A modest proposal for improving pro basketball

Pro basketball can afford to feel good about the way its season is ending -- with two of the game's most star-laden teams, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, battling in the finals.

The National Basketball Association also set a new attendance record, though an increase of just 1.8 percent over the previous year doesn't seem all that impressive, considering the addition of rookie sensations Larry Bird and Earvin (Magic) Johnson. TV ratings rose more substantially, but they were an embarrassment to the league last year.

Taken as a whole, therefore, the NBA should temper its euphoria and think about wht can be done to improve the game.

For one, the NBA still permits too much physical contact. Hand-checking was supposedly outlawed last year, but there's little evidence of enforcement. And the way the league's centers lean and grapple near the basket is almost laughable.

The use of a third official, assigned to watch for fouls away from the ball, could certainly help in lessening contact. (The league experimented with a third official last year, but wasn't convinced that three-man crews made enough difference to justify the additional cost.)

Further widening the three-second lane could aid in relieving the congestion near the basket. So that players wouldn't have to shuttle in and out of too large an area, the lane could be tapered, starting at the baseline, as it is under international rules.

The three-to-make-two free-throw rule should be junked. Taking a third free throw can slow down the game, and it most often results in two points, therefore robbing the foul shot situation of its suspense.

The 24-second shooting clock should be changed to a 30- or 35-second clock. Why? Because the pro game too often evolves into a "beat the clock" affair in which run-and-gun, helter-skelter basketball substitutes for well-plotted offensive strategies and plays. Fast breaks are exciting, but only up to a point. If a team could hold on to the ball a little longer, NBA-watchers might be treated to a greater diversity of offensive styles.

The season has been shortened, but more trimming is needed. Basketball was meant to be a winter game, and extending it on into the middle of May is self-defeating. Casual fans lose interest after a while and turn to outdoor activities.

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