Crafting the Perfect Game?: A History of NBA Rules Changes

I was once part of a "church league" team where my dad was the head coach, as he frequently was. We would travel around the Pittsburgh area, playing a variety of teams in suburban towns and urban neighborhoods I’d otherwise never visit. It was a great basketball and social development experience.

More vividly than any other team we played that year, I remember the Jewish Community Center of Squirrel Hill. We had a home and home series. Our first game was in their beautiful gym and we got shellacked. They basically played five guards who passed, cut, and shot our bigger team into oblivion. To keep it Old Testament, there was no more frustrating feeling than realizing you were just Goliath beaten (badly) by David. The second game, we played them at home towards the end of our regular season. Now we put on the beating. I remember one of our players dunking, their coach being thrown out of the game for claiming basket interference on the play, then realizing it was totally over. We played "our game" that night.

My dad talked about us being the “NBA style” team in our league. He elaborated to explain he meant that we played tough man-to-man half court defense in a league filled with other teams pressing and/or playing zone, as well our offense being based around low post play instead of endless backdoor cuts. We relied on athleticism and quick hands, and it wouldn’t have worked very well if we had a smaller or less talented line up. But when it worked, it was beautiful.

But what would an “NBA style” team mean now? The dawning of a new millennium also brought us a new set of NBA rules – some of the more radical changes we’ve had. About ten years in, where are we? What have the effect of these rules changes been?

Let’s first look at one part of the history of the league before the rules changes. Here's one way to conceive it:

NBA Champion Hall of Fame centers by year since Bill Russell:
1957, 1959-66, 1968-69 – Bill Russell
1958 – Bob Petit (hybrid F/C)
1967, 1972 – Wilt Chamberlain
1970 – Willis Reed
1971, 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987-88 – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
1974, 1976 – Dave Cowens
1977 – Bill Walton
1978 – Elvin Hayes (hybrid)
1979 – Wes Unseld (hybrid)
1983 – Moses Malone
1981, 1984, 1986 – Robert Parish
1994-95 - Hakeem Olajuwon
1999 - David Robinson
2000-2002 – Shaquille O’Neal (pending)
That’s 37 Hall of Fame center-championships in 45 years: over 80% of the teams. It might be even higher if you go back to George Mikan and earlier years, but I wanted to draw the line somewhere.

The nine exceptions were a Rick Barry underdog team, the six Jordan championships, and two Detroit bad boy teams who used three guard rotations to help mask their lack of a true center (though an aging James Edwards did become an important contributor.)

Since the 2001 rules changes the champion centers have been: Shaq (“The Big Exception”?), Ben Wallace, David Robinson, Tim Duncan (a "new model" hybrid PF/C), Kendrick Perkins, Andrew Bynum – and this year’s championship winning center will be Joel Anthony or Tyson Chandler. Still a talented group – but even if you include Duncan as a center, that’s probably three NBA Hall of Fame players out of seven guys, a big reduction from the pre-rule change era. I mean no offense to the defensive-minded Anthony or the smart and effective Tyson Chandler, but neither guy is going to be compared to Kareem any time soon. I will stipulate Chandler is a lot better than Will “Vanderbilt” Perdue ever was though.

Player Utility Has Been Affected by Rule Changes

Having a very auditory memory, I remember exactly where I was when I heard the NBA announced that it would allow zone defenses. I was listening to my car’s radio while driving in eastern Missouri, traveling from St. Louis to Hannibal (the town where everything from auto body shops to cement mixing plants were named after Mark Twain, or as Shaq might call him, “The Big Author.")

The first player to be interviewed on the radio show I was listening to was indeed Shaq. He gave a little statement that reminded me of how media savvy he was. He said - and I’m only summarizing, albeit from a vivid memory, “This is a bad idea. People don’t want to watch guys stand around the arc and shoot jump shots. They tune in to watch Steve Nash take it to the hole.”

