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David Aldridge

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Rules changes have affected defensive philosophies

By David Aldridge, TNT analyst
Posted Apr 23 2009 6:13PM

Doc Rivers knew when his time was running out as a player.

"The first year, they took my hand check away," Rivers recalled. "The next year, they took our forearm away. And then, I retired. I was done. I was like, 'I've got to move my feet? I quit. This is no fun anymore.'"

For 13 seasons, Rivers made a very good living in the NBA as one of the league's best on-ball defenders. Tall (6-foot-4) and strong, able to use his hands to steer opponents away from the basket, able to clip guards moving without the ball from their desired routes around the court. But the style that helped his Hawks teams get to the Playoffs and that put his 1994 New York Knicks team in the Finals is now a relic, consigned to the basement in Pat Riley's head.

You still have to play defense to win NBA championships. But now, you have to do it without fouling.

With the Playoffs underway, the teams that can slow their opponents down without putting them on the free throw line have a decided advantage. But that's much harder than in Rivers' day, when the Knicks would establish how the game would be called in the first five minutes by being as physical as possible, daring referees to call every bump and hold. Most times, the refs would ultimately let a lot of contact go, which is precisely what Riley wanted.

But the league has gradually legislated that kind of defense out of the game.

Since 1990, the NBA has instituted a series of rules changes to increase the offensive player's flow and make physical play costly. First came increased penalties for flagrant fouls (1990) and fighting (1993), the implementation of the "five points" rule that called for automatic suspensions of players who amassed a certain number of flagrants (1993). Hand checking was eliminated in 1994. Using the forearm to defend players facing the basket went away in 1997.

In 1999, the league eliminated contact by a defender with his hands and forearms both in the backcourt and frontcourt, except on offensive players who caught the ball below the free throw line extended. Defenses were also prohibited from "re-routing" players off the ball. This freed up perimeter players who used screens to get open. Nor were defenders able any more to grab or impede offensive players setting screens. In 2001, the defensive three-second rule eliminated defenders camping out in the lane away from their offensive man to help.

The rules changes did what they were supposed to do -- open up the game. Scoring average has increased from an average 95.6 points per game in the 1997-98 season to this year's 100 per game. Overall field goal percentage has increased from 45.0 percent in '97-'98 to 45.9 percent this season. Three-point percentage has gone up, from .346 11 years ago to .367 this season. And fouls have gone down, from a league average of 1,837 fouls in 1997 to 1,726 this season. The statistical-based Basketball Prospectus wrote at the beginning of this season that the game's pace -- defined as possessions per game -- had increased from its nadir during the lockout season of 1999 (around 88 possessions per game) to around 91 per game in the 2007-08 season.

Free-flowing offense is now the norm, with players able to go almost unencumbered anywhere on the court. As such, the game's most dominant individual players and those that are just good at drawing contact have even more of a chance to get to the foul line. So stars like Dwight Howard (the league leader in free throw attempts this season with 849), Dwyane Wade (second, 771) and LeBron James (third, 762) can have an even more outsized impact on games.

"You can't even touch a guy now," says Charlotte coach Larry Brown. "The college game is much more physical than our game. I always tease Michael [Jordan], if he played today, he'd average 50."

Defending without fouling is hardly a new concept; players have been practicing slide drills and doing four on four drills for decades, at all levels. The influence of North Carolina's Dean Smith on the NBA, for example, is profound.

Smith taught a generation of players and coaches the importance of defending without fouling, and those players and coaches have influenced others. Smith coached Brown, Doug Moe and Billy Cunningham; Brown's disciples include John Calipari, who's coaching the same philosophy in college; Phoenix's Alvin Gentry and San Antonio's Gregg Popovich. And Popovich has spread the gospel to another generation of coaches, like Cleveland's Mike Brown.

"If anybody, it would be Larry," Popovich said recently. "[He] worked a lot about, as simple as it sounds, keeping people in front of you. He'd rather give up a jump shot than a layup. Over time, percentage wise, that fuels you. Larry was really big on that."

Under Smith, Jordan became a ferocious defender, but one who did it with his speed instead of his hands. The Bulls' six titles were predicated on suffocating halfcourt defense, with Jordan leading what assistant coach John Bach referred to as "the Dobermans."

