HoopIdea: Open the airspace for dunkers

Kevin DurantGarrett W. Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

NBA players can't touch the ball so long as it's in the imaginary cylinder above the rim. Why not?

You see what's happening in that picture? What I see is five of the finest, tallest athletes in the world (counting whoever lurks behind Kevin Durant) ... waiting.

There is an art, players and coaches will tell you, to timing your jump when a ball is coming off the rim. It's one of those things the best rebounders know ... you don't jump when the ball is headed up. You jump when it is finishing its business up there, and is coming out of the prohibited, "no touch" area above the rim, and is falling down. Only then does the battle begin.

Why then? Because of an oddity in the rules: That nobody is allowed to touch the ball while it is in the "cylinder," an imaginary zone north of the basket ring.

The central tenet of HoopIdea is more players making plays. Instead we get the ball all the way to where it's most useful to skywalkers -- at the rim -- and we bind them to the ground with red tape.

The plays they aren't making would be among the game's most exciting. Imagine the scene in the photo above if the NBA played with the goaltending rules used by the D-League and FIBA, where players are free to go get that ball. Somebody would be dunking, somebody else would be trying to block that dunk, and everyone in the building would be likely to remember the moment for weeks.

"These are tip dunks, swats off the rim, missed free throws turning into big moments," says NBA D-League commissioner Dan Reed, whose league has been trying out relaxed goaltending rules since 2010. "These are plays that highlight the skill and athleticism of our players. We think it's really exciting."

Who could possibly be against that?

Reed says that fans can go a bit nuts. Say a player from the road team skies to dunk a missed free throw bouncing on the rim; you can bet hometown fans will leap from their seats imploring the referee to call what they still think is goaltending.

"Education of your fan base," says Reed, "is required." That's why a lot of D-League games feature "Did you know" video segments on the scoreboard during timeouts about this rule.

Besides a general aversion to change, however, the other main concern has been about injuries. Surely all those battles at the rim can result in off-balance landings, or forearms smashed into the metal of the basket.

Not so, as it happens. The D-League is charged with working as a laboratory for ideas in contention for use the NBA. For that reason, when the D-League introduced the new rules, they also introduced some rigorous metrics to see if the rule had a downside.

"We have had 184 total what we call 'live ball' plays this season," says Reed. "Last year there were 232." The plays come up less than once a game, and Reed says those moments have been all positive. "We have not seen any of the negative possibilities come about, whether injuries, or unusual end-of-game situations."

Reed says that nobody -- not one player, coach or executive -- has complained to him about the new goaltending rules. "We like it," he says. "It has worked for us."

What's more, the idea to use the rule in the D-League was born of conversations with the NBA's competition committee, which is made of up the league's 30 general managers (or their designees). It's on the NBA's radar, in other words, and it has been for a while.

"The international goaltending rules have been used in the NBA D-League for the past two years and have added a different and exciting aspect to those games," says the NBA's Tim Frank by e-mail. "However, the NBA Competition Committee has not shown a desire to make it part of the NBA game at this time."

It feels almost inevitable, even in the "at this time" at the end of Frank's statement. What sports executive worth his salt wouldn't want to create leap-from-your-seat excitement out of thin air?

This is an easy HoopIdea ... a ball, sitting on the rim, that could so easily become a slam dunk.


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