Flopping, Flailing, and Fouling: A Call for a Paradigm Shift

Fouls like this are “part of the game,” and better yet, can be sound strategy (Photo courtesy of ESPN.com)

“Basketball is the best game ever. Now let’s make it better” — TrueHoop

That’s the motto at HoopIdea, an excellent series of articles and discussions at TrueHoop acting as an “engine for improving basketball.” AGR wanted to get in on the fun; this article will discuss the backward culture and rules behind fouling, specifically intentional fouling, and offer possible solutions.

So far, the two most popular HoopIdea topics have been flopping (here, here, here, here, here, and here) and improving crunch time (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). There’s also this great post from Basketball Prospectus that lays out a “12-step” process for improving the sport; step #1 suggests redefining fouls. I will address all of these issues.

The problems surrounding fouling show up in the game-play and even in the language of the sport–that we have a phrase “fouls to give” illustrates how we have prescribed that which should be proscribed. Should we really be concerned, though? In Part I, I’ll review how players “legally” exploit rules, i.e., by taking charges and drawing fouls, and how it hurts the game. In Part II, I’ll do the same, but this time for “illegal” exploitation of the rules, i.e., the various forms of intentional fouling. Finally, in Part III, I’ll lay the groundwork for the rule changes themselves.

Part I: How “Drawing Fouls” Hurts the Game (and its Players)

Read Royce Webb’s lovely description of taking a charge: “Players…jump in front of other players and then…fall down to get the call…It’s a reward for falling down. It’s a play that almost always puts the refs in the center of dispute and controversy, because it’s so difficult to call–and it’s a play that prevents that kind of flow and spontaneity and true, athletic competition that almost everyone wants to see.”

When the charge isn’t called, the flip-side is usually a defensive foul. John Gasaway sees this as a problem: “If a defender has his hands up and is moving laterally, he shouldn’t be called for a foul short of sticking out his leg and tripping the player he’s guarding. And the fact that I even need to state the following shows there’s a problem: A player standing with his hands above his head by definition is not fouling anyone, even if the big star from the other team jumps into him. Not every instance of players coming into contact needs to be a violation. Let them play.”

The rules have set up a Catch-22 that encourages defenders to directly impede offensive players to “take charges” and offensive players (especially if you are a star or your last name is Maggette) to charge the lane in hopes of “drawing a foul.”

Before pondering the effects of and potential solutions to such strategies, I point you to the language of the sport. A player shouldn’t be able “draw a charge;” the charge should mean an offensive player made a “charging” action, independently of the defense (e.g., out-of-control movement or lowering his shoulder). Likewise, the offense shouldn’t be able to “draw a foul” by jumping into the defense–a defensive foul should be a defender actively changing the course of play beyond “straight-up” defense (e.g., swiping at the offensive player’s arms or moving directly into him).

The rewards of these plays and our language illustrate that we’ve created a culture of flailing, flopping, and game-stopping. Neither the actions of such plays (for the offense, blindly running into defenses; for the defense, absorbing contact and falling down) nor the results from them (free throws or charges) are inherently fun, entertaining, or safe. Let them play.

Part II: Intentional Fouls Defile the Hoops Holiness

In basketball, we don’t truly view fouling as against the rules, but rather, we see it as a part of the game (save for flagrant fouls that risk injury such as Jason Smith on Blake Griffin). There are very few examples in other sports, though, where it benefits a team to break the rules; perhaps intentional walks in baseball are such a strategy, but they also are no fun to watch and prevent us from seeing the best hitters. In basketball, this acceptance of fouling has a far-reaching negative impact by replacing the most celebrated parts of games, i.e., athletic dunks and crunch-time basketball, with the most boring part–free throws.

Here are four categories of intentional fouls and explanations of their corrosive nature.

Hack-A-Shaq: Would you rather see half-court lobs to Dwight for alley-oops or half-court fouls on Dwight resulting in free throws? The pick is obvious. The cherry on top? The free throws resulting from hack-a-____ strategies (e.g., those from Shaq and Dwight) are especially unwatchable.

Dunk-Prevention Intentional Fouls: To thwart momentum or to play “tough” defense, defenders will wrap up players like LeBron to the stop their drives or fast-breaks. The problem? They stopped an acrobatic layup in traffic, a “Mosgov” dunk, or a fast-break windmill–the very reasons fans went to the game in the first place! Also, why do we reward wrapping up a player with the label “tough defense?” That type of defense, to me, is lazy and cheap–there is a reason that “true shot-blockers” find themselves on the wrong end of posters so often.

End-Game Intentional Fouls, Example A: When defenses have all but lost, they foul to get the ball back in a monotonous cycle of futility. It’s a good strategy, but it’s an anti-climactic ending for the winning club and its fans; at worst, it’s a slow and painful death for the losers. Impartial fans will simply leave the game or switch the channel, robbing the NBA and its advertisers of precious viewers. Very rarely do we find teams that actually succeed using this strategy, and if they do, well, they did it by breaking the rules.

End-Game Intentional Fouls, Example B: When the team on defense is up 3 points on the final possession, it will often (and should) foul the offense to prevent the game-tying 3-pointer. An excellent strategy, but it eliminates the potential for the most thrilling play in all of sports–the buzzer-beater. Most worrisome is that this strategy is extremely effective; with the growth of the analytics movement, don’t expect to see anymore of these.

