What We Have Lost In The NBA

Call me an old fogie, but the way the NBA game is played today at once bores and depresses me. Why aren’t more people complaining about the monotonous pattern comprised mainly of lay-ups or threes, isolations or pick and rolls? About a game in which the large expanse between the three-point line and the restricted area is treated as a kind of demilitarized zone, within which few dare to enter, much less tarry? One in which every player thinks he’s Steph Curry, which might help explain the Rockets’ going 7 for 44 from three-point range in this year’s Western Conference finals, with players launching long-distance brick after brick in one of the ugliest displays of big-game bricklaying in recent years. A game in which youngsters ooh and aah because various and sundry big men now think –and attempt to behave as though– they are the second coming of Isiah Thomas, Mo Cheeks, or Tiny Archibald.

To be sure, bigs like Ben Simmons, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Kevin Durant are tremendous athletes, but their skills at the point are nonetheless rudimentary. Every time I see one galloping—or, to be more accurate, cantering—gawkily while dribbling up the court, I can’t help but think of Samuel Johnson’s famous, albeit politically incorrect 1763 quote: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

And the problem goes far beyond Simmons, KD, and the Greek Freak. The same holds true, for example, for Nikola Jokic and Blake Griffin, for Draymond Green, and even for the King. I defer to no one in my high regard for LeBron and I readily concede that he is a great passer, but even he doesn’t have the ball-handling skills expected of solid 6-1 or 6-2 NBA point guards even a few years ago. I fully understand why NBA officialdom, commercial sponsors, the media, and fans all wanted to open up the game after the sumo wrestling matches, I mean, NBA playoff series between the Knicks and the Heat between 1997 and 2000. But they might have looked back to the beautifully balanced Lakers and Celtics teams of the 80s—or to the Knicks in the late 60s and early 70s– rather than try to remix the game into one built around lonely soloists, three-point artists, and seven-foot PGs. Jeez, even the Pistons during the Bad Boys era of the mid-80s to early- 90s were an ensemble act with a blend of players deftly combining different skill sets (including martial arts!) on different parts of the court in order to win games. Today the Warriors come closest to blending diverse talents into a greater whole, but even their style is often reduced to lay-up attempts and threes unless Kevin Durand deigns to employ his devastating mid-range shooting skills or Shaun Livingston is on the court.

It’s time, once again, to try another remix, one that would reduce the role and relative importance of the three, which has distorted the game. Other changes could include increasing the point value of successful mid-range shots (which are more likely to be contested than threes), expanding the paint, and allowing players four or five seconds to set up therein rather than three, etc. These and any other changes that would restore balance are certainly worth a try.

Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill. He writes frequently on sports.

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