Dead-eye shooters are hard to find in today's NBA

The new year starts here not with resolutions. Nor with predictions.

It starts with a contradiction. It starts with a question Seinfeldians would liken to the mystery posed by a woman who eats her peas one at a time. In a word, vexing.

It is a paradox that flummoxed almost every coach or player we asked.

It is this:

How can conventional wisdom sayeth that zone defenses will never prosper for long stretches in the NBA because the shooters are so good?

If …

Consensus also sayeth that shooting in the NBA has never been worse?

Uh, so, which one is it?

"I can't really answer that question," said New York's Allan Houston, eminently qualified as a shooting expert and yet forced to take comfort from the fact that he was not alone in his bewilderment.

The question gets lots of quizzical looks, actually, since you can find plenty of folks supporting both sides. Minnesota's zone grew increasingly ineffective last season, you've undoubtedly heard, because NBA shooters are too proficient when left alone and because opposing teams gradually solved the Timberwolves' floating alignment. Right? Trouble is, more teams are zoning this season and offenses everywhere are struggling, so you're just as likely to hear that zones are now exposing the league's low point as a collective shooting fraternity.

The facts, as we know them, are these. NBA teams are averaging 93.7 points per game as the calendar flips to 2003, which is down from last season's 95.5 points per game. Teams are shooting 43.6 percent from the field on average, lower than last season's not-so-hot 44.5 percent.

The Dallas Mavericks are the only team in the league averaging 100 or more points per game, at 103.1. The Denver Nuggets, meanwhile, are threatening to become to first team in 41 years to shoot less than 40 percent for the season and, worse yet, the first team since the 24-second shot clock was introduced in 1954 to average fewer than 80 points per game. At present, the Nuggets clock in at 39.6 percent from the floor and 80.5 points on average.

See the extremes and punch up the numbers and it's no grand leap to posit the theory that lots of guys in today's still-expanding NBA can't shoot. Just like baseball, with too many teams itself, the NBA doesn't have enough guys who can pitch.

Then you take your theory to coaches such as Doug Collins or George Karl and get Karl's candid response about how he doesn't "have the courage" to stick with zone defenses for more than a few possessions here and there. Reason being: Karl's gut still tells him the opposition will drain the first three open shots any zone allows.

"I think it's the defenses more than the shooting," Karl says in explaining the drop in scoring. He went on to make the bold suggestion that "uncontested shooting has gotten better" in the NBA than it was in the last millennium.

The whole debate started with last season's rule changes that legalized zone defenses, albeit with the caveat that defenders can't stand in the lane for more than 2.9 seconds at a time. The league's goal was eliminating the isolation play that stagnated ball and player movement for so long. The new rules would theoretically force ball and player into motion in search of the two-on-one openings that bust a zone.

Of course, in the process, that made the NBA more of a jump-shooting league than it had been. That isn't exactly a slam-dunk improvement in an age when fundamentals, in general, are thought to be as scarce today as a healthy Raptor. Players matriculate to the big time younger and less-refined (yes, less-coached) with each passing year. That might explain why Yao Ming, a 7-5 center, arguably ranks as the most fearsome perimeter threat of all the first-round picks taken in June. Denver's Nikoloz Tskitishvili barely plays, so Phoenix's Casey Jacobsen, so far, is really the only rookie you'd call a long-range specialist.

Don't forget, too, that it took a full season for these 29 suddenly liberated teams to implement zone defenses regularly. If that pace holds, it won't be until next season that we see some crisp offensive counters to the zones presently in circulation, whether clubs are blessed with shooters or not.

"Zone defenses are ahead of zone offenses right now, but (shooting is) still better than it was in the isolation game," said Dallas coach Don Nelson. "And I think we all look now for shooters more than we did. Now you're looking for guys who can catch, shoot, pass and move. The more the zone is in, the better shooters we'll recruit. The guys being left behind are the guys who don't have those skills -- unless they're a dominant big guy that can rebound."