Part III: The Solutions–Ban Intentional Fouls, Increase No-Calls, and Redefine Fouls

How do we curb these annoying, exploitative strategies? Ban all intentional fouls. They should be treated way more harshly, to the point where it makes zero sense for the defense to do so. In soccer, defenders that commit intentional handballs get red-cards. If the ball is in the penalty box, any sort of intentional offense results in a penalty kick and a red card, which 99.99% of the time is a poor defensive strategy. In hoops, this could be applied in various ways–yellow cards, awarding teams with “free points” instead of free-throws (like 4?) and possession, power-plays, or any other functional deterrent that you can think of.

Moreover in soccer, when refs see that stopping play for a foul (intentional or not) would impede the offense, they allow the offense to carry on its merry way instead of rewarding the strategies that undermine the rules and safety. Any egregiousness on the part of the defense can be disciplined with after-the-fact yellow cards. In the NBA, refs could hold their whistles for fouls that don’t alter the course of play (e.g., fouls that prematurely end fast-breaks or prevent a team from running out the clock) and reprimand players/teams later. Either way, with the proper deterrents for intentional fouls, teams wouldn’t risk engaging in these strategies, which I’ll remind you, are breaking the rules we already have in place.

Ending intentional fouls would go a long way on it’s own, but it’s also conceivable that raising the stakes for intentional fouls could have implications for Part-I fouls, so let’s finish by fleshing that out a bit.

Let’s consider an example that involves charges, foul-drawing, and intentional fouls. A defender (we’ll call him Nick Collison) sees the offensive player (we’ll call him Blake Griffin) driving past his defender to the hoop. Upon helping, he has four basic options under the current system: (i) take the charge, (ii) play “straight up” defense, (iii) go for an ambitious block, or (iv) wrap him up with a hard, “clean” foul. Here’s how the scenario could play out in the new era of fouling.

First, we wouldn’t reward the charge (i) or the flop (iv); I have already outlined the problems with charges and intentional fouls, but click those links for some entertaining visual evidence from our case study, Blake Griffin.

Taking away these two options might give an unfair advantage to the offense. This can be counterbalanced in several ways. First, let’s make it so that Collison, when playing “straight-up defense” (ii) has a bit more leeway. He can backpedal, rotate his body, and perhaps move laterally as Gasaway suggests; as long as he doesn’t move his arms or his body directly into Griffin, there is no foul. The threat of the no-call would inspire more Derrick Rose-like acrobatics, less Corey Maggette head-charging, and less flopping, flailing, and falling.

We must address the final and trickiest option (iii), Collison’s attempted block on Blake. What if Collison knows Blake is bad at free throws and “goes for the block” with a big swing, knowing he’ll either block him or foul him (a de facto intentional foul)? One solution: Collison should have to judge whether he has a chance at the ball (like a defender in soccer)–if he doesn’t have a chance he should play “straight-up” defense, and if he goes for the block without a chance, he’ll be harshly penalized with an intentional foul. But if Collison has a chance and tries to block? He either gets the block, or fouls. So long as the foul is “close,” we can keep our free-throws or simply award Griffin the 2 points. If any of this tips the scales in favor of the offense, by all means bring back perimeter hand-checks or allow defenders to use both arms when defending post-position.

Conclusion

With the start of HoopIdea and the ongoing move toward entertainment value, it seems as though the NBA is on the verge of a paradigm shift. NBA players are as big and as athletic as ever, and it’s time we create modern rules for a modern game. Eliminating intentional fouls would prevent teams from breaking the rules to their advantage–a system that is illogical at best, and at worst, replaces the sacred slams and buzzer-beaters of hoops with dull free throws. A further redefinition of fouls that reduces foul-drawing would ultimately increase free-flowing, improvisational basketball. NBA basketball can be more fun for both players and fans, and redefining the various forms of fouls will go a long way toward that goal.

Debate and discuss! Agree or disagree, the only way to make change is to get the ball rolling. Comment on the article or email us at AGRbasketball (at) gmail (dot) com. Don’t forget to follow @AGRbasketball on Twitter or to “like” us on Facebook.

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5 Responses to Flopping, Flailing, and Fouling: A Call for a Paradigm Shift

  1. Bernie says:

    Izzy: The final minute can last maddeningly long. Typically, if the score is close it can consume at least 5 to 10 clock minutes. This is due mainly for two reasons: timeouts and intentional fouling. One solution to the timeout problem is to make them all 20 seconds (or even 10 seconds) in the last two minutes (advertisers won’t like this). Regarding intentional fouling, I consider that part of the game strategy. If team A is behind by one or two points, and team B has the ball with less than 24 seconds left, what other recourse does A have? Awarding an automatic two points with a change of possession is not the answer, because this eliminates the rebounding uncertainty which is part of the excitement of the game.

    • Izzy Gainsburg says:

      Bernie: It is only a part of the strategy because we have set up the game that way. In baseball, if an away team is down following the top of the 9th inning, that’s it–they get no more chances. In the NFL, if an offense has the ball in the closing minute and is ahead, that’s the ball-game–the defense can’t break any rules to get the ball back. In soccer, it’s the same, defense just hold onto the ball. At least there is a shot-clock…But what should the defense do? They should go for the steal. That’s what defense is–stealing the ball, not fouling players.

      • Bernie says:

        The counterexamples you gave in baseball, football and soccer show why those sports lack the suspense basketball offers in the final closing seconds.

        • Izzy Gainsburg says:

          That’s somewhat fair, until you consider the situations where the defense is up 3 and fouls to prevent the game-tying three pointer. That takes away the potential game-tying shot, and thus, the suspense that you so crave. Also, as I have said, with shot-clocks and the opportunity for a steal, it’s not like you can run out the clock as boringly as you can in soccer or football

  2. Pingback: The NBA’s Gradual Increase In Charges | Alone In The Green Room

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