By Gregg Easterbrook
Special to Page 2

Each year around this time, Tuesday Morning Quarterback journeys alone to the top of a distant mountain, meditates, fasts, burns chinstrap-scented incense sticks and chants a prayer of thanks to the football gods that the NFL is not the NBA. The prayer:

Oh football gods, on thine couch above
Copyrighted be thy names.
Give us each fall some mojo sport.
And reverse our bad calls,
As we reverse the bad calls of others.
Deliver us from the NFL ever turning into the NBA!
For thine is the franchise, the ratings and the buzz
Now and forever, or at least till the next network contract.

Tuesday Morning Quarterback annually prays the NFL never turns into the NBA, not because the NBA isn't entertaining -- it is, with great athletes, action and astute marketing -- but because every year the NBA comes up with another way to make itself worse. Two years ago it was the sight of Larry Bird, then coaching the Pacers, throwing Celtics-style team basketball out the window and shrugging as his players went one-on-one against the Lakers in the championship. Last year, it was the NBA raiding high schools on draft day, not only stocking the league with guys who have no fundamentals, but insuring in the process that those gentlemen will never become the kind of marvelous college stars whose ascent to the pros would generate excitement. Why, exactly, did the NBA, which 15 years ago had the hottest product in sports, become obsessed with making itself worse? Oh football gods, let not this woe betide the NFL, which now has the hottest product in sports.

This year the NBA's self-dilution initiative is the collapse of offense. Everybody repeats the cliché that the NBA plays no defense. Everybody adds, "But baby, can those pro b-ballers shoot." Actually, in this year's playoffs, the defense has been pretty good. It's offense in general and shooting in particular that have been cover-your-eyes awful.

That the NBA can't play offense was vividly on display in Game 7 of the Kings-Lakers series, as Sacramento, ostensibly the year's top offensive team, grew worse and worse with the ball down the stretch. But before slamming the Kings in detail, let's cite a few prior egregious examples:

Paul Pierce
When Boston's Paul Pierce wasn't running "clear" plays, he was at his improvisational best.

  • Last month, it was Celtics 66, Pistons 64 in the lowest scoring playoff game since the 24-second clock. And it wasn't that defense was so hot in this game, it was that offense was so bad. In the second half, rarely did either team run back-doors or screen-and-rolls -- and these are plays that only involve coordination between two players -- to say nothing of more complicated action. Endlessly, the first man to receive a pass in the frontcourt immediately shot, or Jerry Stackhouse and Paul Pierce continually ran the semi-outlawed isolation or "clear" play, the epitome of NBA drek. Nothing in basketball is more boring than "clear" plays -- even the eight other guys on the court invariably look visibly bored. The late basket that sealed the Boston win came when Pierce shocked the Pistons by running a give-and-go. It seemed to happen by accident. Pierce took the ball on the clear, wanted to gun, had nothing, flipped back to a teammate, his man turned away and Pierce cut to the basket. Afterward, he had this look on his face of "Hey, did I really do that?" the way middle school kids are impressed with themselves the first time they execute a give-and-go.

  • In Game 4 of the Lakers-Spurs series, the pivotal contest, Los Angeles came back from 10 points down late as the Spurs got no field goals in the final seven minutes of the game at home, and lost by two. San Antonio players turned to Greek statuary on offense, standing motionless, endlessly watching Tim Duncan run "clear" plays. When Duncan was doubled or tripled, no teammate cut to basket -- they just stood watching, waiting for him to beat three men! And did the Spurs coaching staff scream in plays?

  • In the Celtics' big comeback over the Nets, Boston was able to recover from a 21-point deficit at the start of the fourth quarter, because the Nets were terrible on offense, running few plays while endlessly throwing up crazy shots. Twice in the final minutes, with New Jersey ahead and needing to run clock, the first man to touch a pass -- in both cases Kerry Kittles -- instantly heaved up a wild 3, missing both times and leaving precious seconds unburned. Kittles finished 0-7 from 3-land. Had he merely dribbled in circles and not shot at all on both possessions, New Jersey probably would have won.

