- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 6, 2001

For Toronto Raptors forward Charles Oakley, value is hardly a necessity. Slated to earn $5.89 million this season, Oakley is the sort of man who can enjoy life's overpriced frivolities Beluga caviar, Cristal champagne, Washington Redskins "dream seats" with few regrets.

Yet ask him if the average NBA game is worth watching particularly at an average of $51 a pop, priciest among the four major leagues and his answer is painfully blunt.

"You have a few guys that are worth watching of the 29 teams you might want to watch six or seven guys," said Oakley, a 16-year veteran. "That's not too good … The league is like a sliding board going down. It's a product that's going to get recalled in a couple of years.

"I'm not going to miss it. It's trash."

Sanitary considerations aside, Oakley has a point: Something is amiss in the NBA. Behind the gilded curtain of Vince Carter highlights, Sacramento Kings broadcasts and the melodramatic, made-for-network Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant feud, the league has become how to put this delicately? a bastion of oft-boring basketball.

Think slow-it-down, D-it-up, grind-it-out play. Think isolations, double teams and illegal defense calls. Think shot-clock violations.

Think Miami-New York. Sans Spike Lee and Jimmy Buffet. On a coast-to-coast scale.

"Let's face it," said former Phoenix Suns coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. "You can talk about good defense, but people want to see action … Right now, [the game's] not very pretty."

Start with scoring or more appropriately, a galling lack thereof. Prior to last season, the league enacted a series of rules changes intended to open up the game and stem a decade-long offensive decline. But while early returns were encouraging team scoring average jumped from 91.6 points a game in the lockout-shortened 1999 season to 97.5 in 1999-2000 lasting effects have been negligible.

As of Jan. 31, team scoring average was down to 94.2 points a game, the third-lowest total since the adoption of the 24-second shot clock in 1954. Among the lowlights:

• Only Los Angeles, Milwaukee and Sacramento are averaging more than 100 points a game. Eleven seasons ago, every team but the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves averaged more than 100 points.

• In a Dec. 20 game, Miami and Charlotte scored a combined 121 points the second-lowest point total ever for a regular-season game. On Jan 22, Portland posted its lowest-ever point total in a 84-58 loss to Cleveland, scoring just 24 first-half points and shooting 28 percent for the game.

• Chicago has notched a pair of scores in the 60s; Washington and Vancouver have recorded a combined 18 games in the 70s.

"A lot of teams are going the route of Miami just keep the score in the 80s and make it a defensive struggle," said Fox Sports analyst Marques Johnson, a former All-Star. "The teams that push the ball up the floor and freelance are becoming few and far between. Fifteen to 20 years ago, there was a lot more scoring and a lot more of a free-flowing action to the game."

In today's NBA, that action has given way to plodding, methodical attacks that barely deviate from one team to the next. In a recent Washington-Milwaukee contest, the two clubs ran a virtually identical isolation play at least six times in the first five minutes of the game, one that goes something like this:

1) The ballhandler and a post player position themselves on one side of the floor.

2) The other three players stand on the other side of the floor, behind the 3-point line.

3) The post player catches an entry pass and backs in toward the basket.

4) If single-teamed, the post player shoots; if double-teamed, he passes the ball out for a jump shot.

5) Nobody moves otherwise.

"Basketball is a game of grace and beauty, of five players working together," said NBC analyst and Hall of Famer Bill Walton. "It's a ballet. I don't like the walk-it-down, back-it-in isolation game."

Walton isn't the only one. Average league attendance is flat. Last season's NBA Finals were the second-least watched ever. As of last Friday, NBC's regular season ratings were down 17 percent, while Turner's ratings were down 14 percent.

Why is the NBA game so bogged down? The reasons are many:

Diluted talent

Though the NBA is stocked with the world's best basketball players, there aren't enough of them to go around. Not when expansion has added six teams and 72 roster spots since 1988, creating a haven for should-be-in-the-CBA talents such as Ike Austin, Corey Benjamin and Eric Montross.

"Ten or fifteen years ago, the quantity of quality [talent] was larger," said Milwaukee Bucks coach George Karl. "Now, you've got this product where we've got good basketball players but we don't have many great players."

Even the good players are fewer and farther between. Consider this: In 1981-82, Los Angeles won the title with a three-time league scoring champion, Bob McAdoo, coming off the bench.

"When I played, you'd have six or seven guys on one team averaging double figures," Johnson said. "Today, good teams will have three or four guys in double figures."

Youth and inexperience compound the problem. In 1990, just two of the top 13 picks were college underclassmen; last year, only three of the top 13 picks were seniors.

The result? Unpolished players and sloppy play. Take the Indiana Pacers: After playing in last season's finals, the club was just 21-26 as of yesterday, largely because its overhauled roster includes a trio of direct-from-high-school players.

"These guys are talented but they are not talented as far as playing structured ball," Oakley said. "It's like a track guy. He's fast, but when you put him in football pads or put him in a structured system, his abilities don't mean anything.

"A lot of guys coming out of high school, their bodies aren't even ready for high school. How can you be ready for the pros when you're 6-10 and weighing 210, breaking down and getting hurt and wondering what's wrong?"

