Without question, NBA 2K3 is one of the most accurate representations of professional basketball to date. From posting up on the block to driving through the lane for a layup or a monstrous dunk, nearly every facet of the sport is executed very well, though that's not to say that there aren't some chinks in NBA 2K3's armor. There's still a lingering problem with the inconsistency in shot percentages and in the passing game, as well as a few nagging issues with basic dribbling movement when you're trying to navigate through a crowd of defenders. Still, in the grand scheme of things, these problems will largely go unnoticed by all but the hardest of the hard-core basketball fans, making NBA 2K3 a worthwhile purchase for anyone interested in the sport.
Like other games in Sega's 2K3 series, NBA 2K3 has not only been revamped to include the new ESPN interface, but has also received an upgrade to its franchise mode. Of course all of the basic options are still there--you can trade players, sign free agents, and take a look at your own roster, all of which can help you put together a competitive team before the season begins. When it does actually start, you can look at all kinds of statistics for teams and individual players or even see who leads the league in a specific category and which rookies are on top of their games. You can also monitor the all-star voting ballots in the hope that one of your players is at the top of the list. Based on all this information, you can then decide whether you want to try to trade for another player through traditional means, which entails direct negotiation with another team, or take a less proactive approach by putting your own players up on the trading blocks to see what kinds of offers you'll receive from other teams. If you're playing with a top-notch team, these options are obviously not as enticing as they would be for a team that's down on its luck and trying to build a solid franchise, but over the course of the season, some of your players may fall victim to various injuries, forcing you to look for a suitable replacement if one doesn't exist on your bench.
At the end of a season in franchise mode, you'll see the recipients of various awards, such as rookie of the year, sixth man, and the league's most valuable player, as well as players who have been voted as All-NBA first team, All-NBA second team, All-NBA third team, and All-NBA defensive team. But more importantly than all of that, you'll see which players are retiring as well as which players have been put on the free agent market, two things that can really impact a team. If you don't feel like taking the high-price free agent route, you can focus all of your attention on the rookie draft, which allows you to get surprisingly detailed information on each player entering the draft, down to the player that he most closely mimics in the NBA. For example, it might say that a rookie center plays like Shaquille O'Neal--as rare as that may be--and it's one of the nicer little touches in the game that makes the draft much more interesting. If you want to get an even better idea of an individual rookie's skills, then you can schedule workouts, though you have a limited number of workouts since they're essentially based on how much money you're willing to spend. Eventually, you'll reach a point in the off-season where you can start training players, and one of the more interesting aspects of this particular feature is that you can train a player in one of several different specific categories, ranging from post defense to perimeter offense. The whole off-season process can seem a little intimidating, but those not willing to put up with the gobs of information being thrown around can let the computer do most of the work.
In fact, if you don't particularly care about constructing a franchise or you want to avoid off-season high jinks altogether, then NBA 2K3 offers several other modes to choose from. There's a street basketball option where you can basically play a game of two-on-two or five-on-five without any refs on some of the most well-known street courts in the country. You can even adjust the weather and time of day, so you could play in the middle of a downpour at night. There are also season, playoff, and tournament options, so you can play through a single season, jump right into the playoffs, or make a custom tournament. Lastly, NBA 2K3 features a practice mode, in which you can have a friendly scrimmage against another team, practice free throws, or get the timing down on your shots.
But as fine-tuned as you think your stroke might be, it doesn't seem to matter sometimes in NBA 2K3. You'll undoubtedly vocalize your frustration when you see a star point guard miss three layups in a row or one of the best post-up men in the league miss three or four shots taken five feet away from the basket. This doesn't necessarily pertain to a player being either hot or cold, because your entire team seemingly goes cold at once. Incidentally, this particular problem mostly springs up when your team has pulled ahead, so in essence, it's the equivalent of the rubber-band AI used in some racing games--to keep the score close, the game puts an invisible handicap on your players. Unfortunately, that still doesn't explain why some shots don't go in even when the score is close. It would've been preferable to have the defending team step up its defense, but in this case, you'll simply miss shots that players in the actual sport would rarely miss.