    Tim Duncan
    Too often, the Spurs waited for Tim Duncan to do everything himself.

  • The following night, in the Lakers big comeback over the Kings, during the final three minutes, all Sacramento needed was a layup to stop the Los Angeles run. (Rule of basketball: Defense starts comebacks, offense stops them.) Rather than go inside and try to draw fouls -- Kobe at that point had five -- twice in the final three minutes the Kings launched ICBM-range 3s, the guilty parties being Doug Christie and Bobby Jackson, who shot a combined 2-for-11 from beyond the arc in the game. Clang, in both cases. Had either of these wasted ego-serving look-at-me 3s been a drive to the basket or even just a standard jump shot, the Kings probably would have won (remember, Sacramento led until one tick remained) and would now be preparing for the championship.

  • As the Nets eliminated the Celtics, Antoine Walker was a solid 6-11 on two-point attempts and 1-9 on 3s. In the fourth quarter, he launched nothing but wild 3s -- and Walker switched to these crazy shots when the game was still close. The Celtics ran no detectable plays in the second half, endlessly standing around and watching Walker, Pierce or Kenny Anderson go one-on-one. Anderson was the only one of the three who scored, because he was the only one who went to the basket, rather than firing undisciplined long shots.

    Now to Exhibit A that the NBA can't play offense, the Kings-Lakers seventh game on Sunday:

    This was an exciting, tense, very watchable contest -- and Sacramento lost owing to awful, awful offense. With his team down by two points with 10 seconds left, and the shot clock turned off, Peja Stojakovic heaved a wild 3-pointer that was not only an airball, it missed by so much it wasn't entirely clear which basket he was aiming at. To top it off, the Kings did not need a 3. Stojakovic had an open path to the basket -- he could have driven and tried for a far higher percentage shot than he took. Instead, Heave-ho, everybody look at me! Stojakovic was 0-5 from beyond the arc in the game to the moment he decided that what his team needed was a very low percentage shot.

    Peja Stojakovic
    AP
    When his 3-pointers weren't falling, Peja Stojakovic should have driven to the hoop.

    Somehow the Kings got it to overtime, and trailed by two with 22 seconds left, 15 on the shot clock. Doug Christie got the ball and immediately launched a wild 3. Clang, rest of game a formality. Christie was 2-10 from the field to the moment he decided that what his team needed was a very low percentage shot. There was plenty of time -- and the Kings didn't have to have a 3, but did have to score.

    In the final seven minutes (regulation, then overtime) of their collapse, the Kings took 17 shots. Four were close shots or drives, the rest long jumpers, including five 3s, all of which missed. On almost every possession, the fabulous Mike Bibby -- what a joy he is to watch! -- drove and twisted and attacked while the rest of the Kings stood watching; at times, it looked like Bibby was playing some kind of experimental one-on-five. Sacramento finished the game a very solid 42-for-77 on two-pointers and a preposterous 2-for-20 from 3-point land. To TMQ, it was the stand-around offense that led to the bad 3s -- standing around and bad 3 attempts seem to go hand in hand -- that knocked out the Kings, not free-throw problems. Check the tape of the fourth quarter and OT. The Lakers, the only team in this year's Final Four that does seem to call real plays, were cutting to the hoop, not competing to see who could launch the nuttiest shot.

    Of course, it's easier to stand around watching your team's star run a "clear" than it is to practice, practice, practice coordinated plays. This has nothing to do with effort or hustle. Forget the other cliché, that NBA players don't put out. They do like crazy; everybody in the playoffs has been soaked with sweat and gasping for breath. Oddly, many NBA players now hustle full-tilt on defense, which is mostly individual exertion. On offense, where it's necessary to coordinate with other players and sublimate your ego to specific plays, things are falling apart.