Jordan and Scottie PIppen could take away a whole side of the court, able to defend on-ball and also get into passing lanes for steals that ignited the Chicago fast break. And power forward Horace Grant's ability able to trap out front and recover in time to get back to his man, combined with the solid rotations of players like Bill Cartwright, allowed Chicago to suffocate opponents in the halfcourt.

Larry Brown took that blueprint to Detroit, where his defense suffocated opponents in the second half of the 2004 regular season, setting a league record by holding five straight opponents to fewer than 70 points. Rasheed Wallace played the Grant role, using his speed, length and smarts to close out on shooters, yet be able to get back under the glass. Tayshaun Prince became a star with his defensive efforts, including that otherworldly block of Reggie Miller's layup in Indiana in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, then holding Kobe Bryant in check with very little help, and in space, during Detroit's five-game Finals victory.

Brown "always wanted us to be an in-your-chest type of defensive team," said guard Lindsey Hunter, who came off the bench with Mike James to harass opposing guards in 2004.

"He would run practices where we'd do defensive drills and he wouldn't call fouls," said Hunter, now with the Bulls. "It prepared us offensively and defensively to play that rugged kind of style...we're trying to establish ourselves here as a defensive-minded team. When you establish that reputation, then you do get the leeway to do more, get away with more."

San Antonio doesn't have players as quick as Jordan or Pippen, but they've nonetheless won four championships with equally devastating half-court defense, following Chicago's formula of defending without fouling (though opponents of Bruce Bowen would probably disagree). This season, the Spurs' highest-ranked player in committing fouls -- Matt Bonner -- ranked 84th overall in the league, with 190 personals.

For the Spurs, it's simple: they have to defend without fouling because they traditionally haven't the personnel to win shootouts. Tim Duncan is not at his best in an up-and-down contest. So San Antonio needs to slow the game down and keep the opponent out of the penalty for as long as possible.

"We concentrate a lot on showing your hands at all times," Popovich said. "You've got to show your hands, you've got to move your feet, you've got to keep people in the middle of your chest. And we call them on it on a consistent basis, both in every practice and in every game. I think, over time, it sinks in. But it's got to be something that, on a daily basis, it gets reinforced, or it would go away."

Duncan says the Spurs evolved into it.

"I don't know that it was that way from the start," he said. "I think it was something we kind of turned to along the way, like 'why are all of a sudden doing this?' Now it became a mantra. It's a little difficult. I know Roger [Mason] had some problems, fouling shooters, not giving up little things, making people make shots. But once you get it, and Pop screams at you a couple of times, and you look at it on film a couple of times, you get it quickly."

Under Mike Brown, Cleveland's defense was the league standard this season, giving up the fewest points per game and the lowest field goal percentage. But the Cavaliers were also ninth overall in fewest fouls committed, at 20.28 per game, and just outside the top 10 in fewest fouls committed. (The Spurs, again, led the league in fewest fouls committed overall.)

"It's challenging, with the guys that's in this league and the guys you go against every night," James said. "When you put teams on the line, it allows them to get in a comfort zone. So we just try to not allow that to happen."

Mike D'Antoni's Suns teams were regularly vilified for not playing any defense. But that was misleading. The Suns weren't physical, but they could defend on the perimeter without fouling, with Shawn Marion and Raja Bell harassing shooters and drivers with their length. My colleague John Schuhmann pointed out earlier this month that Phoenix's defensive rating (points per 100 possessions) under D'Antoni was usually around the middle of the pack statistically in the league. And that didn't hurt the Suns as much as it would have hurt other teams because of the brutal pace they set offensively with Steve Nash at the wheel.

Now in Charlotte, Bell has the same defensive philosophy.

"I try to do my work early," Bell says. "If I can make a guy catch the ball where he doesn't want to. If he catches it where he wants to catch it, I'm in trouble. That's his comfort zone and he's got a million and one moves from there. But if I can make him catch five or six feet away or not catch it al l-- that's even better."

In Orlando, Stan Van Gundy emphasizes not reaching.

"Coach, in practice, if we reach, we have to run after practice," Howard said. "Nobody wants to run after a Stan Van Gundy practice. So it just comes natural for us [not to reach] in the game."