I thought it was smart that Shaq used a legitimate (white) All Star – an “unselfish player with fundamentals” – to make his point. But I bet deep down what Shaq feared is what we are learning since then – the rules changes made it easier to quickly double team dominating centers from either the strong or weak side. Maybe Shaq has a soft spot for Steve Nash, but it's more likely he realized he’d have a harder time getting as far under the basket.

And to make matters worse for players like Shaq, the league specifically carved out one type of zone that isn’t allowed: where you can camp a center out under the basket not guarding anyone in the key, limiting his shot blocking chances under such a scheme. “Could they make it any more blatantly anti-seven-footer?” I thought.

The defensive three seconds rule almost forces teams to move to a 3-2 zone, or a modified 2-3 with much more motion than, say, Syracuse’s 2-3. The 1-3-1 would almost be impossible due to the defensive three seconds rule. Allowing limited zones has created some more diversity in defense and offensive responses to it, but not as much as we might have imagined in 2001.

But obviously this wasn’t the first rules change to impact a specific class of players negatively. Mikan and Wilt both had the lane widened to move them out. I’m sure Charles Barkley and Mark Jackson were both smart enough to realize when they had a rule named after them (I’ve heard the five second back-to-the-basket rule called “The Mark Jackson rule” and “The Charles Barkley rule”), it means someone was trying to make them less effective. Shaq must have known this, too, although it didn't stop him from remaining the best big man in the game for several more seasons. Reggie Miller was even on record saying he opposed the shortened three point line because it’d create a lot of “fake” Reggie Millers, implying it would make his longer distance sharp shooting less valuable.

And so it goes. But it is worth noting, a lot of the general direction in the entire history of the league has been to shift benefits to the smaller players, going all the way back to widening the lane to stop Mikan.

Teams Have Been Affected by Rule Changes

So who has benefited other than attacking guards? Well, I’d argue the Dallas Mavericks for one, but because of the other side of the ball.

The Mavs are the only team to make a championship series (actually two now) since 2002 at or near the top of the league in "zone usage percentage." Indeed, this year in the NBA, no team used zone on more possessions than the Mavs. I think you could make a strong case they wouldn’t even be in these finals without being allowed to play zone. Likewise, when they played “Nellyball,” could they have afforded to have Dirk play an almost unguardable 5 without the option of going to zone?

Dwight Howard, the best center in the league, has a team built around the fact that teams can so quickly collapse on him. At times, it seems the Orlando Magic’s line-up has been “Howard and four guys who shoot 3’s” – and even that didn’t work well enough for him to will them to a championship. Granted, there are always several factors at play, but teams that have at least some zone in their arsenal as a change of pace are now not an odd ball in the playoffs. What makes the Mavericks the outlier is just the percentage of time they are willing to deploy it.

Can you craft the game? Clearly yes. Should you? Well… how can you avoid it? After all, what are the “natural” rules of basketball? Hopefully not the original ones.

So if any rules change in a way creates a benefit to some players, takes away benefits from others, you’d guess that generally rules changes will be driven by what helps television-friendly players. Granted, that may be complicated since there isn’t a hard and fast rule about what singular type of player is a fan favorite.

How I Formerly Viewed the 2000-2002 Rule Changes and Why I Was Probably as Wrong as Everyone Else

I thought the NBA was pushing hard to strengthen a certain style of play that would differentiate themselves from college basketball and put the emphasis on stars. By limiting the ability of post men, they'd encourage other players to drive it to the hole for a SportsCenter-friendly finish. Or if the driving player or center is doubled, they kick it out to the three point line, which I theorized is David Stern's strategy for establishing the perfect spot for imported players from Latin America and Europe... thus ensuring the league wouldn't be entirely African-American dominated league while broadening its international appeal. I felt like they were balancing the “playground style” (in opposition to college basketball) the league had been championing for years, highlighting individual players through match-ups and mismatches with improved three point shooting. This hybrid of playground and international styles would have global appeal.

After all, scoring had dropped. From 1986-1996, the league had a ten year period in which teams averaged about 108 points per game. Shots per game still weren’t as high as they were in, say, the 1960s, but shortening the three point line hid the “problem” for a few years. By 2001 scoring was all the way down to 103 points per game and Magic Johnson running a fast break team to a title was an old memory.