The odd shot-percentage system is annoying, but it can inadvertently motivate you to play better on offense and make sure that your player has a completely open shot. Thankfully, you'll have a number of weapons at your disposal to do just that. When you have the ball, your player can do a number of juke moves, such as spins or crossovers, that will occasionally let you break past a defender for an easier shot. Also, NBA 2K3 introduces a new ball-fake move where you can fake that you're going in one direction and then immediately go in other, increasing the chance of blowing by the defender. It works quite well, particularly when driving to the lane, because defenders will scramble into the paint to block your shot, only to cause a foul. However, it's worth noting that this particular move is mapped to the Z button on the GameCube controller, so it feels a little awkward when executing it initially.
Another addition to NBA 2K3 is the midair adjustment. If you're a point guard driving through the lane and you see a center coming over to block your layup, you can adjust the shot in midair so that the defender misses the ball completely. It's pretty cool looking and works well against opponents (particularly when controlled by humans) who like to have a big man waiting around near the basket.
The post-up game is still really solid. When your player goes into the post, either you can try to back the defender down and get as close to the basket as possible before making a quick jump shot, or you can put the ball on the ground and try to dribble to the basket with your shoulder driving into the opponent. The latter option doesn't always work that well for a straight dunk or layup to the basket because the animation is so slow that it gives plenty of time for another defender to come over and double, but it's usually good for getting one or two feet closer to the basket. In addition, sometimes it feels like your player will get stuck to another player when trying to drive to the basket in such a manner, which is really sort of annoying simply because it's so unrealistic, and the resulting animation can look a little choppy.
If there's one area where NBA 2K3 could use some more work, it's the passing game. As in previous games in the NBA 2K3 series, the default method is still incredibly inaccurate, so much that your players will occasionally pass the ball in the direction opposite of what you intended. However, the icon passing system is still intact, and you can use the C stick if you don't want to stop just before passing the ball.
Whether it's zone or man to man, playing the passing lanes is absolutely crucial on defense. The easiest way to steal the ball in NBA 2K3 is to put a defensive player's body directly between two offensive players. Your opponent will try to pass the ball to the other player, but since you're in the way, your player will steal the ball. The same applies to fronting on post players--simply double-down a guard on the opposing team's post-up player, and you've increased your chances of stealing the ball dramatically. It might seem like steals would occur frequently since the passing system can be inaccurate at times, but surprisingly, they don't.
Much like with the rest of the game, a few additions have been made here and there in terms of graphical improvements over previous games in the NBA 2K series. Player faces have become a little more accurate, though some faces are certainly a little more realistic than others. You'll also notice some nice animation in the game, such as when a player runs into a pick or when you're performing some of the more complicated juke maneuvers, and as always, the dunks look fantastic. The first row in the crowd, including cheerleaders, is now fully polygonal, and some arenas even feature a fully modeled mascot lurking behind the basket. All of the arenas look incredibly similar to their real-life counterparts, down to the style of advertisements on the scoreboards. The frame rate usually remains brisk throughout the game, but it does seem to stutter at times.
The audio side of NBA 2K3 has also been subjected to some refinements. The commentary in the game is very smooth, and rarely do the play-by-play and color commentary sound robotic. Plus, the two announcers give some rather insightful comments about the action transpiring on the court. They do repeat themselves for certain types of plays, but the repetition seems far less frequent than in previous games in the series.
NBA 2K3 has some annoying flaws--the default passing system can be inaccurate, especially on the fast break, and there are some weird problems with shot selection--but in truth, these aren't flaws that dramatically hinder the gameplay experience. Rather, they force you to play a more realistic game of basketball, so you're going to take the time to make a precise pass or make sure that your man is completely open before taking a three-pointer by setting picks. If you're a basketball fan, you really can't go wrong by picking up NBA 2K3.