NEW YORK — This year's championship features face masks, smash-mouth defense, and players over 350 pounds pounding the ball into the middle. No, it's not the Super Bowl - it's the NBA Finals. As the Los Angeles Lakers and Detroit Pistons face off for the NBA crown this week, the buzz among league observers has been the bruising and defensive-minded style of today's NBA. Scoring has been a relative rarity in the playoffs this year, marking a 15-year trend in which full-court fast breaks and free-wheeling offense have given way to sophisticated but plodding defense and low-scoring half-court games.
And while this year's Finals could be billed as an epic clash between a high-powered offense and a smothering defense, many fans and former players feel the game has lost its athletic elegance. For some, the slow pace and record low scores mark a decline in both the quality of play and level of excitement.
Former pros such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, George Gervin, and Dr. J were long and lithe. Their style included graceful sky hooks and ballet-like fingertip rolls. Many of today's players, such as the Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal and the Pistons' Ben Wallace, are muscular behemoths who look like football linemen. Their style includes rim-shaking dunks and in-your-face blocks. (The Pistons' best scorer, the gazelle-like guard Richard Hamilton, now wears a transparent face mask to protect his nose, broken three times this season by opposing defenses.)
"The players overall are better, bigger, and stronger than in the past," says Rich Hanley, professor and sports expert at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. "But they are not necessarily better in areas of the game based on nuance and experience - the mid-range jumper, the patient pass, the designed rhythms necessary to free and find the scorer."
They are also younger. More and more high school players have been jumping straight into the NBA. Some observers feel this, too, has contributed to a lack of skill and nuance.
But in some ways, the current evolution of the NBA is less about declining skill than a larger trend in sports and society - an increasing use of technology to manage the minutiae of every game.
Call it an obsession with efficiency. Athletes now hire nutritionists and trainers to maximize their size, speed, and strength. In addition, technology has revolutionized coaching. Digital video and lightning-fast computers have made studying game film far more efficient. Before, a coach had to rewind or fast forward endlessly and study only a few plays at a time. Now, thousands of plays can be quickly separated into 30-second clips, organized, and analyzed. If a player is forced to dribble right, what is his shooting percentage? If a player is double teamed, how often does he make a successful pass?
The result so far has been a boon for defenses - especially in basketball. "The ability to store this video information ... ensures that the players can watch this stuff over and over," says Steve Hellmuth, senior vice president of Operations of Technology for NBA Entertainment. "[They] essentially burn it into their brains so they can previsualize it and anticipate it and recognize the sets."
Some former pros feel high-tech coaching has robbed the sport of its exuberance and soul. "It's the most overcoached game in the world," says former NBA player Bob Bigelow, now a youth sports activist in Massachusetts. "It's no longer a players' game. ESPN shows the highlights and the follow-up dunks, but it is all overstructured and overcoached. Those six or seven assistant coaches, they watch way too much video, and they know what the other team ate for breakfast."
The fact is, defenses know exactly what offenses plan to do. Most offenses use a half-court style, bringing the ball slowly up the court and giving it to one of their stars who can create a shot on his own. The result is more one-on-one plays, two-player pick-and-rolls, and less action.
"Defense is easy to play now, because nobody moves on offense," says Mychal Thompson, a former center with the Lakers and current cohost of "The Loose Cannons" radio show on XTRA Sports Radio in Los Angeles. "When I played, you had to worry about all five positions on the floor, because there was more movement away from the ball, the screening, guys freeing each other up."
Still, the Pistons, a team without a clear superstar, have set a host of defensive records. Their players allowed opponents only 84.3 points per game during the regular season - the third-lowest average since the league began using a shot clock in 1954. They also held 11 teams, including five in a row, under 70 points, as well as 36 in a row under 100 points - both NBA records.
The Lakers' offense, ranked third in regular season, features four high-scoring future Hall of Famers, and coach Phil Jackson, who has won nine NBA titles - six of them with the Chicago Bulls.
Despite the technological trends, some feel the game has evolved toward a highlight-seeking style - based upon another advance in technology. "What they do instead is the stuff common to video games - the glass-shaking jam, for example," says Mr. Hanley. "It is life imitating art. Whether the fans watch this style of ball is open to question, but the NBA may find itself in the same position, albeit on a different level, as the NHL - games that are not only scoreless but soulless."