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Passing becoming a lost art in NBA

By Vaughn McClure, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — Derrick Rose has been reprimanded for years but simply can’t — or won’t — break the habit.

The Bulls star often finds himself already in midair when he fires a dart to an open teammate. Such a jump pass and score might ignite an eruption by the home crowd. It also usually draws ire from certain quarters of Rose’s bench.

“Coaches have been trying to get me to stop doing that for years,” Rose freely admits. “My grammar school coach, Thomas Green — he was the first one who tried to stop me, and that didn’t go anywhere.

“That’s just the way that I play. But with those passes, I don’t get that many turnovers off them. When I jump, I know where I’m throwing the ball. And it’s usually a hard pass. I just try to hit the open guy.”

Rose’s tendency isn’t so much a player disregarding one of the cardinal rules of basketball. He has a great appreciation for an aspect of the game that has become somewhat of a lost art.

“Passing is definitely something that you forget about,” Rose said, “especially when you’ve been playing in this league for so many years.”

The modern NBA is more dependent on isolation plays and pick-and-roll offenses. Case in point: The Thunder stand second to last in the league in assists per game at 18.5, right behind lowly Wizards’ 18.8 and Pistons’ 18.6.

But the Thunder are arguably the league’s best team based on the one-on-one capabilities of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and super-sub James Harden.

In contrast are players such as the Suns’ 38-year-old Steve Nash, Timberwolves rookie phenom Ricky Rubio (who is out for the season with a torn ACL) and Celtics triple-double master Rajon Rondo, each reminding fans just how scintillating a simple bounce pass can be.

Not to mention Clippers floor leader Chris Paul, who has made the alley-oop his Picasso in “Lob City.”

“There still are some good passers in this league, but we rely on different things now — putting dominating players in certain positions,” Nash said. “I think 20 years ago and before, we played a much more cerebral game. There were more guys involved, more ball movement, more reading and reacting.”

And there were enough superstars back then making passing one of the more magical parts of the game.

Which players does Rose consider the best passers ever? The 23-year-old paused for a second.

“I loved the way Magic and Bird passed the ball,” Rose said.

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird each scored more than 17,000 points in their Hall of Fame careers. Both also had the uncanny knack for finding the open teammate.

Johnson — fourth all-time in the NBA with 10,141 assists — averaged an astounding 11.2 assists per game in 13 NBA seasons, the highest career average. The flare he displayed running the Lakers’ high-octane Showtime offense, with his signature no-look passes, led Los Angeles to five NBA titles.

It’s no wonder most of the coaches and players interviewed for this story called Johnson the best passer in league history over the likes of John Stockton, Isaiah Thomas and Oscar Robertson, to name a few.

“You’d have to give the edge to Magic because of his size,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “At 6-foot-9, he’d just throw it right over you. But not only his size, but his vision and decision-making. He had an understanding of every defense.”

Johnson, an analyst for ESPN when he’s not buying baseball’s Dodgers, says passing in the NBA has changed.

“It’s not that passing has become a lost art. It’s the way you pass that has become a lost art,” Johnson said. “You don’t see as many bounce passes. And you don’t see as many guys really understanding the angles.

“But you do have a lot of great passing teams. Miami is a great passing team. Chicago is a great passing team. … That’s what makes a championship team — whether you have five guys that will pass that basketball and know how to pass that basketball.”

Last season, the Mavericks and Jason Kidd averaged a league-best 23.8 assists per game on their way to winning the NBA title.

Bird, who amassed 5,695 assists playing forward for the Celtics, sees hesitation among NBA players.

“Some guys now are just reluctant to make the simple pass,” said Bird, president of the Pacers. “The post-entry pass is a really simple pass. You’ve got to set it up with a pump-fake. You always want to try to lead the guy into his comfort zone. Playing with guys such as Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish takes a lot of pressure off.

“Passing is really about anticipation. If you know the plays and know where guys are going to run to and where they want the ball, it’s a lot easier.”

John Paxson felt like he was back in grade school.

There were moments throughout the Bulls’ title years when Paxson, Michael Jordan and their teammates got under Phil Jackson’s skin, causing the often-philosophical head coach to respond with an unusual form of punishment.

“When Phil was really frustrated with us, he would have us get 10 feet apart with a partner and throw two-hand chest passes, ball-fake bounce passes around a defender, and two-hand overhead passes,” said Paxson, the Bulls’ executive vice president of basketball operations. “Every good coach that I ever played for always stressed that in times of pressure on the floor, you can always fall back on your fundamentals.”

With rare exception, today’s NBA stars showcased their games with traveling AAU teams separate from their high school teams. Bobcats coach Paul Silas said AAU coaches rarely focus on fundamentals such as passing and that in turn hurts the game.

“I watched AAU ball when I was working for Adidas, and the players don’t really learn anything,” Silas said. “Guys just let them play. And then the college coaches only get them for a year. Once the player gets here to us, now it’s difficult because they haven’t been taught, they haven’t learned.”

Celtics coach Doc Rivers watched his son, Austin, thrive on the AAU circuit before playing as a freshman at Duke. The elder Rivers can see both sides of the argument.

“It’s hit or miss whether they’re getting great coaching in AAU,” Rivers said. “At the end of the day, I don’t kill AAU for the fact that kids get to play. So I’ll take that. But the bad part about AAU is I don’t know if they get taught to play the right way.”

Thibodeau, who coached under Rivers in Boston, offered his take on AAU programs.

“There are pros and cons to everything,” Thibodeau said. “In many ways, because of all the AAU stuff, they’re losing some time that they would be spending with their high school teammates, their high school coaches and their summer programs. And then the focus becomes more on games, which is also good. You’re probably spending less time on practicing fundamentals in some ways. But you’re also playing in a lot more games at a higher level of competition.

“So there’s the tradeoff.”

In three of the last four NBA drafts, teams have selected point guards with one year of college experience with the first overall pick: Rose, John Wall (Wizards), and Kyrie Irving (Cavaliers).

Rose elevated his game on the AAU circuit and is now the reigning MVP, the youngest ever in the league. He finished 10th in assists last season.

Thibodeau is just fine with Rose, jump passes and all.

“With certain guys, you give them a little bit more flexibility,” Thibodeau said. “Stockton was great with the one-hand pass off the dribble. Magic the same thing.

“Point guards . . . if they show that they can handle that, you allow them to be creative to get the ball there. So I don’t have a problem with Derrick when it comes to that.”

If passing is a problem in the NBA, Rose’s seems like a good one to have.

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