Tougher defense

From scouting to scheming to sheer physical size, NBA defenses are tougher than ever. Storied Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach reportedly amassed nine championships from 1957 through 1966 without the help of a single assistant coach; today, Washington employs three assistants and a number of advance scouts, the better to devise offense-stifling strategies.

"Hack-a-Shaq"? Detroit's once-infamous "Jordan Rules?" Those are only the beginning.

"You know specifically the plays teams are going to run," said Charlotte coach Paul Silas, a former All-Star. "You know the different calls they're going to make. With an individual player, you know his favorite moves, which shoulder he likes to shoot over in the post, which way he likes to drive the ball."

And if that's not enough, contemporary scorers also face a more tangible obstacle: Bigger, stronger, quicker defenders.

When Julius Erving took the soul to the hole, he did so against relatively lithe big men such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But in the current creatine-soaked milieu, a player such as Kobe Bryant must outfox bruisers such as Miami's Anthony Mason and Detroit's Ben Wallace.

And don't think Mason and Wallace aren't benefiting from their bulked-up physiques. The league promised to blow the whistle on holding, grabbing and other rough stuff at the start of last season, but Johnson and others say the crackdown has tapered off.

"It's regressed back to the old way of letting a lot of contact go uncalled," Johnson said. "That adds to the game being bogged down."

Sideline 'stranglers'

During a December team meeting, Portland's Damon Stoudamire and Scottie Pippen reportedly asked coach Mike Dunleavy to let them run the club's offense without looking to the sideline for every play. Shortly thereafter, the team ripped off a 10-game win streak.

Coincidence?

"There's a lot of overpreparing and overcoaching by our coaches," Karl said. "The information and the knowledge we bring to the game can sometimes strangle it."

Forget the old axiom that the NBA is a "players' league." On the floor, it's decidedly a coaches' league and the men in Armani are stifling the game.

Auerbach was famous for running just six offensive plays. Former Washington coach K.C. Jones led the Bullets to the 1975 NBA Finals without the use of a clipboard.

"When I played in Milwaukee for Don Nelson, we had an offense called 'just play,' " Johnson said. "There were no plays called, we just moved, set screens, reacted to each other."

Today's coaches are control freaks by comparison, obsessed with managing the tempo, getting a "good" shot and above all holding the score down. The model? Try former Cleveland coach Mike Fratello, who kept his mediocre Cavaliers competitive by turning games into X-and-O crawls.

"The coach controls everything," Fitzsimmons said. "Instead of pushing the ball, we stand on the sideline and hold one finger up. I think what we're trying to do is show everybody we're geniuses."

No team epitomizes the league's dominant style of play better than New York. The Knicks recently held their opponents to less than 100 points for 33 consecutive games, a post-shot clock NBA record.

How did they do it? By limiting the opposition to .411 shooting from the floor. And by playing slow, excruciatingly dull basketball.

As of yesterday, New York averaged 75.3 shot attempts a game, second-lowest in the league, and held opponents to 74.2 attempts a game, the lowest mark in the league.

And the Knicks aren't the only team sitting on the ball. Total average shot attempts a game have fallen from 87.1 in 1989-90 to 80.1 this season, largely because teams have given up on the fast break.

"Fast break basketball isn't nearly what it used to be," Silas said. "When I played, if you weren't getting up 100 shots, you weren't getting the job done. And with the Celtics, we ran all the time push, push, push. Now, you get 60 or 70 shots a game."

The rules encourage it

Coaches and players aren't stupid. Aesthetics aside, slow-down, isolation basketball works particularly when the league's Byzantine illegal defense rules reward one-and-two man games.

Why run a clearout that stations three offensive players behind the weak side 3-point line, far removed from the action? Because the rules require defenses to guard those players, or else suffer a technical foul.

"What the illegal defense rules have done is create a lot of one-on-one situations," Silas said. "Very few teams are oriented toward the team game."

According to Johnson, the league's salary cap exacerbates matters.

"Now, instead of being able to go out and get five good players, you spend most of your money on two superstars," he said. "Then, you fill in the gaps with filler material, guys who would have been off-the-bench role-players back in the day. And coaches play the percentages the Lakers are going to go to Shaq and Kobe every time. Everybody else is just kind of taking up the rest of the salary cap."

Added Fitzsimmons: "It takes time to develop a good offense. It doesn't really happen over one year. But if guys are free agents and moving on, if you have five new players coming in every year, you've got to get lucky for them to mesh. You didn't see the old Celtics moving players. They retired with long beards."

Can the NBA game snap out of its current malaise? The powers-that-be are certainly concerned.

NBA Deputy Commissioner Russ Granik recently told FoxSports.com that the league will likely consider an offseason rules change to allow zone defense. And additional tinkering could be in order when the league's competition committee meets in the District during this weekend's All-Star festivities (see sidebar).

"I think at some point we will have to take some risks," Granik told FoxSports.com.

Given the state of the game, Fitzsimmons said, something needs to be done.

"I wish we could pinpoint the one thing that's to blame," he said. "For the last two years, the league's been working on improving scoring, but the numbers keep going down. Some way, somehow, we've got to find a balance so that we see the running game, the movement of the basketball, instead of four guys standing in the corner and one guy going one-on-one.

"If we're going to get people back in the seats, we've got to find something that's more entertaining."

• Staff writers Eric Fisher and John Mitchell contributed to this report.

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