For fans like my dad who grew up with a Wilt Chamberlain team that scored 125.4 points per game and gave up 122.7 (even without a three point line; they might have been able to score 140 a game if one existed), this was a new “boring” era of a lot of Detroit Bad Boy wannabes, endlessly fouling and playing tough half court defense in a slowed-down game.

But then I got confused – by allowing more formerly “illegal” defense, the league might slow the game and scoring down even more! So for years, I didn’t understand this missing part of the story: why would the NBA make the game even possibly lower scoring by dropping the illegal defense rules? I needed to look back at what people of importance were saying in 2001.

Two interviews - one with Stu Jackson, the other with Rudy Tomjanovich - disclose what I once might have considered a conspiratorial spin-doctoring in message but what I now think was more likely real naïveté. The idea was that if the rules allowed more help defense and zone, teams would be so afraid of half court offense that they would rush to get into fast break situations and this would encourage the old-school style fast-paced games that are so fun to watch. There was also a theory that going to an 8 second half court would encourage teams to full court press and thereby encourage offenses to respond with wide open play. Additionally, I think the league imagined they could balance out a tougher half court set by toughening up on hand checking, reducing the half court penalty while still encouraging a run and gun style.

An astute student of the game, Pat Riley (incorrectly) predicted in that New York Times story linked above: ''Fans like to see Vince Carter play one on one outside. That stuff is going to be history. Isolation basketball has been part of the game ever since I've been in it.'' I wonder what Riley would say about that 2001 quote now, especially after he spent significant amounts of money buying a proprietary advanced stats system for the Heat that specifically breaks down how to guard players coming off the pick and roll.

Meanwhile, according to that article's author, Mike Wise, “Other coaches like George Karl and Phil Jackson - weary of the increased focus on defense and the plodding half court sets that have led to the game's stagnation” embraced the changes.

The interesting thing is Karl, Jackson, Riley, and about everyone else made the argument that their view would be the best for offense. There's no debate about whether offensively “exciting” basketball (be it in the form of the fast break, quick passing, or isos) is the wrong goal. It was just that everyone had different views of how to get there. Professional basketball seems to lack the narrative that “I just love to watch great defense!” that sometimes frames professional football (or, at least that’s what people frequently say here in Pittsburgh).

Some other players made predictions that really made little sense in reaction. "It will mess the game up," Damon Stoudamire said to Wise. "I'm not a big advocate of zone defense. That's the reason why players leave college. You're going to put a box-and-one on Vince Carter? Fans are paying money to see these games. You can't just take away what has essentially made the N.B.A. what it is: one-on-one basketball." It's interesting how Carter was so frequently the reference point for the "pure" play ground style, even if that style was only allowed by making certain defenses illegal by definition.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a box-and-one in the NBA in these 10 years. Arguably, Vince Carter extended his career thanks to these rules changes, now that he's partially a three point specialist.

Another quote from the Times is telling:
''A typical Houston set is giving one guy the ball and sending everyone else away from him,'' Jerry Colangelo (head of the rules committee) said. ''Hardly anyone else is even involved. It's not the lack of ball movement. People wonder whatever happened to the lost art of offensive rebounding. Players are no longer in position to rebound because of some of these sets… Everyone knows we have a problem, but no one has come up with anything better. If this thing doesn't pass, then that's it. We're not going back again.''
How it Really Turned Out

If we take the league at its word for its goals, I don’t think there is evidence that we see a faster paced game with more passing and less iso’s. But the Pat Riley fears of 73-64 games and the death of isos surely didn’t happen either.

My conclusion is there was a more nuanced effect. On the big picture, teams today still rarely if ever full court press. Fast-break teams still frequently find their own pace a liability in a slowed down playoffs. Other than a few teams like the Kings, Nets, and Wizards dedicate themselves to an NBA version of the Princeton offense or other motion offenses that haven't spread widely. Basically, what the league tried to engineer didn’t really happen.

