It’s the end of July, and we’re about as short on NBA news as the content churn permits. This is the time of year when Zach Lowe and Brian Windhorst go on vacation, somewhat secure in the assumption that nothing much will happen between now and training camp. (In truth, nothing much happens in training camp either, but there are at least a lot of quotes to be farmed and parsed.) The biggest NBA-adjacent development this week was LeBron James opening an elementary school for underprivileged and struggling kids in Akron, which is fantastic but not really a basketball story so much as one about a basketball player attempting to convert his immense wealth into public good.
If you want to talk hoops, even in the abstracted how will this free agent signing pan out? way we do during the offseason, this is one of the lousiest weeks to attempt it. So let’s get further abstracted and talk about a 1995 essay from an art critic.
The titular concept in Dave Hickey’s “The Heresy of Zone Defense” isn’t outlawed anymore. The NBA legalized zones in 2001 because games had become too isolation-heavy, with six or eight players standing on one side of the floor, basically absent from the action, while the hardwood groaned beneath a familiar dance. Dribble, dribble, dribble, drive. Dribble, dribble, dribble, screen, drive. Dribble, dribble, pull-up. David Stern and the league’s board of governors’ aim wasn’t for coaches to employ static, Jim Boeheim-style strategies—which is why they also established the defensive three-second rule, forbidding big men from laying out a picnic lunch in the paint—but to disrupt the monotony and nudge players toward team basketball. If the center can hang off his man and track an the opposing point guard, when the point guard gets into the lane, he doesn’t have a clear path to the basket, so he needs to improvise, either finishing spectacularly at the rim or finding the guy the center has abandoned, which in turn causes another defender to fly at the point guard’s now-open teammate, and so on. It’s thrilling to watch a player blow by another and score, but not over and over again. You want to see the ball move, see bodies buzzing around—the full range of athletic possibility explored. Nixing the illegal defense rule helped the NBA come closer to realizing that ideal.
Hickey is probably pleased with this. The essence of his argument—a wig-flippingly brilliant piece of sportswriting that uses Julius Erving’s genius to explain the relationship between laws, expression, and aesthetics—is not that zone defense itself sucks, but that professional basketball has been a remarkably successful endeavor due to its legislators’ willingness to tinker with the sport, over time rendering it both more fair and more fun to watch. Hickey cites the NBA’s 1954 adoption of the shot clock, which incentivizes a winning team to build a lead rather than hoard possession. The ten-second rule that requires a team to advance the ball aggressively has, as if to sharpen Hickey’s point, been upgraded to an even more pace-quickening eight-second rule.
And yes, Hickey posits that the since-repealed illegal defense rule is crucial to the enjoyability of the pro game, but he also makes clear that a good rule is one that liberates rather than governs. Circa 2000, the illegal defense rule had become pretty damn restrictive. If I know what Allen Iverson is going to do, why can’t I put myself in better position to stop him? Getting rid of the rule made sense. It also spurred tactical innovations—Tom Thibodeau’s overloaded defense, Gregg Popovich’s Pace And Space offense, the four-out sets and switch-heavy schemes that are en vogue today—and pushed gifted passers and scorers to find new methods of creating shots for themselves and others. Folks complain about James Harden’s iterative learning computer game, but we should thank Naismith he didn’t join the league in 1995. His expansive court vision would likely be massively underutilized. Rudy Gobert wouldn’t be able to warp the floor like he does. Kevin Durant would spend his entire career running some version of the unimaginative iso-ball that he got sick of in Oklahoma City.
With nearly two decades of perspective, it’s easy to appreciate what the illegal defense repeal has done for the NBA. An old Jonathan Abrams Times piece suggests we weren’t quite there as recently as 2009. Abrams claims that zone defense has improved the flow of games, but the article features numerous quotes from players and coaches who think it’s gimmicky or useless or unmanly. Then-NBA VP of basketball operations Stu Jackson is the only one who seems to grasp the value of zone legalization, which is not that teams suddenly started trying to play like Syracuse in 2001, but that they began to incorporate zone principles into their defenses. Their players became more adept at guarding one-and-a-half men, switching their assignment, communicating with their teammates, helping out and recovering quickly. And as defenses grew more dynamic and cohesive, offenses adapted and the game became more active and stimulating.
Hickey is reductive, in the way that you have to be when you’re making the mildly over-the-top case that basketball is civilized complexity incarnate. The sport is obviously imperfect, if a sight better as a model for living than whatever most state governments have laid out. For instance, NBA offenses are increasingly, disconcertingly uniform these days. Nearly everybody shoots lots of threes and the mechanical search for open triples—penetrate, kick, swing, swing—can get tedious. The eight seconds of screening and switching the precede every LeBron James or James Harden drive are dead air. But these don’t feel like problems that need to (or even can) be legislated away. (Hack-A-Shaq, however, could and should be eliminated tomorrow.) The game is likely to fix itself. We’re in a bit of a rut at the moment, but soon some enterprising coach or unguardable star will shatter norms and wake up everybody else’s minds and basketball will once again look different than it ever has before.
That’s Hickey’s lifelong critical project, if he can be said to have one: celebrating the individual’s creative power while also paying close attention to the conditions that foster and bind it. And so it makes sense that he would write an astute and beautiful thing about basketball, specifically about a rule that doesn’t exist anymore, that still reads well in 2018. Because a court isn’t so different from a canvas or a reel of film. It’s a vast yet limited space upon which to express oneself. There are more rules in basketball than in painting, sure, but games aren’t themselves without rules. Basketball with tackling is basically rugby. But rules, Hickey correctly insists, should always help a game become more like itself, more true to its spirit, which in basketball’s case is to facilitate a peculiarly muscular, skillful, balletic kind of beauty. That’s something to chew on at the end of July, when the NBA has almost completely stopped. Or not; you couldn’t be blamed for turning your attention toward the rest of the world. Hickey’s Air Guitar, an essay collection to which “The Heresy of Zone Defense” belongs, is a blessedly readable 215 pages. It’s a fine way to kill a summer afternoon.