What's the Point of the Over and Back Rule?

My friend Mike asked me that last night.

Once the team brings the ball over half court, why is it forbidden to pass or dribble it back across mid-court the other way?

I mean, would the game of basketball be worse off if they just abolished the backcourt violation rule? Is there something I'm missing?

Mike's guess was that this rule was a relic from a time before the shot clock, and there may have been a worry that Bob Cousy would dribble all over the court for five straight minutes to protect a lead. By confining the Cousy's of the world, you force some more offense vs. defense interaction.

But nowadays it is so ingrained in me: Ooooh, don't make that pass! It's basketball lore.

But what's the point? Why not just have players pass or dribble the ball wherever they want to pass or dribble it?

Best case scenario nothing much changes and there are slightly fewer annoying stoppages of play per season. Worst case scenario somebody really learns how to exploit it, and offenses are favored more than they used to be. ... Which, of course, would not be bad at all. Favoring offenses has been a goal of many recent rule changes.

UPDATE: TrueHoop reader Luke weighs in:

I'm a longtime basketball fan and player, and I'm also a high school basketball referee. I've only been a referee for three years, but I've studied the basketball rulebook a lot and try to understand not just what a rule says but why it is in place and how it affects the game. I think your friend Mike is probably right about the origin of the rule. I think you have a valid point in that it initially seems to be pointless.

However there are two different considerations here.

First, if they eliminated the backcourt violation they would have to also eliminate the 8-second rule (10 second rule at all other levels). This affects the defense considerably, because it means that it is much more difficult to get a good result out of a full court press or trap. Think about it: It takes a really aggressive and coordinated press to get a steal or force a turnover -- but even a so-so trap on a ballhandler can result in an 8-second violation. As well, it renders a half-court trap entirely moot, because the offense isn't confined to the frontcourt. It is true that you might not even notice the difference most of the time -- but at the end of a game you've just taken away most of a team's defensive options to get back in a game when they're trailing. If a team is behind, they 1) use a full-court trap 2) use a half-court trap 3) foul. If there was no backcourt violation, and no 8-second rule, then you've considerably limited the effectiveness of options 1 and 2, if not made them entirely moot.

Second, this would be a major rule change, really a fundamental rule change in a lot of ways, and one that affects the flow of a game and even a possession considerably. If, hypothetically speaking, the NBA eliminated the two rules, can you imagine NBA coaches trying to get their players to adjust to the significant change? In my opinion, to change rules like these, all levels of basketball would have to make the same rule changes and institute them all at the same time -- NBA, College, and High School. What are the odds of that happening? I think coaches and referees -- the people who predominantly make up rules committees -- would vote down that proposed rule change anyway because of the disadvantages to the defensive schemes listed above.

I understand why it might seem that without an over and back rule, you'd also eliminate the rule about having eight seconds to get the ball across half court, but I would not assume that must be so. That rule seems to serve an actual purpose, which is to speed up the game. But the over and back rule has only the purpose of making a certain gimmicky defense easier? I could envision a world where you had to get it across the line, but were then free to pass or dribble into the backcourt. It's not impossible.

The other thing is that we can't assume that, without this rule, we'd have the same games we have now, just without some of the stirring comebacks. Instead we'd have subtle new offensive opportunities at all times throughout the 48 minutes of the game. Scoring, in general, would be easier. It's a leap to say that in such an environment comebacks would be rarer. Maybe they would be, but maybe not.

The most interesting thing about this to me so far is that I have heard from several people who make the case that removing the over and back rule would hurt the game. But so far nobody has made a case that the rule's original intention -- whatever it was -- is relevant or smart. This is definitely one of those legacy-of-the-game things. And to some degree all kinds of enterprises need to honor tradition. But at the same time "we've always done it this way" can be a tool to avoid doing the hard work of coming up with a vision of how things could be better.

UPDATE: A high-school girls' coach, Neil, says:

"... full court traps can still be very effective without the backcourt violation. Unlike the boys, we do not have a backcourt violation. On top of that, the shot clock is 35 seconds as opposed to 30 or 24. With that said, I have always been a pressing coach and will use it 50-100% of the time. Even if the ball isn't stolen, you see the offensive players rush passes and shots which leads to turnovers and poor shot selection."