I have been playing basketball for 30+ years. I started to play when I was about eight. I still play on the playgrounds, but I hardly feel the same enjoyment I used to. Of course I can’t do anymore what I could do on a basketball court, but there is more: the style of playing basketball is changed so much that sometimes I hardly recognize the game I was taught and that I loved so much.
For convenience I refer to the old, “true” game as basketball 1.0 (bball1.0 for short). Instead I name basketball 2.0 the “thing” that is played nowadays almost everywhere (bball2.0 for short). I think you are wondering what the differences are between the two. I’ll try to answer this question by listing the major factors that, according to me, are the cause of such a change in the game.
The first one is the 3-point line. I started to play the year before it was officially adopted the by FIBA (for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, if I recall correctly). Originally it was conceived as an additional weapon for the trailing team to tie the game in “desperate” situations. After 30 years, players improved dramatically their 3-point shooting skills and increased their range. Understandably, coaches use this option massively and there are teams that even make it the pillar of their offensive system (Golden State Warriors are the most famous example). This “abuse” of the 3-point shooting led to unpleasant consequences:
- the mid range game almost disappeared
- the game became poorer and boring
- young players tend to focus on two offensive options only: driving to the basket or shooting three pointers.
The second important factor is the interpretation of the rules. About 15 years ago, FIBA referees started to have a considerable amount of discretion about the interpretation of some rules. Please note that is happened without a formal change of the rules. In some cases this was related to the introduction of something similar to the concept of the “advantage rule”, well know in football (soccer for the American readers). The rationale is clear and I could even agree with it, in principle. However, I think that giving the officials such a discretion is not a good idea because it makes much wider the grey area between what is legal and what is not. The freedom of interpretation is pushed to the maximum possible extent in the NBA where, for instance, travelling violation has almost disappeared. Again, without changing a word in the official rules! This trend is so evident in the NBA today that it has very little to do with sports and much with sport business. At the end of the day, this decision allowed basketball organizations to kill two birds with one stone:
- in the NBA, they put into practice more flexible rules that are supposed to make the game more spectacular
- in the FIBA world, this makes the referees’ life much simpler because it offers an alibi for many of the decisions they have to take on the court. There is no doubt that officiating basketball is very complex per se, but I don’t think this is a good idea to solve the problem and to make officials more effective.
The third—and last—thing I would like to talk about is the forgotten concept of team basketball. It is clear that everything started in the NBA. Building the league upon great individual players—Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant etc.—is functional to sell the product. However, for the real game lovers this is a disaster because it demolishes one of the—if not the—basic principle basketball was built upon. On the other hand, it is rather hard to blame the NBA for that: from the business perspective, nobody can claim they are not doing a very good job.
Is the situation hopeless? I think that is almost impossible to change these trends in the near future. However, I think that college basketball—even if a lot of money flows there too—is still played “the right way”: it is no coincidence that this wonderful game was born in the academic world, where “We play for the front, not the back”.