rules are gradually becoming more similar, which makes sense given the international nature of the game. The international game will then more closely resemble our game. Looking ahead to next season, what other changes to the game would you like to see?

SJ: We think that our game is in a really good place now. There isn't any major aspect of the game that we think needs to be addressed with drastic rule changes such as the ones in 2001. We continue to monitor our existing game and make sure we maintain its style and look based upon our observations and metrics, such as shooting percentages, shot locations on the floor, field-goal attempts, possessions per game and fouls called.

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