And the isolations not only remained, but flourished, now as common as ever in the ubiquitous high pick and role game. The "otherwise kind of awful player who can only shoot 3s" is now somewhat valuable with the return to the deeper three point line, and the ability of defenses to pack the paint. The 1960s style of offensive rebounding didn’t make a big comeback.

And what about that question about if the league really wanted to reduce isos, or if they’re happy it ushered in the era of the guard and half-close the book on the era of the dominant center? Now I guess the answer may be "both."

The league can claim to one group of fans that they tried to create the unselfish pass-friendly offenses that feature spacing (often college basketball fans) and claim to another group of fans that the league is still dominated by great individual finishers (like Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose) who take it to the hoop one-on-one. They can have their cake and eat it too. Teams can play zone, but most of the time they don’t. And the liberated help defense is canceled out by changes to hand checking rules that encourage even more spectacular takes to the basket.

And maybe this is why we haven’t seen major rules changes the last seven years. It’s a media-friendly product and generally “balanced.” No one is “game genie-ing” the NBA by having Charles Barkley back down for 15 seconds as defenders are forced to stand around and watch because of archaic defensive rules. Most of the focus on rules now is about “flopping”, and I don’t even remember the last time I heard a commentator mention frustration with zone or hand checking rules.

As for me? How would I craft the perfect game? I think the only way I’ll see basketball at my ideal pace is if they shorten the shot clock to 12 seconds. I’m not losing any sleep over it. And I’m glad I’m not in charge of the rules committee.


A History of Zone/illegal defense related rules changes

  • Zone defenses outlawed on January 11, 1947 (Harry Truman said it would be a date that lived in infamy. Okay, not true).
  • The following language was added to the Zone Defense Rule: "After the offensive team has advanced the ball to its front court, a defensive player may not station himself in the key area longer than three seconds if it is apparent he is making no effort to play an opponent. The three second count starts when the offensive team is in clear control in the front court."
  • Zone defense rules clarified with new rules for Illegal Defensive Alignments.
a. Weak side defenders may come in the pro lane (16’), but not in the college lane (12’) for more than three seconds.
b. Defender on post player is allowed in defensive three-second area (A post player is any player adjacent to paint area).

c. Player without ball may not be double-teamed from weak side.

d. Offensive player above foul line and inside circle must be played by defender inside dotted line.

e. If offensive player is above the top of the circle, defender must come to a position above foul line.

f. Defender on cutter must follow the cutter, switch, or double-team the ball.
  • After the first illegal defense violation, the clock is reset to 24 seconds. All subsequent violations result in one free throw and possession of the ball. If any violation occurs during the last 24 seconds of each quarter or overtime period, the offended team receives one free throw.
  • No illegal defense violation may occur when the ball is in the backcourt.
  • On the strongside, any defense is legal
  • On the weakside, defenders must remain on the weakside outside the paint unless (i) they are double-teaming the ball, (ii) picking up a free cutter or (iii) closely guarding an offensive player
  • Illegal defense guidelines will be eliminated in their entirety.
  • A new defensive three-second rule will prohibit a defensive player from remaining in the lane for more than three consecutive seconds without closely guarding an offensive player.
  • The time that a team has to advance the ball past midcourt will be reduced from ten seconds to eight.
History of "freedom of movement" rules