    Another malefactor is the perverse incentive of the 3. Fans cheer and broadcasters swoon when a 3 drops; they forget that you missed your previous eight attempts. To launch a 3, you do relatively little -- just stand there waving for the ball -- and are showered with applause if successful. To drive for a basket means you might get smashed hard by large people, but that evokes less crowd reaction. The risk/reward ratio has become perverse. Hence players heave-ho 3s and coaches do not seem to have the will to order them to head for the basket. Check almost any NBA offensive alignment -- on many plays there are now two or even three gentlemen rigid at the 3-point arc, waving for the ball. To make it sound like they're doing something, they boast of "spotting up." Look at me, I'm spotting up. It sounds better than Look at me, I'm standing around.

    The Lakers are the best current team in part because they generally avoid this nonsense and run plays. But unfortunately, Los Angeles just created a spectacularly successful bad offensive play that will have pernicious effects for years to come. Tuesday Morning Quarterback refers, of course, to the Robert Horry 3 at the buzzer to complete the Lakers' 24-point comeback over Sacramento.

    Horry was carried off the court on his teammates' shoulders, but he should have been taken away by the CIA for questioning. The Lakers faced defeat, trailing by two with the shot clock off. They attacked the basket for the two to tie, missed, the rebound got knocked around and ended up flying toward the midcourt line, but instead of the horn sounding and a Kings win, the ball was grabbed by Horry beyond the arc for his winning trey with a second left. But what in blazes was Robert Horry, a power forward, doing 30 feet from the basket with seconds left, his team down by two and the rebound bouncing around? Shaq and Kobe were under the basket, trying desperately to get the ball back. Horry wasn't even crashing, just standing like a spectator who got better seats than Jack Nicholson. Watch the tape; Horry stood at the 3 line doing nothing for the entire Lakers' possession. After the game he even boasted about the fact that he stood doing nothing the entire time! Horry pronounced: "I was spotting up."

    Dozens of players will now imitate this, standing around doing nothing hoping for a one-in-10,000 ricochet. NBA offense will get even worse. Imagine what an NFL offense would be like if on any snap, half the players stood around doing nothing, just watching the guy with the ball? Or waving for a lateral? Thank the football gods the NFL is not the NBA.

    TMQ Basketball Disclaimer
    Fear not, Tuesday Morning Quarterback fans, this is still a football column and still not scheduled to resume as normal until August. It's just that when there is no football to watch, TMQ gets cranky and exhibits lapses of judgment, like taking basketball seriously. Don't worry, this will never happen when the NFL is playing!

    NBA bobblehead moment
    In the Spurs-Lakers opening game, second quarter, Kobe drove the lane; took three full steps; jumped into air; came down with both feet; then jumped again for the dunk. Marv Albert cried, "Sensational!" Bill Walton gushed, "The Spurs have no answer for that!" Well, of course the Spurs have no answer for a move that's illegal.

    With each passing year, it becomes progressively more embarrassing how the NBA tolerates walking ... so long as a dunk results. This year, the league's been openly tolerating up-and-down, too, so long as a dunk results. Maybe that's show biz, but shouldn't the announcers at least mention when plays are, ahem, not legal? NBC showed the replay of the sensational! drive three times and no bobblehead made any comment on the violation.

    TMQ cheerleader of the week preview

    Cara
    Cara of the Royal Court Dancers, TMQ's NBA cheerleader of the week.

    When Tuesday Morning Quarterback gins up in earnest for football season, one running item will be Cheerleader of the Week, featuring an actual cheer-babe from an NFL squad. As an offseason basketball-justified preview, gawk at the actual Cara (as seen on the Kings' website) from the Sacramento Kings' Royal Court Dancers. Cara's team bio reports that her hobbies are gymnastics and shopping, that she minored in mathematics in college and that she "was featured on the cover of Sacramento Bride and Groom." As the bride or the groom? Please be more specific.

    Some may ask, "What is the rationalization for providing a gratuitous cheesecake link to this mega-babe?" TMQ replies, "You're supposed to look at the cheerleaders." Others may protest, "But isn't gawking at cheerleaders superficial and shallow?" Well, sure. It's not exactly like we are interested in the players for their minds, either.

    See you in August.

    Gregg Easterbrook is a senior editor of New Republic, a contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is believed to be the first Brookings scholar ever to write a pro football column. You can buy his football book, the incredibly cleverly titled "Tuesday Morning Quarterback," here.




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