Monday, May 28, 2001

I am dreading the employment of the zone defense in the NBA next season.

I do not want to see five defenders around Shaquille O’Neal. I do not want to see Kobe Bryant trying to maneuver against a box-and-one defense. I do not want to see one of the least appealing elements of the college game in the NBA, and nothing against the college game.

The NBA is where individual excellence is supposed to be celebrated. It is where one gifted player can finish a game for a team, and a finisher is what separates the haves and have-nots around the NBA. If you do not have a finisher, you are not truly serious, no matter how many other gifted players are in the mix.

Tracy McGrady is a finisher-in-the-making. If Grant Hill returns to his previous form, the Magic could be the leading team in the Eastern Conference next season.

The 76ers are as close to a one-man operation as there is in the NBA with Allen Iverson, even while being aided by the underappreciated Aaron McKie and the defensive presence of Dikembe Mutombo. The 76ers would not be where they are now if the zone defense were an option.

All those away-from-the-ball screens the 76ers set for Iverson would be considerably less effective against a zone defense. Worse for the 76ers, Iverson is not a pure shooter. He is a scorer who is at his best when beating people off the dribble and penetrating into the three-second lane.

Here’s the thing: You don’t beat a zone with dribble-penetration forays. You beat a zone with ball movement, with passing.

The zone defense is going to change a lot of the thinking, methods and axioms in the NBA. It will hurt the best players and teams.

What good is a finisher if he is surrounded by three players? Do you want Bryant or Rick Fox touching the ball a lot in the waning minutes of a tight game?

If you’re the opposition, that’s an easy call to make, and it’s one opposing coaches will be able to make with frequency because of the zone defense.

Next season, the mantra of the NBA is destined to be: Make the supporting parts beat you.

In adopting the zone defense, David Stern and the guardians of the NBA are guilty of overreacting to the flat attendance figures and TV ratings. They are guilty of trying to fix something that really isn’t broke. The NBA was bound to take a hit in popularity in the post-Michael Jordan era. As these playoffs are confirming, however, the NBA just needs to be patient and allow its young stars to develop and build an audience.

Bryant is the heir apparent to Jordan, and then some. O’Neal is in his own special category, a freak of stunning proportions, which is saying something in a sport that extols the extremely tall.

Look around the NBA and you see a number of young and appealing players: McGrady in Orlando, Ray Allen in Milwaukee, Vince Carter in Toronto, Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas, Tim Duncan in San Antonio and Predrag Stojakovic in Sacramento. What’s not to like?

There’s nothing wrong with the NBA that a little time and marketing couldn’t solve. You want more scoring? You want to speed up the game? You want less standing around on offense?

The zone defense is not going to solve those problems. If anything, the zone defense will encourage more players to stand behind the 3-point line, mostly because good perimeter shooting is essential against a zone defense.

With the zone defense, the value of players like Tracy Murray and Steve Kerr are suddenly increased. A coach can hide them on defense and have them do what they do on offense.

Is that the NBA you want to see?

The NBA is about matchups and adjustments. It is about isolation plays and the two-man game. It is about discovering which players can answer the challenge and which ones can’t.

The zone defense changes that. If you put enough people on one player, the player, O’Neal included, becomes stoppable.

Let’s see how well the highly publicized triangle offense functions against a matchup zone defense.

I can tell you right now that Fox, Derek Fisher, Robert Horry and Brian Shaw can expect to have more significant roles at the expense of O’Neal and Bryant, and that’s not the NBA I want to see.

When the lights are brightest, I want to see the ball in the hands of the best players.

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