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The dribbler versus defender dynamic is broken and offense is here to stay

We are unlikely to see a reversal favoring defenses any time soon

Syndication: The Providence Journal Bob Breidenbach / USA TODAY NETWORK

Deception can be fun.

I miss my dog every day. Losing a pet sticks with you for the rest of your life, even if you come to have another, and I haven’t. Jakey was a beautiful tricolor Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who loved to run. Ask him if it was time to go to the park and he would whimper with anticipation until we made it to the nearby soccer fields. That little guy could sprint most of that field, catch his squeaky ball out of the air as it bounded, and gallop it back to me ready for more.

Eventually, I introduced the fake-out to keep things interesting. Merely making the arm motion of a toss would set this beautiful dog racing. After a moment or two, I would squeak the ball. Jakey quickly learned that meant to double back and sprint in the other direction. As the years passed his indulgence in this little trick waned. He eventually taught me this bit of canine wisdom - deception can also be tiresome.

When we play a game or engage in any organized endeavor, the rules of the road keep competition fair for all those attempting to succeed. Nothing makes us feel more jilted than an uneven application of the official rules by those charged with being impartial arbiters. If these inequities are perceived by the majority and are not addressed by the powers that be, mass resentment ensues. Something else occurs - people adapt to the actual rules as enforced rather than the letter of the law. A real-time cost-benefit analysis keeps competition on the bleeding edge of what is admissible rather than what is eventually rendered a technicality.

NBA players rely on deception to complement their physical skills. The ability to beat a defender off the dribble is essential for those charged with initiating the offense, creating their own shot, and salvaging late-clock scenarios. While pure speed, dribbling prowess, and scouting defenders all play a part in creating manufacturing separation or opening up a passing lane, the trend of the last twenty years is an increasing reliance on deception. Defensive specialists assigned to guard opposing offensive creators are so gifted at the professional level that the result of maximum effort on both sides is often a stalemate. This sort of basketball manifests low scores, grinding possessions, and contested shots. That’s professional basketball in its purest form according to a traditionalist mindset. But the template of bruising Eastern conference slugfests featuring the Bad Boy Pistons versus Jordan’s Bulls is no longer where the modern game resides.

Scouting players who can “create their own shot” and strategies to negate their strengths is a huge part of the preparation that goes into each NBA game. Yet the turn that officiating has taken over the last two decades has given offenses a clear advantage no how matter how defenses game plan. Blurring the lines of what is permissible by allowing moves that involve a split second of traveling has pushed the envelope well past a rulebook already set up to favor offenses.

This recent video from JxmyHighroller outlined this migration beautifully and is well worth a watch.

The zero/gather step

The act of taking a step while you are transitioning out of your dribble does not count towards the two steps that the player is subsequently allowed to take before he must commit to one of three actions - pass, shoot or stop. To the naked eye, this standard of legal movement can appear to be traveling when it is not.

In 2019, the NBA issued new language regarding the gather step. Depending on who you listen to, this was either clarification or an addendum to the rulebook. Essentially, the gather step - often referred to as the zero step - was enshrined into the rules.

Many of today’s players possess such lengthy strides and wing spans that the gather step unlocks an assortment of nearly unguardable moves that are now commonplace. Two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo uses the gather step on this play to stop his dribble before the foul line. Combining the allotted gather/zero step and two legal steps, Giannis stops being a dribbler and becomes something more akin to a ball carrier bursting toward the endzone. This often leads to defenders making a business decision and living to fight another day.

The Eurostep, the Stepback, and the Jumpstop all appear like traveling after watching the NCAA where the gather/zero step is not allowed. Each of these moves give the ball handler more freedom to create spacing and misguide a defender. When executed correctly, all of these moves are within the confines of the current rules.

Going a step further

Imagine for a moment that in your local area no drivers were pulled over and given a speeding ticket for an entire day - little would change out of that single 24-hour period. Yet how long could that go on before your route to work turned into a de facto Autobahn? A week, a month, or longer?

Over the last twenty years, NBA officiating has drifted from calling the traveling rule strictly to a far more permissible stance. Players are now able to stop their dribble, gather, and continue dribbling. In this play, Ja Morant takes two steps, gathers the ball, carries the ball around his body, takes two more steps, then lays it in. At full speed, this play was allowed.

The dance between the dribbler and the defender is based on a specific premise. Once the dribble is over, the ball will either be passed, a field goal attempted, or the shot clock will expire. It is the continuation of the dribble that keeps a defender from closing out with abandon. If an offensive player can gather the ball only to resume the dribble, the defender is at a competitive disadvantage.

In this play, Jordan Poole violates the rules twice in the same sequence without a violation being called.

When officials allow this type of movement, what is the end result? Clarkson stumbles and lands on his hindquarters. The crowd murmurs in delight. The chance of that moment showing up on a player’s end-of-season highlight package is high. Twenty years ago, its a traveling violation but today it is slick offense.

The domino effect is predictable and some would argue the shift has been intentional. Less traveling calls on quick carrying moves allow more points to be scored. More points equal more superstars which in turn leads to a more marketable product on the floor.

While the enforcement of traveling is far from the only factor leading to increased scoring, it is undeniable that the game is now much more favorable to offenses.

The motivation for mission creep

This trend is not up to the players. They are simply playing in an environment created by those that enforce the rulebook. The main thing players ask for is consistency from one call to the next, from one game to the next.

The overarching reason for this paradigm shift is - offense sells across all sports. The NFL has changed rules over the years to free up receivers and protect star quarterbacks. The next MLB season will outlaw over-shifting defenders and a new pitch timer will speed up the game. The distinction is the NBA’s increased scoring has not been achieved by making official rule changes. There seems to be a dual incentive to maintain continuity with previous eras by leaving the old rules in place but also giving offensive players added latitude to make the game more entertaining. Deception can be profitable.

The question I found myself asking after watching JxmyHighroller’s brilliant video on this subject: why don’t more of us - fans and media - notice this trend or seem to care?

The best answer I can think of comes from the end of 2006’s The Prestige.

We want to be fooled because...deception can be fun.

The question for the NBA and its fans: will that same deception one day become tiresome?