The NBA’s Next Challenge: “Growing” the Game

I always wanted 4 pointers

Guest Post by Abacus Reveals

Skip Bayless of ESPN’s First Take was recently advocating for the introduction of a four-point field goal into the NBA game … stripe another line onto the court and put a little more elasticity in your Stretch-Fours. It took my old-school sensibilities quite a while to come to grips with the “three-ball,” so I’m not yet ready for another jolt to my system.

In actuality – and, fittingly enough, to be found in a re-worked version of the American Basketball Association – the “four pointer” already exists in the game, in two forms. That league awards four points for successful shots launched from the backcourt. Predictably, I’m not particularly fond of this notion, which seems more to reward desperation than to inspire strategic innovation.

I am, however, mildly intrigued by the other scoring stimulus in the modern ABA game. When a turnover is committed in the backcourt, a bonus point is added to any field goal scored on that next possession. With such point potential (and a good press), a 12-point differential is but a three-possession lead.

The rules and procedures of any sport – particularly the manner in which they evolve and change over time – provide a kind of insight into the nature of both the athletic competition itself as well as the need to sell the product. Both the steak and the sizzle must be monitored.

For example, during the final two minutes of an NBA game a time out may magically advance the subsequent in-bounds pass about 60 feet; the onset of the foul-shooting Bonus is hastened; and tradition mandates that an official swallow the whistle in matters of mere misdemeanor. These particular rules and procedures are in place, it would seem, to give a team trailing in the late-going a better chance to catch up and thus create a more fan-friendly finish. The Sizzle!

Now, the “steak” of a well-played game is certainly deserving of some attention in the rulebook, as well. The playing rules exist and are tweaked primarily to maintain proper competitive balance – to provide both offense and defense a fair opportunity to succeed. Virtually from its origin, in order to neutralize the innate advantage of height, the rules have included some form of three-second violation. (In the early days, the lane was narrower than the foul line and did indeed resemble a key.) Undefendable free throws are rewarded less liberally than field goals; excessive fouls result in a player’s disqualification. This all is part of the nature, the very essence of the way the game is played.

Would Dr Naismith be pleased with the progression of his invention?

In its initial incarnation, the game called for a jump-ball at midcourt after every basket. A skillful big man could dominate possession of the ball for his team, much like playing “make it/take it” on the schoolyard. Competitive balance (not to mention simply the aesthetic flow to the play) was improved by simply awarding possession to the defense following a score. This innovation pre-dates the formation of the Association.

The NBA was way ahead of the curve when it came to eliminating the element of stalling from the game. At the behest of Syracuse Nationals’ founder Danny Biasone and on the heels of some embarrassingly putrid point production, the league opened its ninth season of play sporting a 24-second shot clock. It would be another three decades before a such a device, with an additional 21 seconds, would appear in the NCAA  – only a few years after they’d reconsidered and decided that dunking was, ya know, kinda entertaining, after all.

Curiously, even without the obligation to shoot, teams were required to advance the ball past midcourt within ten seconds, and a player with the ball could be contained by the defense for five seconds to create a violation. You’d see the officials dutifully stroking their arms to track the time.

The mid-50’s saw the arrival not only of a new pace to the game, but also bigger and more athletic players. A need arose to clarify what was allowable, both offensively and defensively, as far as touching or re-directing the ball near the goal. Offensive goaltending was created in the late 50’s; the defensive variety had been around for over a decade by then. The league’s long-standing aversion to zone defenses has likewise required some rule-refinement along the way. The “key” has expanded almost threefold (from 6’ to 16’ in width) and now includes a semi-circle under the goal.

The awarding of free throws for personal fouls has undergone some change through the years. The quarterly team foul limit was dropped from six to the current five way back in the ‘60’s. Soon thereafter, the one-shot “common” foul was eliminated from the game, replaced by a side-out and new shot clock. For only a season or two did a fouled three-point shooter receive but two free throws.

Shoot 3 to make 2? Garfield says 'no thanks'

For its first 30 years or so, the NBA tried to make foul-shooting as stress-free as possible. In the Bonus, a player fouled while shooting was given three attempts to make two free throws (two-for-one if the shot went in). This bit of legislated leeway departed just as the three-ball was arriving. Also at that time, a defensive foul in the backcourt (always punished with two shots previously) was down-graded to a “common” transgression.

For the entirety of the league’s existence, there have been coaches who have deemed the intentional fouling of a poor shooter to be a sound strategic maneuver. “Make ‘em earn it at the line” has been the mantra (and signature style) for many a rugged squad. But the tactical, off-ball hack – remember the time Popovich had one of his guys foul Shaq about five seconds into a game? – has been around forever and never seems to stay away for long. The rules currently provide a dis-incentive for its use during a game’s final two minutes. (In actuality, it’s mathematically impossible to utilize this strategy for an entire game – you’d run out of players after 78 possessions, mid-fourth quarter in most NBA games.) Commissioner Silver, while no fan of the tactic, seems reluctant to get more punitive.

The foul-shooting woes of a DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard, Wilt, Shaq or even Chris Dudley might just encompass the full yin and yang of the sport – the critical need for size even as the game has grown more fast-paced and free-flowing.

Former CEO David Stern and his minions worked diligently to eliminate gratuitous physicality from the court. The procedures and mechanics of officiating are quite specific in identifying what is and is not allowed. The success of these efforts has empowered league officials to the point where they now reprimand players for exaggerating the effect of contact with an opponent.

With the possible exception of the shot clock’s introduction some 60 seasons ago, the three-point line seems to have had the most significant impact on how the game is played. From the beginning, there were teams, particularly the ultra-traditional Boston Celtics that recognized the value, both practical and psychological, for this new piece of weaponry. Even a superficial glance at footage from earlier eras indicates how the spacing of the players has spread. And certain numerical indicators are showing that due deference to the three-pointer, both offensively and defensively, is becoming more and more a pre-requisite for title contention.

But I’m not ready, nor do I believe the game is, for another level of scoring – whether by means of the ABA’s latest twist or some additional (possibly corporately sponsored?) on-court adornment. Now, it could well be time to put additional challenge into the shot that carries 50 percent more value than the traditional field goal. How ‘bout moving the line back to 25 or 26 feet? Not only is this likely to help balance the increasing accuracy of today’s shooters, it will put a little more angle into the element of spacing.

Of course, space – as in Geometric Area, length times width (base times height and measured metrically, for those under 35) – the real estate of the court is running out. As it is, the shorter corner three is the most coveted shot in the NBA game. With a deeper three, would this “chippie” have to disappear (or only get two and a half points)?

Some guys make a living on that corner 3
Has the time come to change the dimensions of the court itself? Add two or three feet all the way around? Wouldn’t it create some intriguing possibilities if they were to insert another foot or so between the baseline and the backboard?

Then again the Memphis Grizzlies (among the most reluctant three-point shooters in the league for years now) may decide to combine their good old-fashioned post play with the right hired gun  and create the next paradigm shift.

Exceptional debater that he is, maybe Mr. Bayless a year from now will be lobbying for a widened and/or re-shaped three-second lane. He may have a good point this time.