I'm a Basketball Fan, That's Why I Don't Like the NBA

Matt Yglesias has a fairly silly article denouncing the NCAA as a "celebration of mediocrity." Jason Zengerle takes issue with this, and provides a nice explanation of why college basketball is superior to the NBA on emotional grounds (and let me just note how happy I am to see our leading political magazines writing about something interesting for a change...). I prefer to take a different approach: in my opinion, what they play in the NBA is a bastardized and degenerate form of basketball, while the college game is closer to the true form of the game. I'll expand on this below the fold.

The one incontestable point of Matt's argument has to do with the talent level in college versus the professional game. There's no denying that NBA players are better athletes than college basketball players. Not only does the NBA collect the best athletes from college and elsewhere, the players are also generally older, and have more physical development than the younger, often not quite mature players in college. I was a much better player at 23 than I was at 18, despite the fact that I played much more basketball when I was a teeneger than when I was in my early twenties-- it was purely a matter of physical development.

He goes badly astray, though, when he tries to talk about the actual playing of the game:

Consequently, the college game bears only a faint resemblance to the real thing. The dominant big men who can transform a pro game are entirely absent. Strength, speed, quickness, and athleticism are radically diminished, and the quality of the defense is consequently laughable. Yet, despite the poor defense, virtually nobody in the college game has what it takes to penetrate into the lane and make a strong move to the hoop. So the rules need to be altered -- a 35-second shot clock instead of the proper 24 and a short three-point line -- to give the offense some hope. Consequently, players dribble in circles and pass, pass, pass around the horn endlessly, taking advantage of defenders who lack the quickness to snatch the ball. Eventually, someone will wind up open and fire off a shot -- which more often than not they miss anyway. At the pro level, this is called "settling for jump shots" and it's distinctly frowned upon. You take jumpers as a last resort, when you can't make it into the paint, or else you do it as a threat -- and you'd better nail them -- forcing teams to defend you on the perimeter in order to open up the inside game.

Calling NBA basketball "the real thing" is a travesty-- if anything, what he lays out here is an argument for the superiority of the college game. The aspects of the NBA game that Matt rates so highly are a perversion of real basketball. The college game is by no means perfect, but it comes closer to the ideal than the NBA.

The fundamental point that Matt misses is that basketball is a team game. The fact that not every play in a college game involves somebody dribbling into the lane and "mak[ing] a strong move to the hoop" is a feature, not a bug. The game of basketball is not supposed to be an individual showcase, five loosely connected games of one-on-one. It's about a team, working together as a unit to defeat their opponents.

The rules differences Matt cites are things that the NBA introduced to make it more of a one-on-one game-- the "proper" 24-second shot clock was introduced in 1954, sixty years after the game's invention, and the three-point line didn't come about until the late 1970's. The shot clock and three-point line only trickled down to the college game in the mid-80's (granted, this is Matt's whole lifetime, but some of us remember the game before the shot clock and three-point line). In addition to those, there are also the defensive rules, which heavily restrict the ability of defensive players to help their teammates. The cumulative effect of these rules is to make the NBA game a loosely connected set of one-on-one games-- there isn't much time to pass the ball around and find an open shot, so whoever gets the ball pretty much has to do their own thing. Which means endless drives to the basket, or big centers backing guys down under the basket. Neither of those is real basketball.

If you want to see real basketball played well, look up some old Princeton games-- the clinic they put on against Georgetown in 1989, for example, or their tournament win over UCLA in the mid-90's. When you get five guys passing and cutting and moving without the ball, it's a thing of beauty, and more often than not, ends up with somebody getting a good close-in shot. Or check out the great Duke teams of the Laettner/Hurley era, or Roy Williams's best Kansas teams-- even last year's UNC team was a pleasure to watch (aside from Rashad McCants, who was a gunner), and Illinois last year was suprisingly good for a Big Ten team. Georgetown this year runs a pretty good Princeton set every now and again, and when they're on, it's devastating (you may be able to see it at 9:40 tomorrow night...). Much as I despise the Hoyas, and I hated Big John Thompson, his son has that team playing some awfully nice basketball.

Yeah, if you bend the rules in stupid directions, you can turn basketball into a pure test of individual athletic skill. That's not what it's supposed to be, though-- it takes a short shot clock and tightly restricted defenses to make it so, and even then, teams that find a way to play as a unit will beat superior talent. Jordan's 70-win teams with the Bulls were great not just because he was a better athlete than anyone else, but because they actually had a systematic approach to the game that made the whole greater than the sum of Luc Longley, Steve Kerr, and Scottie Pippen.

Take away the silly rules changes, and the game becomes more mental. You can put together a pick-up game-- no shot clock, no three-pointers-- between the five best athletes in the gym, trying to play like NBA stars, and five less talented guys who know how to play the game, and the chumps will win more often than you might think. And what they do to win will be way more interesting to watch than a collection of showboating dunks and one-on-one moves.

Provided, of course, that you actually know something about basketball.


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I agree that the NBA and the NCAA are different games. However, while most think of college teams like Princeton, Air Force and now Georgetown when thinking of the Princeton offense, variations of this offense are common in the NBA. The Nets, Kings and Wizards frequently run Princeton-like offenses.

It's ironic that you praise the Princeton offense while demonizing the 3-pointer. Short of some motion and zone offenses, there isn't another offensive scheme more dependent on the 3-pointer than the Princeton offense. To work well in college, you really need 4 shooters on the floor at the same time. When I coached high-school bball one of our league opponents ran a Princeton offense. They were competitive when they had a couple of good shooters. If not, they rarely scored more than 40 points a game.

