IT DID NOT take long for the Bulls to announce their plan to stop LeBron James. They would pummel him -- and pummel him repeatedly.
The nightmare that is guarding James was once fueled, in great part, by his freakish blend of speed, size, strength and supreme court awareness. These days, he's even better. He shoots 40 percent from three, boasts a tidy post game and is surrounded by elite shooters thrilled to make double-teamers pay. The results had been devastating -- after 27 straight victories, James' Heat were in Chicago, threatening the Lakers' record 33-game winning streak. On the sideline, ESPN broadcaster Jeff Van Gundy asked a question that was really the league's: How in the hell do you stop that guy?
In the first quarter, with the Heat down by 11, the Bulls offered their answer. As James stuck his back into the Bulls' young forward Jimmy Butler and put the ball on the floor, all five Bulls, all at once, headed James' way. James, in reply, pitched to Chris Bosh at the free throw line. Bosh had passing angles to open Heat shooters Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers and Ray Allen. The Bulls dispersed to cover them, leaving James alone with Butler again -- James' plan all along.
The ball came back to James. In a flash, he ditched Boozer with a dribble, attacking baseline, and elevated for the reverse. Tom Thibodeau, having sent five men to stop one, had no credible defensive options left.
There was, however, one non-credible option. The Bulls' Taj Gibson wasn't in good position to defend. He wasn't even within reach of the ball. The one thing he could reach, though, was James' head. So that's what he attacked, swinging an arm and connecting hard with James' temple. Not far from a haymaker, but with an NBA tweak, that being an open hand. Keep the hand open and it's not technically a punch; the worst penalties are avoided. Bonus of the open hand: It allowed Gibson to grab James' forehead and yank it back.
Before the game, Thibodeau had promised a "cage match." His player had delivered. Others would too. In the same game, James would be hauled to the ground at high speed by Kirk Hinrich, hit in the head or neck three times by Gibson and slammed in the face by Nate Robinson. Even a fan got into the act, bopping James on the head while he was heading to the locker room following the Miami loss.
Make no mistake, tackle basketball is a tactic. To watch every foul drawn by James, Kevin Durant, Tony Parker and others is to see one terrifying collision after another. It's also to understand why Chris Paul scarcely drives in the regular season. Why James and Kobe Bryant recently made public appeals about dirty defense. Why Derrick Rose hesitated to return. Beat your man off the dribble in a pickup game, expect a highlight. Beat your man off the dribble in a playoff game, expect a hurting.
THERE'S ONE BIG problem with tackle basketball. It works. (That Bulls game, the "cage match"? It was, of course, the game that ended the Heat's streak.) And those at league headquarters live in fear of an escalation in bully ball. "That's what keeps all of us in basketball operations up at night," says NBA VP Stu Jackson. "To make sure that the physicality in the game doesn't regress back to the way it was, say, in the 1990s."
The NBA is a league that once wobbled when Kermit Washington shattered Rudy Tomjanovich's face in 1977 -- and again when Pistons bullies won two rings, ushering in a no-layups era. The last thing David Stern wants at the end of his watch is for his league to revive something he's spent decades eradicating, the fouls he called "ludicrous" in the Hack-a-Shaq era. "[Our players] are appreciated for their talents, their artistry," Stern told Utah's Root Sports recently when asked to rate his tenure. "And to me, that's overall the most important thing that I've done." In other words, if James is in the air on the way to the rim, the NBA would prefer a block or artistic dunk to a clobbering. And it's not just aesthetics. Tackle basketball is bad for business.
Dollarwise, the NBA's most important audience has changed. According to league officials, total ticket sales once dwarfed TV revenue, but that has since reversed. And this has implications: For years the biggest concern of the NBA's customers -- the hometown fans -- was seeing the home team win. Gibson's by-any-means-necessary stop once thrilled them. But now what those fans -- those national fans -- want is what only the NBA can offer: athletes doing breathtaking things in the air. Contesting and getting a block is fantastic. Mauling the guy when the game is about to get good is no fun for anyone.
But what's a league to do when its business interests are in direct conflict with a team's interests?
COACHES COOKED UP the no-layups rule based on gut feelings: Put him on the ground and he'll think twice about coming back in here. But now that quants are digging in, they're learning it's brilliant strategy.
It starts with realizing that not every play is created equal, and in the halfcourt, the most valuable ones are the ones in which somebody drives. SportVu, a company with unprecedented NBA player movement data captured by cameras arrayed around the court, finds that a typical NBA possession is worth about a point. Drive into the paint, though, and SportVu says you can expect 1.22 points on average.
A 22 percent bump is more than enough to determine a winner all by itself -- drive often and you'll probably win. But what has the Thibodeaus of the world freaked out about James, in particular, is that his drives are triple strength. Instead of 1.22, James' drives are worth 1.68 points each. Thus, sending James to the line, where you'd expect 1.5 points (he's a 75 percent free throw shooter), is worth it. But there's another reason for the hard foul. It just might keep James, and others like him, from returning to the lane any time soon.
James scoffs at the notion. "No," he says emphatically, adding he's "a football player ... I can't worry about what may happen. I live in the moment. I'm an attack player. I don't really make my mark on the perimeter."
But recent research from Microsoft's Justin Rao and UCSD's Matt Goldman suggests he might be wrong. NBA players, the two have found, behave differently when their teams trail. (See chart on page 30.) "Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron are both great examples," Rao says. "The more important the point, the more they're putting their bodies on the line. Let's say you're the coach and you know LeBron can take contact and score every time down the court. But do you go to the huddle and say, 'We have 100 possessions. LeBron, I'd like you to get hit in the face 100 times'?"
Their conclusion is that stars know to mete out their drives, taking punishment only when necessary. Rao's confirmation came from charting fouls in Lakers games. His discovery? When a guard like Bryant gets fouled at the rim, his next drive was delayed.
Meanwhile, Kirk Goldsberry and Eric Weiss, experts in NBA analytics and scouting, have revealed Dwight Howard to be the best interior defender in the league. Howard's key skill isn't blocking shots or forcing misses. Others like Milwaukee's Larry Sanders do that better. Howard's skill is deterring close shots in the first place, intimidating opponents into taking only 48.2 percent of their shots at the rim, the lowest of any player. (Sanders' is 61.9 percent.) The threat of Howard trumps the reality of Sanders.
So what's a league to do? Jackson says the NBA is "constantly observing the data to make sure the indicators don't indicate the game's getting too physical." If so, the NBA could always change the math of fouling, giving fouled teams the option of free throws or the ball, or a free throw and the ball. That would lower the efficacy of blocking James' head rather than his dunk. Until then, they'll pray that bully ball claims no more injury victims in the postseason, as it has in recent years in the forms of Rajon Rondo and David Lee.
And that, rest assured, would most definitely keep Stu Jackson and David Stern up at night.