This week, Los Angeles Clippers star Paul George opened the proverbial Pandora’s box when he offered up the new Wilson NBA game balls as a culprit in the league’s shooting downturn. The Wilson ball replaced Spalding this season, marking the first manufacturer change for NBA basketball since 1983. The league announced the change in May 2020.
A spokesperson for Wilson cited specifics about the league’s new NBA game balls, noting they are identical to the previous specifications with Spalding. We’re only a little more than two weeks into the season, so it’s hard to reach any definitive conclusions. Are shooting numbers off? Yes. Is it because of the ball? That’s not as clear.
The NBA bounced into foul territory with its ‘pleather’ misadventure in 2006
The last time a significant change was made to NBA game balls was in 2006. The late David Stern, then the NBA Commissioner, boldly declared Spalding’s new synthetic leather ball was “the best in the world,” per David Roth of VICE.
The problem was the ball wasn’t the best in the world. The NBA’s players, almost to a man, hated it.
Steve Nash was the reigning two-time NBA MVP for the Phoenix Suns when the change occurred. Nash was never known as a complainer, and he detested the synthetic ball. Another prominent point guard, Jason Kidd, shared the same complaint about the game ball.
It tore up their fingers. Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki twice noticed his fingers bleeding, once during a game. Shaquille O’Neal of the defending NBA champion Miami Heat blasted the change during the preseason.
“It feels like one of those cheap balls you buy at the toy store,” O’Neal said. “Whoever did that needs to be fired. It was terrible, a terrible decision. Awful.”
This year’s mini-controversy is nowhere approaching a player-revolt level.
Paul George fires a shot at the new NBA game balls
After the Clippers beat the Oklahoma City Thunder on Nov. 1, Paul George answered a question related to league-wide shooting woes. His answer related to Wilson’s NBA game balls sparked considerable discussion, per Mirjam Swanson of the Southern California News Group via Twitter:
“I mean, I said that not to make an excuse or anything about the ball, but I said that. It’s a different basketball. It don’t have the same touch or softness that the Spalding ball had, and you’ll see this year, it’s gonna be a lot of bad misses. You’ll see a lot of bad misses. I think you’ve seen a lot of airballs so far this season, so again, not to put any excuse or blame the basketball, but it is different, it’s no secret, it’s a different basketball.”Paul George
But is it different besides the change in the brand name? Sarah Houseknecht of Wilson Sporting Goods told Sportscasting.com that it isn’t:
“The Wilson NBA official game ball is comprised of the same Horween leather, eight-panel configuration, and performance specifications as the previous game ball. The NBA, [National Basketball Players Association], and Wilson worked jointly with teams and players to develop and approve the new game ball through a series of evaluation sessions held over the course of the past year. Throughout this process, more than 300 NBA players were surveyed to gather their feedback, culminating with the game ball used for the 2021–22 NBA season.”Sarah Houseknecht
Former ESPN Sportscenter anchor Keith Olbermann might have put it best: “A good craftsman doesn’t blame his tools.”
After two shortened offseasons in a row, maybe some dead legs are behind the lack of shooting touch.
Do the numbers support the complaints about shooting the new NBA game balls?
Through Nov. 3, the NBA has played 15 days of its schedule, a total of 118 games. Here are the shooting numbers from this year compared to the first 15 days of last season (Dec. 22, 2020–Jan. 6, 2021, 116 games):
- 2021–22: 44.8% overall, 34.3% 3-point range, 76.5% free throws
- 2020–21: 46.0% overall, 36.3% 3-point range, 76.4% free throws
Shooting numbers, save for from the free-throw line, are markedly down over the same number of days from last season.
But it’s also worth mentioning that last season was a historically good one for offenses. Of the top 20 offensive ratings in NBA history, nine came in 2020–21, including the best seven of all time. This season, the Philadelphia 76ers lead the NBA with a 114.6 offensive rating, which would not fall into the top 20 all-time.
Is that all related to the NBA game balls? Does it have anything to do with a new emphasis on not awarding free throws to players making what are now deemed non-basketball moves? Did defenses that were continually torched last season adjust to slow opposing offenses down?
It seems like an awful lot of blame to place solely on the basketball itself.
There’s a more fundamental issue in play as well. In 2006, the change came down from the NBA with little input from players. This time around, nearly two-thirds of NBA players were involved in the process.
The fix in 2006 was to go back to the old NBA game balls. That doesn’t work, either. At least not if there’s not a warehouse full of NBA game balls made by Wilson from the 1982–83 season.
Besides, the odds are strong those basketballs — should they exist at all — might not hold up to Paul George’s softness claims, either. Much as Tom Hanks’ character lamented the loss of his beloved Wilson volleyball in Cast Away, NBA players must accept that Spalding isn’t going to float back to them magically.