A simple NBA rule change can blend the past and present to create a quality future

Abe Saperstein, founder of the Harlem Globetrotters hoped the “three-point field goal” would become basketball’s equivalent to baseball’s “home run”. Former ABA commissioner George Mikan said that the threepointer “would give the smaller player a chance to score and open up the defense to make the game more enjoyable for the fans”.

There have been many rule changes throughout the history of the NBA. They were usually a result of  one player having an unmatched advantage over the opposition throughout the league.

One example is the changes that came into effect to counter the height advantage that Mikan himself had. He was solely responsible for the league creating the three-second rule so taller players could not camp out under the basket. Due to his size advantage, the lane was also widened from six feet to twelve feet. That change only lasted until a dominant Wilt Chamberlain forced the league to extend the paint to sixteen feet.

Another famous rule change was the Hack A Shaq rule in response to teams taking advantage of Shaquille O’Neal‘s poor free throw shooting. Teams realized that an efficient way to make a comeback was to let him shoot free throws while preserving valuable time on the clock. Obviously, that was not very entertaining for fans, let alone the way the game was intended to be played. Today, away-from-the-ball fouls award the fouled team a free throw AND possession of the ball in the final 2 minutes of each quarter

Understanding that the game has to keep fans entertained, Saperstein and Mikan envisioned that rush of excitement when a smaller player hits a three, an extra point for an extra far shot. Big men were going to be moved from out under the basket to create a more balanced and unpredictable game.

Fans welcomed the change. Many big games including Finals games were decided by that strategic three-point shot. Michael Jordan gets the accolades for leading the Bulls to two-three peats, but no one will forget “The Shot” made by John Paxson in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on June 20, 1993, a three pointer from the wing with 3.9 seconds left to knock off the Suns 99-98 to win the title.

The three-point shot soon became a formidable weapon. The amount of three-point attempts per game slowly started to rise. Teams began to make room on the roster for the three-point specialist, the most famous ones being Ray Allen, Reggie Miller and Kyle Korver who made a staggering 53.6 percent of his 3 point attempts during the 2019-10 NBA season.

It did not take teams long to realize that 100 mid-range jumpers will provide 79 points on average, while 100 above-the-break 3s would provide 105.

Then Steph Curry arrived, a player that routinely could get his shot off from ridiculous distances. Suddenly the floor was spread out like never before. By the 2015-16 season Curry was shooting 11.2 shots a game from beyond the arc. The court became bigger and the ball was moving faster. Klay Thompson, another high percentage shooter from three was added to the mix and the Golden State Warrriors had the formula for two championships.

By then, teams were not only looking for the small guy who could stretch the floor but a new position called the “stretch four” became a necessity. The 6’11” Kevin Durant who the Warriors added for a third championship made them virtually unstoppable.

Today the game is “small ball” with teams emphasizing the three pointer or a lay up. The mid range game has disappeared on many teams. Often players do not even look at the basket from 15-20 feet away and many are hesitant to take wide open shots. The 2019-20 scoring leader James Harden has attempted 12.4 three-point shots a game and the average NBA team is averaging a whopping (boring) 33.9 shots a game.

One has to wonder if the three-point shot has had the intended consequence envisioned by Saperstein and Mikan. The shot is now being taken by taller players as much as the small guys. Most offensive schemes revolve around a high screen for a dribble drive or step back three.

When play was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, despite a league wide scoring boom and an abundance of magnetic personalities such as Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James, NBA television ratings were down 12 percent from last year. It is the second year in a row that games are drawing less viewers.

NBA fans have had the opportunity during the last few weeks to watch the classic matchups from the 80’s and 90’s. Those Larry BirdMagic Johnson battles were legendary. The Bulls-Pistons and then Bulls-Jazz were classic. It has been a relief to watch hard-nosed basketball where the three-point shot was not an offensive strategy but rather an option for strategic moments.

There have been suggestions as to how the league could bring the mid-range shot back into play. As ESPN staff writer, Kirk Goldsberry pointed out in April 2019, during the 2018- 2019 regular season, NBA shooters made 27,955 three-point shots. That’s more than they made during the entire 1980s (23,871)!

Goldsberry, in a very interesting article, went on to suggest four rule changes that the NBA can consider to counter today’s excessive three-point shooting. They include:

1) Allowing the home team to customize their three-point line, similar to a home field advantage.

2) Implementing data driven lines where the league can change the distance each season based on the previous years data.

3) Do away with the corner three, which is a shorter and easier shot to make.

4) Allow goal tending on shot from beyond the arc.

While I like his way of thinking, my suggestion is a rule change that will blend both the visions of Mikan and Saperstein with the skill sets of today’s players. Let’s add value to each attempt by limiting the number of three-point attempts per game to 25.

The new rule will allow for only two points, starting with the twenty-sixth shot from beyond the arc. NBA basketball would again become a game for a wider variety of player types. Basketball was not meant to be position less. Limiting each team to 25 three-point shots a game, would blend the old with the new.

A team could have a Hakeem Olajuwon and a Steph Curry. That’s what fans want to see. There should always be a place in the league for players like Patrick Ewing, Moses Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The predictable schemes and roster makeup of today’s NBA has limited the game. Many Hall of Fame inductees would have no place in today’s game.

At the same time, there is no reason to eliminate the possibility of a fourth quarter comeback or last second three-point win. Coaches would just have to save three-point shots as they do time outs.

Imagine three-quarters of 1980-2000 basketball followed by a 2000-2020 style fourth quarter? After spending a couple of months watching Bird, Magic, Isiah, Jordan and Kobe, there is no doubt that the essence of the team game has been lost and that a simple rule change can make the NBA product better than ever.