  • Clarification added to prohibit hand-checking through “rigid enforcement” of rule allowing a defensive player to retain contact with his opponent so long as he does not impede his opponent’s progress.
  • The “no-charge area,” formerly a two-by-six foot box where an offensive foul is not called if contact is made with a secondary defensive player who has established a defensive position, will be expanded to the area consisting of a half circle with a four-foot radius measured from the middle of the goal.
  • In the backcourt, there is no contact with hands and forearms by defenders. In the frontcourt, there is no contact with hands and forearms by defenders except below the free throw line extended in which case the defender may only use his forearm. In the post, neither the offensive player nor the defender is allowed to dislodge or displace a player who has legally obtained a position. Defender may not use his forearm, shoulder, hip or hand to reroute or hold-up an offensive player going from point A to point B or one who is attempting to come around a legal screen set by another offensive player. Slowing or impeding the progress of the screener by grabbing, clutching, holding “chucking” or “wrapping up” is prohibited.
  • The official(s) will visually commence a five-second count if an offensive player with the ball and not facing-up starts dribbling below the free throw line extended while being closely guarded; or if he starts dribbling outside and then penetrates below the free throw line extended while being closely guarded. The five-second count commences when the offensive player penetrates the free throw line extended. The penalty is the offensive team’s loss of possession of the ball.
  • Any defense is legal on the strong side. Defenders must remain on the weak side outside the paint unless they are double-teaming the ball, picking up a free cutter or closely guarding an offensive player.
  • No contact with either hands or forearms by defenders except in the frontcourt below the free throw line extended in which case the defender may use his forearm only.
  • Neither the offensive player nor the defender will be allowed to dislodge or displace a player who has legally obtained a position.
  • Defender may not use his forearm, shoulder, hip or hand to reroute or hold-up an offensive player going from point A to Point B or one who is attempting to come around a legal screen set by another offensive player.
  • Slowing or impeding the progress of the screener by grabbing, clutching, holding “chucking” or “wrapping up” is prohibited.
  • A five-second count will begin if an offensive player with the ball and not facing-up starts dribbling below the free throw line extended while being closely guarded or starts dribbling outside and then penetrates below the free throw line extended while being closely guarded. (The five-second count commences when the offensive player penetrates the free throw line extended). After five seconds, a violation will have occurred and the offensive team will lose possession.
  • Brief contact initiated by a defensive player will be allowed if it does not impede the progress of the player with the ball.
  • New rules were introduced to curtail hand-checking, clarify blocking fouls and call defensive three seconds to “open up the game.”
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Anonymous said...

lebron traveled!

m.c. said...

great postin'.

Kelly said...

NBA nicknames for Mark Twain:

Anonymous said...

great post chris, though Shaq would definitely dub Twain "the Big Satirist" or "the Big Yarn-Spinner"

Anonymous said...

The Animal from Hannibal

Anonymous said...

The Big Steamboat

Anonymous said...

trying to figure out a way to make a "Connecticut Sun in King Lebron's Court" joke...

Kelly said...

Now that he's retired, Shaq can concentrate on reading the forthcoming Negative Dunkalectics movie script that features him traveling through time with Mark Twain.

They'll solve mysteries, prospect for gold, diss Utah, whitewash fences, have lecture tours, undergo booms and busts, rewrite scriptures, and create rap albums.

Tim said...

Can't wait for Shaq-Barkley post games. You know it's gotta happen.

Speaking of the 12 second shot clock, it's funny how the biggest, best rule change ever, the shot clock, was arrived at in such a simple, almost pseudo-scientific way. No point I guess.

Anyways in the future none of this will matter because basketball because plays will be eliminated and the sport will be a cerebral combination of drama and debate where you just argue your complaint to an inconsistent man in a striped shirt who awards free shots to the person with the most convincing expression of pain.

m.c. said...

except that arguing your case to the refs has already been outlawed if you show any emotion!

Yago Colás said...

Great post! I'm gonna add this to the Cultures of Basketball syllabus for the Fall semester.

Anonymous said...

Why aren't Robinson & Duncan on the list of NBA Champion HoF centers, pre-rule change? The Spurs won in '99. Are you thinking Robinson won't make the HoF, or are you discounting the '99 season?


Anonymous said...

That’s 36 Hall of Fame centers on championship teams in 45 years: 80% of the teams.

Well, no. That's 13, including 3 that you admit are hybrids. 15 of those championships -- more than 40% -- went to two of those centers. It doesn't seem to me like an era where big men, as a generalized term, dominated. It looks like an era where Russell dominated, followed by an era where Jabbar dominated, with a smattering of other notable big men who won the championship with the aid of their (usually better) teammates scattered amongst them. I mean, Parrish wasn't even the second best guy on his championship teams!

