Wednesday , Oct , 25 , 2006 C.Y. Ellis

Welcome to the Softer, Gentler NBA

Today’s NBA players are soft, and if you don’t believe me, just check the history.

When you get a chance, flip on over to ESPN Classic and check out some old NBA games. Depending on the D-O-B on your driver’s license (assuming you’re old enough to have a driver’s license), you may be surprised at what you see.

Welcome to the Softer, Gentler NBANo doubt, you’ll be looking at something familiar. Players in jerseys will be running and jumping on a 94 x 50 hardwood court, tossing a round object threw a hoop. It’s basketball. You know that. But watch closer, and after a while you may begin to see a major difference between the game then, and the game now.

That difference, truncated and simplified to a single word, would be physicality, or in the case of today’s NBA, lack thereof.

You’ve got beef with my assessment, I know this already. There’s a comment box at the bottom of the page, hit me up, put digits to keyboard, but before you do, go watch some ESPN Classic.

Check out an old Pacers game; watch Reggie move without the ball, moving off screens. Now watch closer – dude is getting beat up. He hasn’t even touched the damn ball yet and he’s been elbowed, shoved, grabbed by the jersey (and other places), all in front of the ref who isn’t about to try and regurgitate his whistle.

Better yet try watching an old Bulls game. Michael Jordan took a beating like nothing any player in the league takes today. Forget hand checks, MJ was taking elbows to the gut and chest when his hands touched the ball. And that’s just out on the perimeter. Taking it into the lane means a few more elbows, a slap or three, and nice little shove in the lower back right as he leaves the ground for a patented Jordan finish. And that’s an and one, right? Nope, just a plain old vanilla hoop, no harm.

Already I know there’s someone protesting: "but Jordan and Miller got more than their fair share of calls." True, but for every call they got, there were four or five more plays where the ref wouldn’t so much as flinch, plays that, in today’s NBA, would be called without hesitation.

The undeniable truth is that things that weren’t being called ten or even five years ago are being called today. And that’s short term history. If you go even further back, we’re talking fights breaking out over hard fouls and retaliations coming hard and fast. Things have changed. As for whether or not that’s a good thing, it depends on who you ask.

While I certainly don’t think the NBA needs to turn into the NHL, what I could stand for is a few less trips to the free-throw line, and a little more contact without a whistle sounding off.

The number of free-throw attempts players are taking is on the rise, particularly in the case of the L’s marquee attractions. Last season Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Paul Pierce, and Dwyane Wade all attempted over 800 free-throws, more than Michael Jordan took in the his final stint with the Bulls in 98′.

Again, I’ll reiterate, I’m not hoping to see the league turn into some sort of slug fest, where the winner is whoever can get away with the most shots or put out the toughest squad of bruisers, but what we’re seeing today is about as close to the opposite extreme as you can get. Make no mistake about it, today’s league is the backlash, the pendulum swing, of the brand of basketball played in the 80s. Once bogged down by overly physical play and stifling defensives that got away with anything they could, the league is now plagued by increasingly tedious and unnecessary trips to the line, bad officials, and players who won’t be touched without begging for a foul call.

There is a thin line between rewarding aggressive players for playing as such, and simply handing players points on the assumption they deserve it because they tried hard, or because there was contact. And in case you missed last season’s playoffs, that line has been crossed by NBA officials.

No disrespect to the player himself, but purely as an example, Dwyane Wade should not be put on the free-throw line every time someone touches him. I understand, he’s an aggressive player, and I give him as much props for that as anyone. When he hits the ground hard, I expect him to get a couple free at the line. But I’m not down with touch fouls, and that’s exactly what he was getting in last year’s Finals.

In 23 postseason games, D-Wade attempted 250 free-throws. He spent so much time at the line he should have been paying rent. No doubt, he paid the hard way for a good amount of those trips, but it’s the few that he snuck in that bother me.

And don’t think I’m making excuses for the runners up either. Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki has to earn the award for the most undeserved trips to the line in NBA history. If a defender breathed on him the wrong way he’s getting two. In fact Dirk was the only player last postseason to even come close to Wade’s free throw total with 229 attempts.

Cases can be made for and against what officiating has become over the past few seasons, and this past postseason in particular, but the specific players and cases I’ve mentioned thus far shouldn’t be the points of contention. The real problem here is the philosophy that’s being pushed by the league, and the motivation behind it.

    It’s not a conspiracy theory, but it’s close

There is one underlying cause for the increase in foul calls, the restrictions put on defenses, and the recent rule "adjustments" in the NBA, and it’s not quite as cloak and dagger as one might think. There’s no secret, no one is going to deny it. If you walked right up to David Stern and asked him why the league is the way it is, he’ll answer in his usual monotone voice, "Because that’s the way I wanted it."

The philosophy of the league’s officials has changed because that’s what the league wants. What the league wants is more fans buying tickets, and more people tuning in to games on TV. More specifically, what the league wants is less defense and more scoring, even if it means tweaking the rules to give the offense an advantage because certain defenses have just gotten too good.

This season the league has said that block/charge calls in question, will automatically be awarded to the offensive player. Just one more move by the league to discourage defense, and encourage unchallenged scoring.

Offense and high scoring games sell, and in order to sell the game, Stern and company have to tweak the game, make sure it’s prime product. That’s been done by making it clear to players, coaches, officials, and fans, scoring is important, defense is not and we’ll do anything to help teams manufacture points.

The end result of this is indeed higher scoring, in some capacity for every NBA team. But what people may be missing, is that certain teams will benefit more than others. Teams that couldn’t manage against the tougher defenses in the league previously, now have an advantage; the good defenses can only play so well before it’s a violation.

The days of defense winning championships are over. Now games come with a foul quota, "get this guy to the line X amount of times." Now the goal is to make defense in the NBA the equivalent of defense in fantasy football, it has to be there for appearance sake, but it doesn’t have to actually matter. Chances are, if you’re a younger fan, or just a cynical older one, you never liked the league the way it was before anyway; you like the new league, the higher scoring league. More power to you.

You can tell me it’s a newer league, you can even tell me it’s a better league – just don’t tell me it isn’t softer.