The recent debate about physicality in the NBA, raging forth at surprising pace, illustrates a number of important phenomena in the state of the league.
The first is that as fans, blogsters, reporters, talking heads, and even players and staffers, we’re all bound to a certain superstar monomania—whether we like it or not. How much more evident could it be when this discourse, probably long overdue, only gains real traction when King James pipes up about it. And, subsequently, when his opining results in an upgrade of a Taj Gibson foul from Shooting to Flagrant. You can say that LeBron’s statements—and the fact that he’s the most important player in the league—had nothing to do with the decision. You just won’t convince me. Just as it takes a national tragedy likeSandy Hookto start a conversation about Gun Control, it takes the presence of LeBron to garner voices about many an NBA issue—and to inspire league action, on a select few.
Asked about the foul upgrade, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said: “I guess we have to call the league and get clarification on that.” His confusion is hardly singular. The “flagrant” distinction is described this way, per the NBA’s Official Rule Book : “A flagrant foul is unnecessary and/or excessive contact committed by a player against an opponent whether the ball is dead or alive.” This relatively ambiguous language, of course, leaves Thibodeau and the rest of the league in a head-scratching place—what do referees consider “unnecessary” and “excessive,” and when will they deem it to be either? After-the-fact rulings only exacerbate the confusion.
What’s clear is that as long as the league is not more definitive on what constitutes unacceptable play, LeBron and many, many others—did you see Tyson Chandler maul Jeremy Lin?—will continue to be hit hard as they approach the basket with a head of steam. Territorially marking the paint as a no-entry zone has long been an effective means of forcing teams into lower-percentage attempts, and until the league penalizes it in a way that strains perpetrators in the Wins-and-Losses column, it’ll persist.
The smarter voices in these recent conversations have spoken not so much about the particular evening that sparked it (for the record: Gibson’s play was run-of-the-mill, and LeBron himself was the true force of contact in his crash with Kirk Hinrich), but about what scarcely-penalized physicality means for the quality of the game. The growing consensus is that intentional, hard fouling steals from the unique grace of basketball, and is as taxing to spectator enjoyment as it is endangering to the men on the court. And, thankfully, in a world so thoroughly internet-assimilated, there’s reason to believe that fandom’s common-sense outcry will actually be heard, and considered by important people. John Hollinger is now a decision-maker with the Grizzlies, because of his ability to re-imagine the way we track the game, and he began his journey on a small, self-made website. The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is now something like the South By Southwest of the sporting world. Most teams in the NBA have invested in motion-sensor technology that tracks every minutiae of on-court player behavior. As the internet has permeated seemingly every dimension of life, traditional forms of league discourse have broken down, and The Geeks, for lack of a better term—those whose hearts are sunk so loyally into the rightness of how their beloved game proceeds—have arrived, with an input of crescendoing volume.
As such, we shouldn’t be too surprised if the NBA reacts to their most recent suggestions, and changes the way it enforces fouling.
But how? The ideal system is unachievable, as it requires fallible referees to act as thought police, regularly marking the distinction between an intentional, “non-basketball” play, and the kind of out-skilled flailing that’s more often the cause for a whistle-blow—an inevitable occurrence in every game everywhere. If the league’s record on their newfound attempts to crack down on flopping are any indication, then asking them to make this far more subtle judgment is completely laughable.
This is where the NBA needs to get creative, and disrupt long-standing structures. Because, just like the Draft Lottery, the current enforcement on hard and intentional fouling is actually culturalizing bad basketball.
Maybe free throws are worth more, inside the paint? 1.5 per?
Maybe hitting someone’s head, purposefully or not, counts as two fouls?
What do you think?