Meanwhile, in the years since the rule change, we've had multiple Shaq championships, multiple Duncan championships (if you count Unseld and Petit, you have to count Duncan unequivocally), a Garnet championship, a weird Pistons championship, and a couple of Lakers championships where they relied extensively on the not-quite-HoF-level-but-nevertheless-traditional-center play of Andrew Bynum.
This looks for all the world like the list of pre-2002 winners.

So I guess I don't think that the point you're trying to make is supported by the evidence you cite.


Anonymous said...

C.S., I added Robinson for 1999. Thanks for the catch on that; I wrote this quickly. I also changed how I worded the pre-2001 part in response to what you wrote.

However, on your second comment, I would argue that "It looks like an era where Russell dominated, followed by an era where Jabbar dominated" is helping to make my point. Mikan, Wilt, Russell, Kareem -- these guys dominated the NBA for decades. Do we see any post player now who fits that description? Do you see any coming out of college who you think will? I don't.

If you're not convinced, another way to view it is the percentage of points scored in games by centers. I'll try to find the numbers on that after the weekend, but I've seen a blurb on it before about how the scoring of centers has decreased compared to league history. Likewise, you could make an argument even the power forward position has changed to be European-style 4 since then.

For what it's worth, I do agree Robert Parrish was the third best Celtic of the 1985 era team. Very durable and good player becuase of how he could run the floor and hit that baseline jumper, but he never made the all-NBA first team.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I'm helping make your point, unless I misunderstand your point. It appears that you're starting by taking "NBA Championships" as a standard for "dominance." Which, fine, I'll go with. But you've got two really notable outliers on the list --- Kareem and Russell. You can't really add Wilt because by the metric you've chosen -- championships -- there have been three dominant big men since the rule changes with more championships: Shaq, Robinson, and Duncan (yeah, they played on the same team, I know). Moreover, it wasn't guys like Russell and Kareem who dominated "for decades." It was just Russell and Kareem, one decade apiece (and I'm not really ready to concede that Kareem was the dominant force on the 80s Lakers, but I'll live with it). Shaq and Robinson/Duncan dominated a decade as well, mostly since the rules change.

Here's my point . . . in the two decades before the rules changes, one of them was dominated by a big man supported by arguably the best supporting cast ever assembled, to the point where he might not have been the best player on his own team (Magic, anyone?). The other was dominated by Michael Jordan (with a brief respite for two Olajuwon-led Rockets teams). Following Jordan's dominance - and straddling the rules change - we've seen a decade of dominance . . . by big men who play a hell of a lot like Kareem and Russell. Four Shaq championships, four for Robinson/Duncan. Even the last two championship teams featured a traditional-style big man in Bynum, who served basically the role on his team that Parrish served on his.

So while I could be convinced that the rule changes led to a different kind of player becoming "dominant" in the league, I don't think that this is the right metric to make that argument.


Michael said...

I don't see how you can not include the 1980s Celtics in the list of teams with influential/dominant post players. Even if you want to say Parish wasn't a dominant force (which is an argument) McHale played his share of Center, and even at the 4 he was a 6'11" guy who played exclusively in the post--unlike, say, Garnett or Sheed in a later era whose value was often in their ability to spread the floor. The essay's opening section is about defining an "NBA style," so I think it's fair to say those 80s celtics teams were stylistically centered on post play rather than dribble penetration or pick and pops.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. When I think of the 1986 era Celtics (don't really remember the pre-McHale version) definitive play, it was Bird coming around a McHale screen to get the ball the elbow. Then he'd immediately look to dump it back to McHale in the post if the jump shot wasn't there for him.

Anonymous said...

duncan is a center. bynum is definitely a center, and gasol is damn near one--certainly more so than the big e

the mavericks aren't playing a box & 1, but they do seem to have two guys in help any time he catches below the foul line

shaq's comment is an odd one, as nash's bogus mvps came from mostly pick and pops with stoudemire or kicking the ball out for 3s--guys shooting jumpshots

Anonymous said...


says a lot about me, i guess

Anonymous said...

'50s - Mikan
'60s - Wilt
'70s - Jabbar
'80s- Magic/Byrd
'90s - Jordan
'00s - Duncan/Shaq
'10s - Lebron

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