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NBA moves closer to allowing zone defense

NEW YORK — The NBA is on the verge of allowing zone defenses for the first time as part of an effort to open up and speed up the game starting next season.

With scoring down and teams increasingly relying on isolation plays, the league's Board of Governors discussed a package of rules changes Friday that should be voted on in the coming weeks.

Also, a committee was formed to study the possibility of putting a franchise in Memphis, Tenn. The owners of the Vancouver Grizzlies and Charlotte Hornets applied this week to move there.

The Board of Governors, which has one representative from each of the 29 ownership groups, also agreed to give money to Canadian teams and approved the sale of the Seattle SuperSonics.

The suggested rules shifts could change the NBA significantly, moving it closer to the college and international games.

The five proposals: scrap illegal defense rules; institute a defensive 3-second rule, whereby defenders would be allowed to stay in the lane only for 3 seconds at a time, unless they were within arm's length of a player they were guarding; give teams 8 seconds instead of 10 to bring the ball past midcourt; redefine incidental contact to cut down on touch fouls; and allow players to touch the ball while it is on the rim.

"This is going to a different place for the game," commissioner David Stern said. "We're trying to ensure the game will have more movement, passing and a faster pace."

Man-to-man defense always has been the norm in the NBA, though teams will resort to quasi-zones.

The changes are meant to discourage teams from gearing offenses toward 2-on-2 or 1-on-1 isolation plays in which a majority of a team's players stand idle on the weak side to draw their defenders away from the ball.

That has helped fuel a decrease in points over the past decade. Teams are averaging 94.6 points, down about three points per game from last season.

"It's a game of flow — it's a game of ball movement and player movement and what we have is more standing than anything else," Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo said.

He headed the 11-man committee that met for two days this month and came up with the suggestions presented Friday.

Calling the proposals "very bold," Colangelo said they would have garnered the necessary two-thirds support had there been a vote Friday. Teams will get a chance to talk about the suggestions, Colangelo said, adding, "We anticipate having a formal vote within the next couple of weeks."

If approved then, the changes would take effect next season.

"I came away persuaded," deputy commissioner Russ Granik said. "You're never certain exactly what the results will be with rules changes, but it's worth taking a chance here. The isolation play that exists now, and exists only because of our illegal defense guidelines — we need to take some steps to curtail that."

Some players and coaches were skeptical about the plans.

"You can talk about tweaking the game and everything else but at the end of the day you've got to tweak the players," Pacers coach and Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas said. "Whatever rules you play by, you've still got to put the ball in the hole."

In other news Friday:

— A committee of seven owners was appointed to examine Memphis' viability as an NBA city. They have 120 days, though Granik said he thought it would take half that time. "Memphis has demonstrated itself as a city that can and will support a major-league franchise," Stern said. On Monday, the Grizzlies and Hornets both asked the NBA for permission to relocate to Memphis for next season. "Moving the Hornets from Charlotte would not be my first personal choice," Stern said, adding that he had asked the Hornets' owners not to talk to the media "for a while. ... The only people I can gag are our owners."

— The Board of Governors agreed to give a subsidy of up to $3 million to Canadian teams starting next season. Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley has said he'll lose $40 million this year.

— The $200 million sale of the SuperSonics to a group of investors led by Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz was formally approved. The Ackerley Group had owned the team since 1983.