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Nearly Perfect: Modern Basketball Arrived Before Anyone Knew How To Play It

Over the past 20 years basketball has evolved from a sport based around throwing the ball to brutes in the post into one based around flighty sprites flinging three-pointers from ever-increasing distances. But in watching a Bulls-Knicks game from 1996, it was illuminating to understand how this actually happened. That season was one of three played with a shortened three-point line, leading to a dramatic increase in the number of threes attempted. The box score from this game, featuring 21 attempted Knicks threes, resembles one created by today’s run-and-gun NBA. The tape tells a different story, though, one that reveals this game not to have been a crystal clear preview of the future, but evidence of just how slow and painful evolution can be.


Patrick Ewing was one of the best bigs of his generation, but 1996 was the beginning of the end of his prime. The ferocious athleticism I “remember” (from highlights) of his Georgetown career was only apparent in limited stretches, but what I didn’t realize was how silky smooth of an offensive player he was. Ewing would set up camp a little closer to the baseline than most bigs, back his big ass into Luc Longley, and either dribble or hold onto the ball for forever. It was a goddamn eternity in basketball time. Sometimes he made moves to the basket, but more often than not he would toss up a baseline jumper, and more often than not, it went in. Ewing finished the game with 26 points on 13-23 shooting.

The Knicks ran much more than I expected for a team headlined by physical bigs like Ewing, Charles Oakley, and Anthony Mason, and coached by Jeff Van Gundy. They didn’t score many strictly fast-break points, but they pushed the ball off defensive rebounds and the numerous Bulls turnovers, and generated a lot of early offense or temporary 4-on-3s.

But the weird thing was that their early offense looked so much different than the early offense anybody would run nowadays. For one, nobody could actually run a fucking fast break. The three-man weave has been a fundamental basketball drill for a long time, but dear god did these guys take ponderously ineffective and obtuse angles to the basket. These days, at least one of those fast breakers would sprint immediately to the corner and peel off a defender with him, leaving a two-on-one. But players in 1996 never, ever, ever sprinted to the corners—they barely ever even ended up the corners, in fact—and thus the fast breaks and rest of the game took place around the basket.

Influential rule changes that birthed today’s game hadn’t yet been made. Guards were still allowed to hand-check the ball handler on the perimeter, and an illegal defense rule was still on the books, restricting the ability of help defenders to drop down and double-team a post player, or even just rotate into the lane to cut one off. Guards were restricted, and bigs could operate with near-impunity.


The enforcement of rules against hand-checking beginning in 2004 empowered guards on offense by allowing them to drive with fewer impediments, and the elimination of illegal defense in 2001 subjected bigs to double- or quasi-double-teams coming from any part of the court, at any time. It took these rules changes, plus a generation of players fully accustomed to the existence of the three-point line, to create the modern NBA game, where guards pull the string on offense, and bigs are supporting players.

So while the Bulls-Knicks had a similar number of three-pointers as a modern game, they were created in very different ways. They rarely came in early or transition offense, they came mostly on kick outs. With players from the weak side not allowed to double, any hope the Bulls had to stop, for instance, Patrick Ewing, relied upon the strong-side defender doubling, and thus leaving his man. It wasn’t swinging the ball around the perimeter to find the open man that led to threes, it was a kick out from a big and an immediate shot.


This is a pretty representative possession—notice the utter lack of movement off the ball.

The Knicks jumped to an early 10-point lead on the strength of inside play from Ewing and power forward J.R. Reid. In the first home game since former coach Don Nelson was fired, the Knicks offense resembled what you think of when you think of the mid-1990s New York Knicks. But in the second and beginning of the third quarter it ground to an absolute halt, and Michael Jordan began asserting himself. I had forgotten that Jordan didn’t exist solely in a superhuman state, and that on many plays he was just some guy, but he often got to the hoop and made jumpers with a fluidity that nobody could match.


With a few minutes gone in the third, the Knicks found themselves down three, courtesy of a 17-1 Bulls run. Dennis Rodman was finally hitting the boards, and the non-Jordan members of the Bulls started hitting shots. But just when it looked like the Bulls might ease ahead permanently, Derek Harper exploded. Harper scored 16 of the Knicks’ next 25 points, making four three-pointers and two two-pointers that were supposed to be threes, but his foot was on the line. He was feeling himself so much that he ended the quarter with a ridiculous long two, and talked major shit to Toni Kukoc as he ran back down the court.

With Jordan seemingly uninterested in bullying his way to the hoop, and without any talented low-post players, the Bulls could only chuck and mostly miss contested jumpers. Over 10 or so minutes of play, the Knicks went on a 39-10 run to go up by 26, before the game descended into a very early garbage time. The Knicks won 104-72, a 32-point margin of victory. In the Bulls’ nine other losses that season, they lost by a combined 45 points.


This is the seventh blog in our series Nearly Perfect, chronicling all 10 regular season losses of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. You can read the introduction here, and the other blogs in the series here.

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About the author

Kevin Draper

Reporter at the New York Times

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