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New Ball in NBA Won't Impact Scoring

by Drew Mangione of Doc's Sports Picks

With the NBA poised to enter another Golden Era, Commissioner David Stern apparently couldn't leave well enough alone. For the first time since the 1970-71 season, the greatest athletes on hardwood will have a new ball to pass, dribble, dunk and shoot. As the commish put it, the new ball ensures "the best basketball players in the world will be playing with the best basketball in the world."

However, the change has already drawn the ire of the defending champions and their monstrous superstar Shaquille O'Neal, who said it "feels like one of those cheap balls that you buy at the toy store, indoor-outdoor balls." The league touts the new ball as better when wet, but the big man disagrees and backed it up with some predictions: "I look for shooting percentages to be way down and turnovers to be way up."

History shows that the league's last remaining dominant center may be right, or at least half right. At the close of the 1969-70 season, league-wide shooting percentages had peaked at .460 and scoring was at the fourth highest level in league history. In the first season with the now obsolete eight-panel leather ball, percentages dropped to .449 and scoring slipped by more than four points per game from 116.7 to 112.4.

With shooting averages at .454 last year, will we see a drop to .443, which would be proportional to the effect of the last change? That's the same percentage as 2000-01, when scoring fell to 94.8 ppg, the lowest since 93.1 ppg in the 1954-55 season, which was the first with a shot clock.

I say "half right" because it is impossible to gauge how the new ball affected each team's turnovers in that first season. Turnovers weren't an official statistic until 1973-74. However, since TOs became tracked, team averages have dropped from 20.8 per game to 14.4 per game last year.

Of course, who is Shaq anyway to talk about shooting and turnovers? It's a highlight if he takes more than five dribbles and, let's face it, his free throw shooting cannot drop much lower. The league's June 28 press release about the new synthetic two-panel ball said it was tested by three-point specialist Steve Kerr, whose J kept him in the league for 15 years without other skills, and the flashy former point guard Mark Jackson, whose inconsistent shot was more than overshadowed by his prowess with the ball. Paul Pierce, perhaps the league's most underrated star, has also endorsed the new NBA basketball. (Of course, he has a contract with Spalding.)

Despite Shaq-Fu's claim of a ball that's slippery when wet, the league says the new ball deflects moisture better and that the micro-fiber composite will provide better grip and feel. Furthermore, the league and Spalding claim the new product will be more consistent and require less time to break in.

If you've bought more than one of the old official balls in your lifetime, you probably understand the inconsistencies and the need to break the ball in. A group I played indoor pickup games with for several years bought the same model of leather ball each year and each year it felt just a wee bit different; some were slick and some had stick. Of course, I'd be lying if I said the Official NBA synthetic leather balls I bought for outdoor play had the same feel every purchase.

I expect the great Shaq Daddy to be right in the short-term, but by the All-Star Break percentages will start to climb again. If this all-new composite material achieves the consistency the league says it will, then expect home court advantage to matter just a shade less this year. No more home ball advantage. But honestly, everyone uses the same sphere, so it can't mean too much.

Here's what an oddsmaker at Bodog had to say about how the new ball may effect NBA totals:

1) What impact do you think the new ball will have on NBA totals?

"The changes made to game balls will have very little, if any, effect on NBA totals. The only thing potentially affected by the changes is the handling and control of the ball as the enhanced grip may make the ball easier to control. Either way, the changes aren't going to affect shooting and, like it is in every sport, the players will have to make slight adaptations to get used to the changes. Overall, Bodog isn't expecting the new ball to have any effect on NBA totals."

2) How exactly will books adjust to setting the totals because of the new ball, since they have no background on what (if any) the impact will be.

"The game ball changes will not affect how Bodog sets totals at all. There would have to be substantial differences in game play at the start of the season for Bodog to worry about setting NBA totals differently."

3) Are oddsmakers concerned about an overreaction in the totals like we saw at the beginning of hockey last season?

"Bodog isn't worried about an overreaction in the totals as we expect the ball changes to have little to no substantial effect on NBA game play."

4) Did the new ball have any impact on scoring while it was tested in the NBA Development League?

"We were unfortunately unable to find any NBDL testing results directly related to totals, game play and the new ball design."

5) Is this new ball stuff all a bunch of nonsense?

"This will all depend on how the players take to the new ball design. If the players like the new design more, it will be good for them and the fans alike, as the quality of the game will only get better."

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