But the instinct to reach on ballhandlers is still there, especially in an era where teams all over the world emphasize getting their best shooters open looks in the short corner. Stopping guards before they break down a team's defense is even more important. And with the dribble-drive offense that spread through the college game now reaching the pro level, it's nearly impossible to keep premier guards "flat," in basketballese.

"You play defense before you get in position to foul," Brown says. "Don't let the guy catch the ball in a position where he can hurt you. You've got to teach your kids to stay in front of a guy without fouling. Guarding the dribbler is the most important thing. The European influence has spread the floor so everybody is trying to get guys who can beat you off the dribble so you can drive and kick."

There are still holdouts. Not surprisingly, Jerry Sloan's Jazz don't mind giving up fouls if it means stopping opponents from getting open looks. And Sloan has been pretty successful coaching his way for more than two decades, with a couple of Finals appearances, more than 1,000 victories and a coming induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. So there's still more than one way to skin a cat.

"We're like the opposite of Utah, basically," Popovich said. "Both philosophies are good. I think the other one works, too. Because if you're hitting and grabbing and being real physical, they can't make every call. So it works just as well, I guess. It's just the way we've done things and feel most comfortable."

Lettuce, we get lettuce...

I am writing to you because I want to ask a very specific question. Why did you put Kevin Garnett as your pick in the All-NBA first team? KG has missed a lot of games and is surely not as productive as Tim Duncan or Dirk Nowitzki. I would like to read your opinion about that.

Mindaugas Gervickas

Obviously Garnett only played 57 games this season. The Celtics were 44-13 with him; 18-7 without him. Their points allowed exploded up without him. They were considered championship material with him; without him, they're in a real fight in the first round in Chicago. Yes, Dirk and Duncan score more, because they are asked to score more and get many more opportunities. Individual statistics do not begin to show you KG's value to Boston. I'll take the heat on that, but I stand by it.

Dude you're trippin' to leave Duncan off your All-NBA list????? Truly mind-blowing!

Charles R. Kopecky

On this one, there's an explanation. Chalk it up to a hundred things to do, two kids crying in the house and lack of sleep. As you know, I made Garnett first team. Then I thought, what about Paul Pierce? So I put Pierce on the third team, hoping to put Duncan on one of the teams as a center, since that's the position he actually plays in San Antonio. But as you know, the rules stipulate you have to put a player at the position at which he's listed. And the Spurs, inexplicably, still list Duncan as a forward (with Matt Bonner, this year, playing center). So I took Duncan off of center, intending to put him back at a forward spot. And then...I forgot. What can I tell you? That was the version of the ballot I was looking at when I wrote the column.

When I actually was preparing to e-mail my ballot to the league, I looked at it again and said yikes, no Duncan. So I took Pierce off and put Duncan back on, this time at forward.

In summary:

Original, sleep-deprived, stupid third-team list I referred to when writing the column:

Guards: Chauncey Billups, Brandon Roy
Forwards: Paul Pierce, Pau Gasol
Center: Shaquille O'Neal.

Actual, corrected third-team list I e-mailed to the NBA:

Guards: Chauncey Billups, Brandon Roy
Forwards: Tim Duncan, Pau Gasol
Center: Shaquille O'Neal.

As we in Minneapolis are entering the happiest time to be a Wolves fan, when they're not playing, what would you do with that mess? Who are good GM candidates? Who would you draft? Which free agents might be available? And which was the real team, the Wolves with the hot January, or the ones who were awful between then and when Big Al went down?

John Neumann

Minneapolis, MN

I think the best GM candidate is right there in Fred Hoiberg, who has a great feel both for personnel and people. I'd draft Ricky Rubio; he'll be a star, and he just happens to play the position of greatest need in Minnesota. A guy like Trevor Ariza could help on the wings, but you'd want to be careful not putting too much money into him. I think the pre-Al injury Wolves were legit, but that was only a dozen or so games, not a season. And if you know what McHale is going to do, please let the rest of us know.

Send your salutations, comments and snark to Please include both your full name and city. E-mailers who are selected will be cast in that Casablanca remake they're shooting over in Prague, starring Madonna. (Actually, I don't think there's any Casablanca remake. If there is, there shouldn't be. But we will publish your e-mail if it's selected.)

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