It was the buzzword during the draft and is the concept the NBA’s hierarchy is determined to reintroduce to the game: Athleticism. It is why Orlando acquired first-round pick Corey
Maggette from the Sonics for the aging Horace Grant, and why the Pacers made a similar swap with the Raptors by dealing Antonio Davis for the draft rights to prep standout Jonathan Bender.
It is what Cavaliers owner Gordon Gund sought when he decided to fire Mike Fratello. And why Randy Wittman won the Cleveland job by vowing to run at every opportunity.
It is why Mark Jackson no longer will be allowed to back opponents into the post in his defining act of sloth, and why Allen Iverson practically is drooling over the NBA’s new no-contact edicts, which will be rubber stamped at the league meetings in September. “This game is changing,” says Magic G.M. John Gabriel. “We can’t put our heads in the sand.”
But as the league prepares to end its transaction moratorium, skepticism remains among those who think you can’t win with offense alone. “I think if you can play and are athletic, that’s great,” 76ers coach Larry Brown says. “But I’ve seen a lot of great athletes who can’t play a lick.
“So many of the guys we have coming into our league are athletic and don’t know how to play at all. Vince Carter is an exception. Paul Pierce is an exception. But you look at San Antonio. They have two true centers, and outside of David (Robinson) and Tim (Duncan), they’re not athletic at any other position.”
But the Spurs are NBA champs.
All of which is why skepticism persists about the NBA’s attempts to reconstruct itself into the ABA, a league of high-wire acts, Darnell Hillman-type dunks and Doug Moe-style attack offenses.
Considering the investments teams have in skilled, but non-athletic rosters, don’t expect a lot of changes in the near furore. Take, for example, Suns forward Tom Gugliotta. As skilled as any player at his position, Gugliotta, the prized free-agent acquisition from last season, suddenly fell into disfavor in Phoenix when it was decided Danny Ainge’s roster lacked athleticism. After Phoenix bowed out in the first round of the playoffs, there was talk of a trade that would send Gugliotta to Orlando for Penny Hardaway.
“I think the style of play maybe hasn’t been conducive to (athleticism),” Gugliotta says, “and I think the league is pretty serious about a few changes it will enforce.
“But while I’m not the type of athlete who can jump, I can run as good as any 4-man and am coordinated enough to play small forward. To me, that’s being athletic. When you’re 6-10, 250 pounds and can do those things, I think there’s some degree of athleticism to that, as well.”
As for post-driven teams, such as the Heat and Lakers, the rule changes are geared to promote a variety of styles, most by reducing contact away from the basket. “The hope is if we come up with the right combination of things that allow more movement away from the ball … teams won’t have quite the same incentive on every play to throw it into the post,” says NBA V.P. Rod Thorn
Although that might have Kobe Bryant smiling, don’t expect the Lakers to forget about Shaquille O’Neal, or the Heat to eschew Alonzo Mourning or the Jazz to ignore Karl Malone.
Already, Heat coach Pat Riley has begun to study how to beat the changes he designed as part of the league’s scoring committee. Although the goal is to permit greater efficiency off the pick-and-roll, it is doubtful Riley and his proteges will drop the blitz from their defensive repertories or that Utah will cease to clog the lane. “There have been rules added before in the preseason that you’ve never seen again, Gugliotta says.
Thorn’s perspective is: “As the game has evolved, it’s evolved to a point where there is too much contact, particularly away from the ball.”
The operative word is “evolved.” The NBA game won’t change because the suits in Manhattan say it must. As long as there are Gugliottas and Mournings-players with skills but not necessarily athleticism-the suits on the sidelines will outsmart the suits in the league office every time.
The real road to change?
Perhaps Hawks president Stan Kasten put it best: Pay the coaches by the point.