Friday, May 26, 2006
Updated: May 31, 12:45 PM ET
It's evolution, baby
By Chuck Klosterman
Special to Page 2
With two minutes left in Game 1 of the Suns-Mavs series, Dallas was ahead by seven points. The Mavericks were (seemingly) in total control of the game, and I was not surprised. And it was at this point that Steve Nash rushed up the left sideline, pulled up from about 24 feet and drained a jump shop in transition. Everything changed. Everything evolved. I was suddenly watching a super-tight, completely unsettled four-point game, and I suddenly found myself wondering if the Suns might win. And (obviously) they did.
Now, it would be inaccurate to classify this moment as some kind of a jaw-dropping turn of events. It was not. In modern basketball, this kind of momentum-altering instant happens all the time. It seems to happen in almost every playoff game. But the very normalcy of Nash's 24-foot jump shot made me realize three things, and they are as follows:
(1) Were it not for the advent of the 3-point field goal, there is no way Phoenix could beat Dallas. Even though the Suns made only five 3-pointers in this game (and the Mavs still hit three of their own), Dallas would have beaten Phoenix by 15 points if this game had been played in 1978.
(2) The 3-point shot has become the most significant element of basketball: It's more necessary than post play, it dictates the pace of the game and the way teams play defense, it's changed the significance of offensive rebounding, and it has altered the relative street value of almost every player in the league. All of which is interesting, because...
(3) This was never supposed to be the case; the 3-point shot was never supposed to be as consequential as it now is. And this makes me think about how things evolve (and about why things evolve), and how most meaningful concepts are inevitably due to other people's mistakes.
I started seriously following pro basketball in 1979, which was the same year the NBA adopted the 3-point goal. It seemed like a desperate move, probably because the shot was attempted only by desperate players. At the time, the 3-pointer was perceived as being a silly ABA construction that perpetuated the perception that pro basketball was a game for selfish, coke-dealing Rucker League participants who cared only about buying floor-length fur coats. There was only one situation in which shooting a 3 wasn't a bad shot: When less than 10 seconds remained and the score was 103-100. Larry Bird is still considered the definitive 3-point assassin, but in 1981-82 he made only 11 3-pointers the entire season. It's now wholly plausible that Shawn Marion could make 11 3-pointers over the course of this playoff series, even though his jump shot resembles a jackrabbit heaving a pumpkin out of a manhole.
So how did this happen? How did a disrespected gimmick become the most critical component of how pro basketball operates? The easy answer would be that today's players are simply better shooters, but that seems totally wrong; the most universal complaint about the NBA is the dearth of fundamentals. Logic would suggest that this trend is just the unavoidable reality of math: Since shooting 33.3 percent from downtown is the equivalent of shooting 50 percent from the paint, it's possible that coaching philosophies may have responded to fit the new climate.
However, basketball coaches aren't particularly "logical." This is not to say they're not smart; it just means they're dogmatic. When the NCAA introduced the 3-point shot, I recall former Georgetown coach John Thompson saying this was the wrong decision; he (only half-jokingly) argued that dunks should be worth three points, since that policy would reward teams that worked for the highest-percentage shot. This, obviously, is crazy. But this is how coaches think. You wouldn't become a coach if you didn't believe in the inflexibility of rules. This is why baseball people are still skeptical of "Moneyball"; this is also why every pro football team not coached by Mike Martz plays pretty much the same way, pretty much all the time (the most innovative pro offenses are still just variations on the ideas of Don Coryell and Bill Walsh). If basketball evolved at the rate basketball coaches preferred, the Suns would likely run Dr. Tom Davis' "four-man flex," which I'm guessing Shawn Marion has never even heard of.
In other words, this isn't about the ability of players and it isn't about the minds of their coaches. So what made this happen? What made everyone in the NBA change the way they looked at low-success, high-reward jump shooting? I suppose a lot of this has to do with the college game; in today's NCAA, the only shots taken are 3s and layups. (Side note: If the NCAA rules committee were smart, it would move the collegiate 3-point line back three inches every season for the next four years. This would eventually make the shot more challenging -- 20 feet, 9 inches -- but there would be no jarring influence on the level of play; the impact of an incremental increase would be almost unrecognizable to the average observer.)
Since the college game is now devoid of an in-between game, it was inevitable that the NBA would follow suit. However, I think there's another explanation behind why this occurred, and this one is weirder: 12 years ago, the NBA made a mistake. And though it was able to rescind the error, it couldn't rescind its effect.
Deceased author and philosopher Terence McKenna wrote a lot of crazy books (I would recommend "Archaic Revival") and proposed a lot of crazy ideas; most notably, he claimed that the human consciousness was formed when a herd of primitive apes ate hallucinogenic mushrooms (he also predicted the apocalypse would commence in 2012, which you might want to consider before buying tickets for the London Olympic Games). Some of McKenna's most intriguing goofball concepts focused on evolution, particularly the possibility of evolution happening suddenly: Instead of a world that changes slowly over long periods, he proposed a world that changes dramatically in short bursts (interrupted by long intermediate stretches when things remain static).
I think this is what happened in the NBA: In 1994, the league shortened the distance of the 3-point line to 22 feet (from 23 feet, 9 inches at the top of the arc). This was during that uncomfortable sans-Jordan era when nobody cared about pro basketball. The 22-foot uniform distance existed only for two seasons, but the results were predictably wacky; cherubic Dennis Scott made 267 treys in one season. The 3-pointer became a viable shot for everyone, which was bad for the game. But this, in its own way, was the equivalent of prehistoric apes getting stoned and making art. This brave new world of indiscriminate 3-launching was way more interesting; the players loved it, and they were never going to return to the way things were. So they just kept shooting them, even when the line was moved back. And because this felt normal, it became normal. The game changed in order to reflect the way its participants perceived it.
Which is where we are now. And you know what? It's great. The universal cliché is that pro basketball peaked during the 1980s, but watching a team like the 2006 Suns is entertaining in a different way: It's faster, but not sloppier. It's like Canadian football, except awesome. As it turns out, the best thing that's happened to pro basketball over the past 20 years was David Stern's terrible, ill-advised decision.
You can't control what evolution does (or when it decides to happen). And sometimes that's good for everyone.
|The evolution of the 3-point shot means even Shawn Marion hoists them up several times per game.|
Chuck Klosterman is the author of "Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story" and is a columnist for Esquire and regular contributor to Page 2.