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Thursday, March 28, 2013
The origin of "no layups"

By Henry Abbott

Dean Oliver (pioneer of NBA advanced stats, author of the seminal book "Basketball on Paper," former member of the Nuggets brain trust and current Director of Production Analytics for ESPN Stats & Information) once had a website where he wrote about basketball.

So much smart stuff there. Including, way back in 2001, a succinct little history about the "no layups" rule that's a big topic in the NBA today. Where did that style of defense come from? Oliver writes:
At the latter end of the 1980s, word went around the NBA that the way to beat the Lakers was to beat them up, to "play them physically." Laker Coach Pat Riley resented it at the time and, when his team got beat in the Finals by a Detroit Pistons team employing the strategy, Riley remembered. After a year watching the NBA from the broadcast booth (and losing pop-a-shot competitions to Bob Costas), Riley came back to coach the New York Knicks in the 1991-1992 season. He came back determined to get vengeance.

Riley’s first season with the Knicks inspired a 12-game improvement in the team. Even more eye-catching to other coaches was what happened in the playoffs. The Knicks got nowhere close to beating the Bulls in 1991 in their first round series, losing 3-0. In 1992, under Riley’s changes (to be discussed), the Knicks beat the Pistons in the first round playing better bad-boy-ball than the Bad Boys themselves. They followed it up with a physical 7-game series loss to the eventual champion Bulls, battering the heroic Michael Jordan in the process.

Riley improved the Knicks through defense. He taught them to rotate quickly and he taught them to allow nothing easy. Riley saw the league getting more physical and he decided to push it. He espoused the infamous phrase, "No layups allowed." Numerically, the Knicks’ improvement from ’91 to ’92 was 1 point offensive and 3 points defensive; the Knicks’ offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) went from 105.4 to 106.4 and its defensive rating went from 105.6 to 102.3. They did it by fouling an extra 2 times per game and sending opponents to the line an extra 3 times per game. Their opponents shooting percentage went from 47.6% to 45.8%. Their opponents started taking more 3s because they were getting beat up or double-teamed down low. Riley figured that he wouldn’t get beat with jump shots.

And the league learned.

Oliver then goes on to explain that scoring efficiency in general suffered. 2-point field goal percentage had been steady for a long time, but began to plummet. He continues:
This decline could be the lack of mid-range jump shooters that we’ve heard about, but it appears to be the "No layups" rule. Recall back in the 1980s when teams would often have a guy like a Mark West or a Steve Johnson or a Buck Williams who just knew how to finish off after an offensive rebound. Remember when Dennis Rodman used to shoot nearly 60% doing the same thing. Then teams learned that he didn’t shoot foul shots very well and sent him to the line. Then he turned into a complete freak, but we digress. In the ‘91-92 season, Rodman shot 54% from the field, taking only 140 shots from the foul line. In the next season, Rodman shot 23 more foul shots (at 53%) in 1000 fewer minutes and his field goal percentage plummeted to 43%. Rodman was an extreme (there’s an understatement), but the league’s leading field goal percentage shooters showed a similar pattern.

So where we used to have exciting putbacks, athletic finishes around the rim, we instead got boring free throws, a slower game, dangerous plays, and lower scoring.

I understand why the Knicks, or other teams, would employ such tactics -- they want to win! What I don't understand why the league -- who have the duty to look out for player health and fan interest -- would, decades later, still reward such a tactic.