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To Fix The Knicks

Can Ernie Grunfeld Bring an NBA Championship back to New York?
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Demi Moore, Autumn 96

(continued from page 4)

It worries the NBA that point totals have gone down. In the 1985-1986 season, the average team in the league scored 110.2 points, compared with 99.5 this past season. Commissioner David Stern and other league executives have tried a little aesthetic engineering in recent years, hoping to sustain their ESPN highlight-reel brand of ball, including frequent dunks and primal screams. Run-and-gun basketball gets big TV rating numbers--even when it results in 4-0 sweeps like the 1995 finals between Orlando and Houston.

The changes--new rules against hand-checking to stop shoving and clawing on defense, and a closer three-point line to further increase offensive production--haven't pleased all people. "The average game has become boring," says career basketball man and Indiana Pacers coach Larry Brown. Houston center Hakeem Olajuwon doesn't appreciate all the changes, either. "People who really know the game appreciated the style of play in our series with New York," says Olajuwon. "You had to fight for every basket."

Following the New York-Houston finals--whose TV ratings were 20 percent lower than the 1993 finals--the league began to censor the kind of tough defensive play that the Knicks, and the "Bad Boy" Detroit Pistons before them, had been practicing. Thus, the hand-checking and three-point-line rules were put into place before the 1994-1995 season. Since it takes nine two-point goals to equal six three-pointers, the result was predictable for offenses around the league. Everyone was hoisting threes. (Just ask anyone who has coached Knicks guard John Starks.) In the first season following the new rule change, there were 33,877 three-point-shot attempts, 11,982 more than the previous year. This past season there were 37,255 attempts.

Grunfeld doesn't mind these changes. "The scoring has really dropped in the NBA in the last 10 years. There is more emphasis on defense. A lot of coaches feel that defense is constant, while shooting is there sometimes and sometimes not," he says. "Coaches do a great job of double-teaming, getting it out of the best players' hands. So the three-point line was moved in to increase the scoring and make it a little bit easier shot. If you pack it in in the middle, you have to pay a price with a closer three-pointer. And the intent was to try and open up the middle a little bit more to take advantage of the great ability of these great players in the NBA. I think the three-point shot is really an interesting part of the game. Because with a three-point shot, a team that is behind is never really out of it. For the most part it's worked pretty well."

But since the three-point line was moved in, the average score in the league has dropped from 101.4 to 99.5 points per game. So with more three-pointers being attempted, it seems there's less of a tendency to look for other, perhaps easier, ways to score.

In addition to trying to pump up the offense, the league has attempted to put an end to rim-swinging, chest-bumping, non-stop taunting and the in-your-face-disgrace behavior that had come to typify NBA contests. Such behavior will now get you whistled for a technical foul.

These problems have abated but are a long way from disappearing. If long-term contracts are supposed to result from achievement and winning, how do you control players who receive guaranteed multiyear contracts, sneaker commercials and other endorsements prior to setting foot on an NBA court? If the NBA system of signing players provides all its first-round draft picks with the sun, the moon and the stars, can the players be blamed for coming in with both hands out? Punk behavior naturally results from this attitude of entitlement. Then that behavior is positively reinforced by being shown on the evening news and ESPN highlight shows. Suddenly rudeness abounds.

Consider the following cases. Players on the 1994-1995 New Jersey Nets missed practice so often that coaches had to suit up just so the team would have 10 warm bodies for practice. The most frequent culprits were team "leaders" Derrick Coleman and Kenny Anderson, both of whom have since been dispatched to other teams. "It's just scary," says Cleveland Cavaliers general manager Wayne Embry. "We even have players missing practices and meetings to tape commercials. We have guys challenging coaches every day. That bothers me. Too many guys want to just go their own way."

Some of the media elevate players like Dennis Rodman to the realm of a seer or mystic because he is au courant enough to reject authority, dress in drag and head-butt referees--and disrupt his teams. No one batted an eye when Bulls marketing and broadcasting vice president Steve Schanwald recently described Rodman as a "genius." Why? Because he throws his jersey into the audience after every game.

No wonder Magic Johnson, 37 and trapped in the Generation-X gap, said of this past season, "I've been through more nonsense in this one year than in 12 years with my old squad." Want more of the same sentiment? Ring up a couple of guys named Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.

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