Washington's Collins chuckled at the notion of a national shooting shortage, ticking off the bombardiers at Nelson's disposal as he spoke. Dallas, indeed, has two dead-eye foreigners (Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash) and two of the league's better clutch launchers (Nick Van Exel and Michael Finley). Throw in Walt Williams and the Mavericks have five players in the NBA's top 50 3-point shooters.

But that's Dallas, Doug. Forget the Mavericks and Sacramento. What about everyone else?

What about a league that hasn't been so offensively offensive since the lockout season of 1999, when teams averaged 91.6 points and 42.4 percent shooting. A season that comes with the disclaimer of teams essentially rushing through a five-minute training camp before cramming 50 games into three months.

"Defenses are so much better (today)," Collins said. "The generation I played in, you got a lot more uncontested shots, a lot more open shots. There wasn't as much contact. Now every shot is under duress.

"It was a different style of defense. It was more position defense, defense with your feet. Now the game has become bigger, stronger. You ride guys off the dribble, hands on them. You used to not be able to do that. So the game has really changed to where it's a lot more physical. And any time you're getting knocked around, your shooting percentage is going to go down.

"Used to be," Collins continued, "that a guard would strive to shoot 50 percent. Now I think it's more like 45 percent -- and I don't think it's because guys aren't necessarily as good shooters. I think they're shooting under more duress and the game is much more physical. In my generation, you maybe had more pure shooters. But you've got guys who can still stroke that ball."

Karl believes it, too, and argues again that defensive sophistication is a big reason why it appears as though shooting is a lost art.

"We can tell you now what percentage a guy shoots going left," Karl said. "We can tell you what percentage in (each) sector of the court. We could tell you his A and B sectors if we wanted to. This is way too much information for a (defensive) player, in my opinion, but we have this information. How much you want to give your team or a certain individual for a certain matchup differs every night.

"It's a combination of computers, film and preparation. I also think players are getting more into studying the game with the satellite. Before, players wouldn't stay up all night watching four games on TV. I have some guys who watch three or four games every night. They go home and watch games now, and you pick things up when you watch games."

George being George, mind you, he eventually does pinpoint an area of grave concern. Something that troubles him, anyway.

"In general, shooting is becoming more and more valuable in our league," he said. "I don't like that because the 3-point line is overvalued. If I was writing a philosophical book, I would say (the 3-point line) has changed the game too drastically, too dramatically."

Translation: The lure of the 3-point line, in Karl's view, has led to an outbreak of what he and others (Nelson among them) call "volume shooting." That's another way of describing what happens in Boston, where Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce sit Nos. 1 and 7, respectively, in 3-point attempts -- but also miles away from the top 50 in percentage. Pierce, in particular, is shooting 26.4 percent on treys, with just 43 makes in 163 attempts.

It's stories like those that prompt the Bucks' Ray Allen, up there with the Knicks' Houston in the club of skilled marksmen, to contradict his coach (big surprise) and side with the camp that contends NBA shooting is at an all-time low.

"I agree," Allen said. "We have good shooters in this league, but back in the day when I was watching the NBA, everybody seemed to shoot the ball. Anybody who was open knocked the shot down. Nowadays the jump shot isn't as common. Fundamentals altogether.

"You've got guys who can shoot the ball, but lights out? There might be only three or four in this league. (Peja) Stojakovic. Dirk (Nowitzki). Allan Houston. Wesley Person. After that I draw blanks as far as pure shooters."

Houston, given his turn, nominated Glen Rice and Tracy Murray and two who aren't active: Dell Curry and Chris Mullin, Golden State's GM-in-waiting.

For the record, Houston also backtracked after starting to echo Allen's disgust. More evidence that even the experts closest to the situation can't agree about the state of shooting in the new NBA.

"I don't think the NBA is lacking good shooters," Houston said. "It's the game as a whole. Being able to break somebody down, being creative off the dribble, that's what's glorified. I don't know if you can say shooting is down. On every team you've got a guy or two who can shoot. You have to go by individuals."

"Let's just say," Nelson tossed in, "that every team is different."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.