For my money, the best team-oriented offense is the fast break. A well executed fast break that transitions smoothly into a secondary break is a thing of beauty. (sorry for the long comment)

Oh sure, everyone talks about the P'ton b'ball offense, but what about football? "Holly airs it up... Pass complete to... Holly, for a loss of 7."

That there's real sports, baby.

By Johnny Vector (not verified) on 23 Mar 2006 #permalink

I was tempted to lump this post under different-strokes-for-different-folks and forget it, but I was watching Gonzaga choke away their lead last night on a backcourt turnover, and I thought to myself, there's something you don't see in the NBA. Teams rarely press, because every team has three or four ballhandlers on the floor good enough to beat a press easily, by themselves. You also don't see too much zone defense, because every team has a couple of shooters on the floor who will make the defense pay for playing off. Essentially, you don't see many gimmick defenses of any kind in the NBA: the players are just too good. That's what I like about NBA basketball: no gimmicks.

By igor eduardo kupfer (not verified) on 24 Mar 2006 #permalink

Unless they've changed the rules for NBA ball, you don't see zone defense because it's illegal.

By Paul Orwin (not verified) on 24 Mar 2006 #permalink

The rules to allow zones changed either 3 or 4 seasons ago. Before that, weak side zones were legal for maybe 10 seasons. There aren't too many teams who use it much for anything other than a surprise. I think only the Sonics (ie worst defense in the league) use a zone consistently.

By igor eduardo kupfer (not verified) on 24 Mar 2006 #permalink

Zone defense in the NBA is technically allowed, but pretty tightly restricted. There's something called a "defensive three seconds" rule, that limits the amount of time a weak-side defender can be in the lane. I think that's how it works, anyway-- I don't really watch the NBA (as you might've guessed).

I don't think it's an iron law that pressing NBA teams couldn't work-- every team has ball-handlers good enough to get the ball up the court against man-to-man pressure, true, but that's also true of most college teams. Teams that use full-court pressure effectively general use some sort of trapping scheme, to catch ball-handlers off-guard, which can work even on really good players.

Anyway, the main point of a full-court press is to force the opponent into an up-tempo game. That's sort of superfluous in the NBA, with the short shot clock.

I do think that somebody clever could find a way to employ a zone defense to good effect in the NBA. They don't use it now because the coaches who are in the league are mostly guys who have been in the league forever, so they don't think in those terms.

I also don't think zone defense is a "gimmick" in a negative sense-- I think of it as a reflection of the fact that basketball is a team game, not just a series of one-on-one match-ups.

Hi Chad,

You really are a fan of zone defense, ain't you? I always thought that from defensive perspective, man-to-man is more in the spirit of teamplay (a rather unconventional viewpoint). If you are irresponsible, make silly atempts to steal the ball, etc, you just create huge holes for your oponnents to explore. Not to mention the educative aspect, since you're forced to enhance your *personal* defensive abilities so that you could properly help your *team*. Maybe I'm a member of the basketball shia, but from my own basketball experience in my teens I came to the conclusion that zone defense is synonymous of lousy physical preparation and/or lousy defensive skills (and that's why my team always played zone defense).

Note that I'm not diminishing zone play, but I'm just defending the man-to-man play in NBA. There you find the cream of the cream in the bussiness, so man-to-man play force the players to show their stuff. Another thing: do you really want to give 35s to teams leaded by Iverson or Bryant? That's too much! I think the rules of the NBA just reflect the extremly high level of the tournament. Yes, maybe David Stern press too much in some rules to force individual play when attacking, but there are teams that don't rely too much in this, like the actual Suns or the 72-win (not 70!) Bulls.

I don't have an especially deep love of zone defense-- I agree that man-to-man is and should be the default. I just don't think that zone is somehow counter to the spirit of the game, the way some NBA partisans seem to. There's no shame in not being able to check Shaquille O'Neal man-to-man (in his prime), and if you want to throw a zone at him to make up for that, I have no problem with that. You do what you need to do to win the game.

My main complaints with the NBA rules are on the offensive end, where they've worked hard, officially and unofficially (not calling travelling, not calling offensive fouls on various clear-out moves, etc.) to encourage individual play to an excessive degree. I think that not only lowers the quality of the game, in my eyes, it also leads directly to the sort of prima donna nonsense you have going on in the league now.

Chad, I believe that if you gave the NBA a shot today, you'd see much more "team" play than you'd expect. The zone defense rules were relaxed for the express purpose of encouraging motion and passing, and although it took a few seasons for the coaches around the league to catch on, NBA ball has come a long way from the 90s nadir of isolation plays on the wing. Also helping a lot is the perimeter defense rules, which were tightened up at the beginning of last season, and had the effect of encouraging teams to use more curls and weaves instead of those drive-and-dish plays.

WRT the zone, Don Nelson used a late-matchup zone in Dallas for two seasons. It worked great the first, not so much the second, and was abandoned by the third. I'm not sure there's a coach in the league who would want to try using a zone extensively. It probably wouldn't work well, and you'd wind up looking silly -- like an NFL team trying to use the run-and-shoot. The most zone-like element that gets used extensively is doubling post players off the ball.

By igor eduardo kupfer (not verified) on 24 Mar 2006 #permalink