The Defensive Rule Change That Sparked the Modern Game

SEATTLE, UNITED STATES: Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls (L) looks to pass the ball as Seattle SuperSonics defender Gary Payton guards him during first quarter action in their game 03 February in Seattle, Washington. It was the first game between the two teams since the 1996 NBA Finals. Chicago won 91-84 with Jordan scoring 45 points.
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The NBA is witnessing an unprecedented time in regards to playstyle. Over the decade, rule changes have factored into three-point attempts doubling from 18 to 33.9 attempts per game. Offensive ratings have reached an all-time high.

The NBA planted the seeds of the new era in 2001 with the instillment of the defensive three-second rule over the old illegal defense rules. This rule change was supposed to increase ball-movement and move away from isolation scoring that bogged down the game in the late 90s. 

The issue was the skill set of players in the league didn’t match the new rules yet. The bruising bigs from the 90s were still in the league, and many players weren’t great shooters. Additionally, coaches, for the most part, didn’t know how to create proper spacing. The rule was supposed to speed up the game, but instead, it was at an all-time slowest.

It wasn’t until recently that offensive strategy intersected with the proper talent and skill. When these two factors came together, the NBA transitioned into a new era. 


The NBA passed the first hand-check rule in 1978 but wasn’t able to enforce it properly until a final clarification in 2004. It did allow more freedom for ball handlers. However, the defensive three-second rule countered on-ball freedom by enabling teams to give more help. 

Additionally, the offensive output from teams before and after 2004 was still weak in regards to offensive rating, points per game, and field goal percentage

The bottom line is using hands-on defense does help a little bit, but lateral movement is still the most critical factor in staying in front of a player along with help defense. 

Illegal Defense in the 90s

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - JUNE 2: Indiana Pacers guard Reggie Miller(R) reaches in on a steal attempt against Orlando Magic center Shaquille O'Neal 2 June in the second quarter of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals game six at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis, Indiana. Miller had 28 points in the first half.
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The illegal defense rules pre-2001 enforced complete man to man coverage and tried to eliminate zone concepts. A defender couldn’t play “in-between” the ball and his man or hedge. He had to commit to a double-team fully or stick to his man. 

Isolation post-ups were the go-to offensive play. Teams would place all their players above the three-point arc, which gave the post player isolation with no help. If a team were to send a player to double team, they would leave a player wide open. Under the illegal defense rule, teams had to respect non-shooting centers like Greg Ostertag as a floor spacer. 

Getting physically imposing centers like Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Charles Barkley deep post position was almost a guaranteed foul or score since there was no help defense. 

Another issue with the illegal defensive rules was that it was hard to officiate. It was a tough judgment call to determine whether a player was hedging or committing to a double. 

Teams took advantage of the grey area of the rule. The best defensive teams in the 90s, such as the Bulls and Supersonics, hedged and forced the referee to make a judgment call. 

In George Karl’s book, Furious George, he admitted that he, along with many other NBA teams, utilized a zone:

“Hell yes, we played a zone. A lot of teams played man-to-man on the strong side…and zone on the weak side.”

The combination of no consistent enforcement and offensive stagnation created a slow, grinding style of play that wasn’t entertaining to watch. 

Defensive Three-Second Rule

SACRAMENTO, CA - MAY 20: Shaquille O'Neal (L) of the Los Angeles Lakers is guarded by Scot Pollard of the Sacramento Kings during the second quarter of game two of the NBA Western Conference Finals, 20 May 2002, at ARCO Arena in Sacramento, CA.
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In the 2001-2002 season, the NBA replaced this rule with the defensive three-second rule. The rule stated a defender couldn’t stand in the paint for three seconds unless they were arms-length from their man. 

Defenders didn’t have to stay attached to offensive players at all times. They could hedge and help guard an isolation scorer, whereas before the defender was left by themselves. A player can come across the paint to help while the defenders behind him can play zone on the weak side. 

A New York Times article published in the weeks leading up to the vote presented the two views on the rule. Proponents of the rule, such as Jerry Colangelo, were worried about where the game was heading. According to Colangelo, the game didn’t have “any fluidity… There [was] less ball movement and less player movement than there’s ever been.”  

Skeptics of the defensive three-second rule thought it would slow the game down even further since it allowed zone defense. Pat Riley, coach of the Miami Heat, stated, “There’s not going to be anybody able to drive. With these rules, you’re going to be back in the 70’s in scoring. You can’t force pace.”

Riley was right to some extent.  From 2001-2010, the pace (number of possessions per game) was at an all-time low, and offensive ratings plummeted to numbers only seen in the 70s. The rule destroyed the spacing the illegal defensive rule forced.

Those who supported the rule knew that there wouldn’t be a “dramatic change [that] will suddenly turn the game into the free-flowing style that will raise television ratings and increase fan interest.” 

As time has passed, that quote from the New York Times seemed to predict the future. The NBA is a worldwide brand and is famous as it ever has been. The players and strategy finally caught up to the defensive three-second rule. The game is now defined by fluidity and freedom.

How the Rule Changed the Game

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19: Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors shoots the ball as Draymond Green #23 and J.R. Smith #5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers look on during the first half in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 in Oakland, California.
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No matter what era, proper spacing has been a cornerstone of basketball. The challenge the defensive three-second rule created was that defenses no longer had to respect a player who couldn’t shoot from the outside. They could send that defender to help guard a dominant offensive player, such as Lebron James. 

The three-point shot was the solution to space the floor. Nowadays, there is rarely more than one player on the floor who isn’t a threat to shoot the ball. 

Small-ball was the solution for teams that don’t have a skilled big man to stretch the floor; teams will employ a smaller but more skilled player. The Warriors were one of the first to practice this. They utilized Draymond Green at center. Green could shoot, handle, and pass the ball, but most importantly, defend at a high-level. 

The Warriors forced the rest of the NBA also to go small and prioritize skill over size. Teams began to switch on defense to counter the Warriors off-ball movement. Bigs were too slow to keep up in that defensive scheme, so quicker and defensive-minded players replaced them.

However, the small-ball fad is beginning to come to an end. More centers in the league have perimeter skill sets and can dominate in the post (Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Karl Anthony-Towns). The Lakers and Bucks dominated the league this year with their combination of length and spacing.

Some big men are no longer relegated to the bench in crucial moments and are becoming the main contributors to elite teams because of their all-around skill. More and more big men are coming into the league with modern skillsets.

The NBA was able to adjust its playstyle to a faster paced and more entertaining game. A single-rule change was able to turn the game in a whole new direction. While the transition took over a decade, the NBA is reaping its benefits through worldwide popularity.

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