The only constant is change
February, 17, 2013
By Henry Abbott
There is a feeling among many sports fans that things should not be changed. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," is an unofficial sports anthem.
But the truth is that sports change all the time, sometimes intentionally, and done properly that can be tremendous.
Consider this chart:
ESPN.com Illustration/Mike Facciolo Stats/Basketball-Reference.com
Not long ago NBA games had four times as many free throws as 3s. Now they're almost equal.
If you watched an NBA game in 1990, not only did you see many more free throws than you'd see today, but you also didn't see anything like as many 3s.
The NBA's executive vice president for basketball operations, Stu Jackson, says that's in part because the league intentionally changed the game, most notably by moving away from the very physical defenses, and stagnant offenses, that ruled in the early 1990s. "We needed to give today's player a foundation to have success, and let them be able to showcase their real athletic ability and skill," he explains.
Jackson adds that the changes have worked, most notably by getting teams to run more exciting 5-man offenses with lots of movement, which leads to that chart, showing fewer free throws and more open 3s: "It's allowed them to get into the lane. It's a more exciting game. It's more team oriented. It's more passing. It's more open shots. It's been a positive."
The big changes were the allowance of zone defenses and a move away from hand-checking on the perimeter, which was once allowed but for the last decade has resulted in fouls being called. (That latter likely being the root of Michael Jordan's accusation that today's players are "coddled".)
But there also simply been a big change in team tactics ... now, 3s are revered by coaches and GMs alike, and the way trends are going, may soon outnumber free throws.
This is probably marvelous for fans, because a live-ball 3 is many times more thrilling than a dead-ball free throw. And a defense that's trying to prevent 3s is one that just might allow what fans like best -- highlight-style attacks at the rim.
The bigger point, though, is that change, even to a great product, can be good. And it can happen by intervention from above (a rule change) as well as by natural evolution (front offices seeking out and signing shooters).
And so long as the game is constantly changing, it makes sense for the powers that be to actively consider what might be done to guide things in the best possible direction, which is the HoopIdea school of thought in a nutshell. The game is not a piece of art to be preserved on a museum wall. It's a car cruising the freeway, encountering new obstacles and opportunities every day.
Hell yes, such a thing should be steered.
Things are changing off the court in a way that argues for a more fluid game, too. Until recently, the league got most of its money from local, ticket-buying fans whose main concern was seeing the home team do well. Now people watching on screens drive the lion's share of the revenues -- furthermore, whoever owns the most thrilling live on-screen entertainment on the planet stands to reap billions from paying digital subscribers around the globe. The NBA is in that conversation. David Stern mused at All-Star about fans the world over watching live NBA games by smartphone.
My guess is that many people would find it worthwhile to pay to watch NBA action on a tiny screen when the game's at its most exciting. When it's a boring free throw-laden slug-fest, however, the value shrinks tremendously.
Entertaining play is at more of a premium now than ever.
"That's what keeps us up at night in basketball operations," says Jackson. "To make sure the physicality doesn't regress to the way it was in the 1990s."
The game also has challenges today that barely registered a decade ago, like human growth hormone and concussions.
As the game rolls forward into the future, like that car cruising the freeway, a little course correction to keep things on track isn't out of line -- it's essential.