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What NBA rules were changed for Michael Jordan?

Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time in the eyes of many people around the world. On top of being an elite player, his cultural impact was felt around the world in the 1980s and 1990s, and is still felt to this day. Jordan caused a lot of things to change, both inside and outside the world of basketball.

What NBA rules were changed for Michael Jordan? In the 1987-88 season, the NBA introduced a rule that made it illegal for teams to place more than two players above the key on the weak side (away from the ball), isolating two offensive players on one side. This was a tactic by the NBA to create more shared offenses instead of player-dominant systems, and this rule was known by many as “the Michael Jordan rule” because he was an excellent isolation scorer.

This great Washington Post article from 1987 when the rule was introduced gives a brilliant frozen in time account of the how’s and the why’s of “the Michael Jordan rule”.

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What was the effect of the illegal offense rule?

In the 1986-87 season, Michael Jordan won the scoring title with a ludicrous 37.1 points per game, and defenses were powerless to stop him. They would try double-teaming and even triple-teaming at times, but Jordan would score at-will, particularly in 1-on-1 situations (isolation offense). As such, the NBA wanted to stop blatant isolation offenses that not only put defenses at a major disadvantage but made offenses and the general pace of the game quite slow. They did this by introducing the illegal offensive rule the following year, the 1987-88 season.

The effectiveness of the rule was limited because it did not completely address the underlying issue; that was the illegal defense rule, which mandated that defenses had to play man-to-man. There was no concept of zone defense or help defense; players had to commit to a player at all times, and could only double-team in certain scenarios, making isolation scoring easy especially for players of Jordan’s caliber. Because the illegal defense rule existed, the illegal offense rule did not have a strong impact on isolation scoring; eventually, the league got rid of the illegal defense rule in the early 2000s, making the illegal offense rule surplus to requirements as well.

That being said, despite his prowess at isolation scoring, Jordan failed to make significant headway in the postseason focusing primarily on isolation scoring. Despite never matching the scoring average of his ‘86-’87 season, Jordan won his 6 championships thanks to opting into Phil Jackson’s triangle offense, which required Jordan to share the ball with his teammates.

What other rule changes were made due to certain players?

Some rules in the NBA were adopted due to certain players’ playstyles, and this was common in the early years of the NBA: the first batch of NBA superstars inspired the NBA to make rule changes to curtail their dominance. This batch of superstars include George Mikan and Wilt Chamberlain, both who were dominant bigs.

George Mikan was the first superstar the NBA ever saw and a true pioneer of the sport. For example, Mikan was involved in the lowest-scoring game of basketball in NBA history. That was because the score was 19-18, and the opposing team was so sure that Mikan would score if he had possession, they kept the ball amongst themselves for the rest of the game. This led to the invention of the shot clock that limits the amount of time an offense can have possession.

Mikan was such a dominant force in the paint that they eventually increased the size of the paint from 6 feet to 12 feet. Why was that a problem? Because of the 3 seconds in the paint rule, players now had to situate themselves further from the basket. This rule was called the “Mikan rule” because Mikan was an elite force around the basket. Back in his college days, Mikan’s defensive play required rulemakers to introduce defensive goaltending, an idea novel to them because they never thought that defensive goaltending was even possible!

Wilt Chamberlain may be the most elite offensive threat the NBA has ever seen in history, and they introduced a few rules to stop his dominance. Teammates would throw the ball over the basket from behind on an inbounds play so that Chamberlain could catch it and score; this was banned. Chamberlain would dunk his free throws; this was also banned. Remember the Mikan rule? Chamberlain was still so dominant that they had to further extend the paint from 12 feet to 16 feet. Chamberlain’s rebounding prowess also introduced the rule of offensive goaltending.

As the league solidified and expanded, rule changes specific to or inspired by certain players became less frequent but were still created where necessary. For example, one rule about the landing zone of shooting players was introduced after Bruce Bowen would put players in potential danger, while shooting players are not allowed to kick out, which most attribute to Reggie Miller. Other rules that most believe to be attributed to a single or select few players include making hand checking illegal (after the 2004 NBA Finals), the rip-through (Kevin Durant and Dwyane Wade were repeat offenders), and the defensive 3-seconds rule (thought to have been made for Shaquille O’Neal).

What did become more common in the last few decades were rules about player conduct rather than gameplay, and some of them were specific to certain players. The most famous example is probably the dress code the NBA introduced after Allen Iverson routinely wore clothes that the NBA felt were incompatible with their image. Other rules include contract rules and clauses included in the collective bargaining agreements between the NBA and the NBA Players Association, such as Bird rights (named after Larry Bird) and the amnesty clause (introduced for Allan Houston).

Truly dominant players inspire changes in the NBA’s rulebook, usually to rein in their almost-unfair advantage over the rest of the league. When remembering stars such as Jordan, Wilt, and Mikan, it’s a feather in their resumes for people to be able to say that they were so good at the game of basketball that the only thing that could try to stop them from dominating was the league throwing the rule book at them.