Speaking recently on ESPN’s NBA Today podcast about how basketball’s physicality is devolving throughout the league, Bucks forward Luc Mbah a Moute identified Kevin Martin as one of the league’s finest floppers:
“A lot of guys, their whole game is flopping offensively, and they’re very efficient at it,” he said. “[Martin] is one of the best floppers. Offensively he uses it to his advantage; he does a good job at it, getting to the lane, hitting people and throwing the ball up. He’s just using the game, being smart.”
Mbah a Moute’s commentary was phrased in a complimentary way, but it shouldn’t be read that way. With the playoffs in full bloom and each possession under the microscope of a basketball watching nation, flopping has quickly become the NBA’s most contentious issue. Pacers head coach Frank Vogel was fined $15,000 last week before his series against the Heat started, not for commenting on any actual officiating, but for calling Miami out as one of the league’s most advantageous group of floppers. In his first round series against the Clippers, Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins said “Chris Paul does a good job of flopping” in a nationally televised in-game interview.
Some believe it’s impossible to legislate, and others, like current ESPN analyst and former Rockets head coach Jeff Van Gundy, can’t understand why referees blow the whistle in obvious situations where a player’s body reacts to non-existent contact.
As a productive scorer who’s averaged over 20 points per game in five of his eight seasons, Martin’s face could become the overblown mascot shown on flopping’s figurative billboard. Foul shots are Martin’s offensive foundation. They’re what earned him an eight digit contract, and what make him an annual snub at All-Star weekend. You already knew he was one of the best at getting to the line, and that the way he did it was quirky (to say the least), but now that the winds against flopping are the harshest they’ve ever been, how does this affect players who use it to thrive? What will guys like Martin do if referees begin calling the game differently?
This past season may have served as a window into the future. Martin drew 2.1 fewer fouls per game in 2012 than he did the year before. Statistically speaking, he had no impact whatsoever, positive or negative, on the team. His sudden inability to get to the free-throw line took away the one thing he was really, really good at, and it made him an average shooting guard at best.
This serves as direct contrast to the 2011 season, when Houston’s FTA rate (free-throws attempted relative to field goals attempted) was higher with Martin was on the court, and lower than average when he was off, which is to be expected: Martin drew more fouls than Derrick Rose, LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Paul, and Paul Pierce, all while playing fewer minutes. (In the case of Aldridge, a power forward who spends half his time near the basket, Martin played 610 less minutes and drew 14 more fouls.)
A couple days ago, with the help of Synergy, I watched every shooting foul Kevin Martin drew this season. To be honest, it was tough to watch. His body looked like a crash test dummy. First he snaps his neck back, as if he’s been jolted forward on a roller-coaster. Then there’s a yelp; a sudden cry for help directed towards the officials, or whoever will listen. Most of the plays looked eerily similar, showing consistency and an ongoing refusal from the league’s officials to acknowledge an action that isn’t a foul.
Sometimes the whistle was just, but a good percentage of the time it wasn’t, and when it’s bogus, the innocent defender turns into a child just informed that the Tooth Fairy doesn’t exist.
The five plays you are about to see are an embarrassment to the game of basketball. Speaking as someone interested in preserving both the NBA’s integrity and entertainment level, they have no place in the game. And yet, removing them is so difficult. In most cases, even the shrewdest eyes aren’t able to appropriately identify what’s a flop and what’s not in a split second’s time.
Martin’s made a career off deceiving opposing defenders. In the 40 games he started this year, we saw his value—both on the trade market and the court—take a substantial hit, all because he showed a growing powerlessness when it came to attacking his spots on the floor and ending up at the free-throw line.
Kevin Martin is a one-dimensional player who primarily gets his points from the free-throw line. He doesn’t get anybody else involved, doesn’t play defense, and his team’s don’t win—Martin’s career record in the playoffs is 2-4. (He’s sort of like a poor man’s Carmelo Anthony.) He isn’t the same player without the sound of a whistle, and looking at his flopping from an absolute worst case scenario, a drastic change in the way the game is refereed could slowly push him right out of the league.