The Dream of the 90′s is Alive in Memphis

“And finally, our teams have used the guidelines in a way that produces isolation basketball.” –Stu Jackson, NBA Vice President, explaining the need for zone defense

The Memphis Grizzlies are merely good in this era, but they would have been great in another–I’m convinced. It’s a belief that billowed when Beckley deemed Zach Randolph “the best one-on-one scorer,” in a manner casual to the point of dismissive. Z-Bo is large, nimble, blessed with long arms that greedily wrest the ball from rebounding frays. The lengthy wingspan ends in refined fingers, capable of gently nudging Spalding home with the sensitive calibration of a father, returning infant to crib.

Randolph is strafed by the enormous Marc Gasol, who boasts a similar touch at the coveted center position. Gasol lacks Z-Bo’s scoring genius, but All-Star potential lurks within his lumbering frame. This duo should grind all opponents down to bone flecks. So, as the smallish Spurs closed out last night’s game, a creeping incredulity garnished my viewing experience:

How are the Grizzlies not crushing the Spurs? Weren’t scoring, rebounding bigs the key to dominant basketball way back when?

Sebastian Pruiti predicted that San Antonio would respond to a Game 1 loss with four straight wins. Memphis can’t handle Popovich’s guard-driven offense, Sebastian posits. He could well be right, seeing as how the Spurs seem to race around that Memphis pick and roll defense en route to easy three point shots. But, Pruiti’s prediction leads me to believe that low block respect has never been lower.

My brain set about photoshopping Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol into a time when big men romped freely under the flattest of tops. I’m talking about the 90’s, an NBA era that–much like the decade’s web pornography advent–was an orgy of isolation play.

It was ironic that Michael Jordan dominated because frontcourt stars were so prominent back then. Look at the top 5 PER rankings for 94-95:

Those bigs averaged a higher mark (26.8) than Dwight Howard earned as this year’s leading lug (26.13) in time of roughly equivalent team offensive efficiency. The three centers averaged a higher rating (28.06) than any other “five” since Shaq in 2002-2003. While Dwight ranks second in overall PER, he’s bookended by wings Wade and James.

Modern superstar “fives” are hard to come by. The center-rich days of Robinson, O’Neal, Olajuwon, Ewing, and Mourning seem implausible, in retrospect. Also, so many currently efficient power forwards (KG, K-Love and Dirk) tend to face the basket like Narcissus staring into a lake. Years have bleached offensive importance from “big men,” driving them to extinction or evolution. I cite zone defense as the asteroid hit that swapped bulky dinos for dinky mammals.

Back Then

We can dredge memories from a point so early, so removed from who we became, that these thoughts evoke no nostalgia. When I recall mid-nineties basketball, I’m stealing visions from a boy who is not me. Somehow he evolved into my sense of self, but that was many, many steps ago.

In the smeared paintings of recollection, I see my dad’s beige couch, his flickering TV, the NBC peacock, Ewing trudging into a fingeroll. I can make some of this tangible, some of it specific. But illegal defense remains elusive. For all the hours I spent watching televised basketball, I can’t pin down one specific memory of this mysterious game-interrupter. This I know: It would just annoyingly interject, like a telemarketer’s call. Flow stopped, people were frustrated. And just like that, illegal defense would slide back into the recesses of life. I never properly grasped what it was or how it happened. It just…happened.

Suns get whistled for shifting towards Hakeem

“Illegal defense,” began when the zone was outlawed in 1947 by the Basketball Association of America. As former coach Don Casey recounts in his book, Own the Zone:

“The St. Louis Bombers, one of the top teams in the BAA, used a zone defense so successfully that the owners called for a special meeting on January 11, 1947 and voted to prohibit the use of the zone defense. Their reason was that zones were “too effective” in holding the score down which would hurt fan interest and gate receipts”

It’s important to note that big time pro basketball was just two months old and the concept of zone defense was still spreading from the leaky West Virginia YMCA court where it was first conjured. Had the league been a little stronger, a little more entrenched, perhaps owners would have accepted evolution. Either way, the BAA’s hasty edict began a half century of byzantine NBA rules, devoted to eradicating a collaborative defense.

Efforts ceased in 2001 when the NBA finally reversed that 1947 ruling. This was done despite an intense “lobbying” campaign on behalf of illegal defense, headed by Rudy Tomjanovich and Pat Riley. Both coaches had expertly navigated the NBA of the 80’s and 90’s. It was a league that essentially died because their lobbying fell short. A defeated Riles went so far as to say:

”With these rules, you’re going to be back in the 70′s in scoring.”

Hop on Youtube, watch some old NBA on NBC playoff clips. The style difference is jarring. It’s not so much that today’s athletes jump higher or run faster: It’s that today’s five-man defensive organism moves in a completely different manner. Viewing these clips was discomfiting for me, it was like finding out that men used to walk on their hands back when I was growing up–only I’d never noticed.

These days, it’s commonly said that defenders should be connected “on a string,” their movements inextricably linked. A little over one decade ago, this wasn’t the case. Perimeter defenders were bound to whomever they guarded, and guard-defender units would orbit a dribbling post player like single electrons an atom’s periphery. If there was a “string,” then it connected man to marker.

Occasionally, the defender could could break off to double-team this dribbling post player, but, that defensive player could only return to his original mark. Picture Reggie Miller racing over to harmlessly flail at a posting Patrick Ewing, then sprinting back to the three point line so as to cover an open John Starks. The lack of team-defense rotation made it relatively easy for post players to spot an open man (Hint: He’s from whence the double team came).

Now place Zach Randolph in a world where defenses are predictable, and passing lanes are salient. The “best one-on-one” scorer might notch something a bit higher than 22 PER. Envision plodding Marc Gasol in an era where rules protect him from getting stripped or blanketed. This team would thrive offensively in the forced isolationism of those 90’s. In 2011, the Grizzlies are merely average on the offensive end.

We often forget how changing regulations shape the fabric of this game, apart from causing a supposed creeping “softness.” I used to believe that Zach Randolph was hindered by personal demons. I now believe that prosaic rule changes conspired with time to block his title path. Memphis is an anachronism, a casualty of legal defense.

Follow @SherwoodStrauss on Twitter

Related posts:

  1. Everybody Must Get Zoned
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  3. Reliving the Dream: The TrueHoop Network goes to college
  4. Don’t Give Up On OJ Mayo


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