Change is inevitable, but who will reap the rewards?

In case you haven’t heard, there is something wrong with the NBA. But determining what that “something” is is as difficult to figure out as logarithms.

There is always the Michael Jordan factor, the belief that M.J.’s departure has given the NBA a hangover it just can’t shake. While the lack of Jordan is somewhat problematic on the court, it is even more so on Madison Avenue, where the NBA wishes somebody–anybody–would be like Mike.

But finding the next pitchman doesn’t address the problems with the game, including (but not limited to) overzealous whistle blowers and a lack of scoring.

So what should be changed? Last weekend at the All-Star Game I put that question to some of the game’s stars, the ones who, after any rules changes, most dramatically will affect how the game is played.

Hands on

At times, when you are watching a game, it seems a player runs the risk of a whistle if he breathes on an opponent. Often, a quick whistle can halt what’s supposed to be a fluid game.

Portland’s Rasheed Wallace, who racks up fouls and technicals like The Sopranos racks up Emmy nominations, says that interruption of play is what concerns him most. “Take away that light-touching hand rule they’ve got out top,” he says. “There would be more of a flow, less stoppage of the game. Being out there at a crucial point of the game and you put your palm on the hand, they’re blowing the whistle, and that’s stopping the game.”

Miami’s Anthony Mason agrees. “It’s a great game, but I don’t think I’d be so nitpicky with the hand checking and stuff like that. I’d probably go back to where people are allowed to play defense.”

But Orlando’s Tracy McGrady had a different take on the hand-check issue. McGrady sees the current rules on hand checking as a plus.

“Some people would like them to change the hand-check rule, but that does help the guys who are capable of getting to the basket, the guys who can dribble,” McGrady says. “That helps a guy like me.”

What about me?

Some players had more specific adjustments in mind. Minnesota’s Kevin Garnett and Atlanta’s Dikembe Mutombo proposed changes that were laced with both humor and some common sense.

“I’d let me do my finger wave after I block a shot,” Mutombo says. “Let me wave my finger and not fine me thousands of dollars. We need to entertain our fans.”

Garnett, who reigns as both the NBA’s king of on-court enthusiasm and one of the league’s best players, seeks a simple adjustment.

“I would change goaltending,” Garnett says. “I have so many blocked shots, man, they call it goaltending every time I block a shot.”

Who needs change?

Still, some players think the game is fine the way it is. Milwaukee’s Ray Allen for one, thinks the game doesn’t need any tinkering offensively.

“My team is scoring over 100 points a night so I don’t know how much more open you want the game to be,” Allen says. “In days past, you had teams scoring 120-130 points (a game), but I can’t see what I’d do differently on a regular basis. We’re doing fine. I don’t know what the perception of the league is, but I think it just goes down to what players you have on your team.”

While having one scorer like Allen is a luxury for most teams, the Bucks have two other players–Glenn Robinson and Sam Cassell–capable of dropping 30 points on an opponent.

“We just have to keep doing what we are doing, keep playing hard and keep showing everybody that we do work hard on our games and we do enjoy playing the game,” he says.

Coach’s corner

Like the Bucks, Rick Adelman’s Kings don’t struggle to make the scoreboard turn to triple digits on most nights. Still, Adelman understands that getting a handle on what needs to be changed can be difficult.

“It’s a hard question. Everyone has their opinion,” Adelman says. “I think you have to do something to get more ball movement in the game. Whether that’s putting a time frame on how long a guy can have the ball …

“I think the 3-point line is a real detriment because it encourages isolation and post-up. You double, and you’re going to give up a 3. Anything that can create movement can help. You have to take the ball out of one guy’s hand.”

Zoning out

While opinions differ on most suggestions to change the game, one idea meets a unified voice–the idea of bringing the zone defense to the NBA. At first glance, the idea of zones in the NBA is problematic. At second glance, it’s ludicrous. If the league thinks packing in a zone is going to solve its offensive problems, then league officials are nuttier than a Payday candy bar.

“I don’t see where the zone is going to create movement,” Adelman says. “I think something needs to be done but you have to be careful to not make it so radical. It has to be tried in exhibition but sometimes people are in a panic to change.”

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