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8 Upper

Zone of Contention

By Tom Scocca | Posted 4/18/2001

Far be it from me to question the judgment of the folks who write the National Basketball Association rule book. Sure, there was that odd little episode with the three-point line--pulling it in from 23-foot-9 to 22 feet back in 1994, then pushing it back out again three years later. And there was that whole hand-check business, and that no-charging-foul zone right under the basket, of which I still haven't quite seen the benefit. Still, these people spend more time studying the workings of the pro game than I do. They must have their reasons.

But on April 12, when the league voted to eliminate the illegal-defense rules for next season, they came out and said what their reasons were. The purpose, Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo told the Associated Press, was to restore "fluidity" to the game. There you have it: To improve the flow of play, they legalized zone defense.

This is almost exactly as if Major League Baseball, hoping to bring down skyrocketing slugging numbers, legalized aluminum bats. Zone defense makes it harder for the other team to score; that's why they passed rules against it in the first place. Without mandated man-to-man D, teams playing the Lakers will simply drape three players on Shaquille O'Neal and send the other two after Kobe Bryant. Teams playing the 76ers will put five guys on Allen Iverson.

This is, to the NBA, an improvement over the current situation, in which Iverson's four teammates scoot away from the play, drawing their defenders with them, thus freeing the NBA's leading scorer to attack one-on-one. And why is it a problem to set Iverson up to work his ankle-breaking magic? Well, substitute Jerry Stackhouse in the same situation and you begin to think the league may have a point.

But as I said after the All-Star game (8 Upper, Feb. 14), the real way to end the isolation-basketball fad is to flood the floor with talent. Which brings up the other piece of radical NBA news: the planned move of the Vancouver Grizzlies to Memphis, Tenn. Six years after their debut, the Grizzlies have determined that pro hoops can't work in British Columbia and are angling to relocate to a $200 million arena in the Bluff City--possibly changing their name to the Express, thereby giving Memphis-based FedEx its biggest promotional tie-in since Cast Away.

The baffling part is why FedEx or the citizens of Memphis would want to pony up for a piece of the Grizzlies. In their six years, the Grizz have managed to acquire one decent player, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, who might be the eighth- or ninth-best forward in the Western Conference. The team is no good. It has never been any good. There is no reason, in a 29-team league, to think it will ever be any good. The only place it should move is into oblivion. Let Abdur-Rahim go to some other team, where his talents might help win more than 22 games.

Nor is Abdur-Rahim alone in his suffering. "I can't do this for four or five more years," Antawn Jamison announced this month, as his Golden State Warriors headed past the 60-loss mark. "I'll go crazy."

If the NBA is ready to do something as radical as legalizing the zone, why not go after the real root of its problems? There are too many teams, with talent spread too thinly among them. The last three rounds of expansion have turned out to be a zero-sum game: For every new franchise that's got a toehold, there's an old franchise in free fall. Time to cull the herd.

I proposed this before, after the '98 lockout, and nothing has happened since to change my view. The only question is how many teams to kill, and which ones. The Minnesota Timberwolves are new, but they've been pretty good lately. The L.A. Clippers have been around a while, but they've stunk forever.

So I tried to come up with a way to measure how much each team deserves to live, based on both its history and present circumstances. For the former, I took the number of years a team has been in its present city, plus two points for each NBA championship. The Celtics score a league-leading 87; the Grizzlies get 6. I then multiplied that number by each team's winning percentage over the last three years--actually, by the winning percentage squared, which seemed to balance past and present better.

The Grizzlies, not surprisingly, were the worst, with a Naismith-Kervorkian number of 0.36. The Lakers topped the chart at 33.54. I began to feel confident about the method when the Denver Nuggets (longish history, lousy at present) and the Sacramento Kings (shortish history, very good at present) checked in at 5.86 and 5.57 respectively.

So who should follow the Grizzlies into Anderson Packers-land? the Clippers (1.11) and the Raptors (1.78). Next come the Bulls at 1.94 (six titles is no match for three years of .203 ball), then the Warriors, Nets, and Wizards. That would trim the NBA to 22 teams, and--after the Antawn Jamisons and Richard Hamiltons land in better jobs--it would put the league's 84 worst players out of work.

Even atrocious teams--except maybe the Wizards--have their defenders. But what are they defending? The Clippers, for instance, are supposed to be having an unusually good year. Thanks to a draft strategy that focused on talented teenagers, they have a nucleus of young players who are only two or three years away from being legitimate stars. Which is, one might note, the definition of a well-run minor-league team.

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