Tuesday, January 2, 2007

For the NBA in 2007, leather is back.

Gone is the microfiber composite ball that stirred much controversy among players when it was forced upon them at the start of the season. The NBA yesterday reinstituted the leather ball it has used the previous 35 years.

The Wizards will play with the old ball for the first time tomorrow at Verizon Center, when they will try to avenge Saturday’s loss to Milwaukee in what will be the third meeting between the teams this season.

If the microfiber composite ball was a problem for the Wizards (17-13), it wasn’t apparent judging from their statistics.

The Wizards are averaging 107.7 points a game — the most since Washington averaged the same amount in the 1989-90 season.

One of the complaints regarding the ball was that its slippery surface caused more turnovers. But that doesn’t appear to have been a problem for the Wizards, who average 13.2 turnovers a game — the third-lowest total in the league.

Gilbert Arenas was an outspoken critic when the league decided to change balls with little player consultation on the matter. However, he came to like the microfiber composite balls.

To prepare for the change back, the Wizards have practiced lately with leather balls that barely are broken in, and the feeling is it will be at most a minor hiccup.

“I think there will be a transition period just like when we incorporated the other ball last summer,” Wizards forward Caron Butler said. “The biggest thing then was guys had to get accustomed to how it felt when it got wet. But overall I think it’s going to be a minor adjustment period. A few more practices and we’ll be OK with it.”

Butler has had great success with the microfiber composite ball this season, putting up career highs in points (20.5), rebounds (8.1), assists (3.6) and steals (1.9).

Forward Antawn Jamison thinks it might take teams longer to get reacclimated. But he doesn’t believe reverting back to leather will give any teams any type of advantage.

“The good thing is that everybody has to adjust,” Jamison said. “I think we had a good feel for the ball. I think what you might see is some of the production fall off early, but that won’t last very long. Guys made the adjustment at the start of the season, and we’ll make it again this time.”

Said Wizards coach Eddie Jordan: “Whatever makes them happy.”

With the synthetic ball, scoring was up 2.5 points a game compared to this point last season. Field goal and free throw percentages also had risen.

The NBA never explained its reasoning for making the change. However, the league also is telling its 30 teams not to discard the balls, which might be brought back in the future despite their early negative reception.

When it was introduced before the start of the season, the microfiber composite ball drew poor reviews.

“It feels like one of those cheap balls that you buy at the toy store,” Miami Heat center Shaquille O’Neal said.

Said Phoenix’s Shawn Marion: “Everybody hates that ball. It seems like it’s more of an outdoor ball than an indoor ball. It doesn’t even feel like an NBA ball.”

While there were numerous complaints the ball became too slippery once sweat hit it, other players, including the Suns’ Steve Nash and the New Jersey Nets’ Jason Kidd, complained the ball actually cut their fingers. Nash even played with bandages on his fingertips.

The NBA Players Association filed an unfair-labor-practice grievance early last month, claiming the league did not fairly consult with players before making the first ball change.

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