The NBA announced on Wednesday that it will fine players guilty of “any physical act that appears to have been intended to cause the referees to call a foul on another player.” The league elaborated just a bit: “The primary factor in determining whether a player committed a flop is whether his physical reaction to contact with another player is inconsistent with what would reasonably be expected given the force or direction of the contact.” In other words, flopping. You all know what it is. It’s not suitable for legal definition, but like Justice Potter Stewart said of pornagraphy, “I know it when I see it.” When Chris Paul is dribbling, the slightest touch from a defender is met with his body flailing backwards as if he had the body weight of a feather and balance of a drunk. European and South American players are sometimes blamed for bringing this tactic to American hoops, with their respective nations’ soccer tradition poisoning our sport. Luis Scola, Anderson Varejao and Manu Ginobili carry on the torch passed down from Vlade Divac.
Our Timberwolves are not blameless here. As you know the Wolves have an international roster. Three Timberwolves, in my opinion, have reason to call their accountants to discuss the new fine policy. (Eds note: They must’ve already called Billy Hunter, because the union has filed an unfair labor practice for this unilateral decision by the league.) The first is Kevin Love, who combines relentless work ethic on the boards with all the craftiest tricks to convert plausible contact into bonus free throws. I’m not convinced that he’s always getting grabbed or hit when the ref blows the whistle. But Love yells, screams, and sometimes flops, consistently getting to the line. Another is Ricky Rubio. Ricky has a lot of the same tendencies as Chris Paul. He doesn’t sell the contact as much when he’s 25 feet out, but when he takes off into the lane, he contorts his head and body in all directions when he’s met by any contact. Ricky gets to the free throw line quite a bit for a player of his type.
But the player that most worry people about is J.J. Barea. For two reasons. One, J.J. is very small and has only one line of defense against post players. That is, he gets position and draws a charge if they back their body into his. Sometimes it looks like he’s flopping. Specifically, he whips his head backwards each time the opponent takes a dribble and backs him down. Two, J.J. is notoriously dramatic when receiving this contact, and it almost always leads to possession the other way. His antics are effective. Really, really effective, and his opponent usually gets pissed off because “he was just posting up!” John Hollinger mentioned Barea in a tweet:
But is J.J.’s move–the one where he’s defending a post player and responds dramatically to being “backed down”–is that a flop?
The rules state:
If a defender is able to establish a legal position in the straight line path of the dribbler, the dribbler must avoid contact by changing direction or ending his dribble.
The commentary to the rules explains:
In all guarding situations, a player is entitled to any spot on the court he desires, provided he legally gets to that spot first and without contact with an opponent. If a defensive or offensive player has established a position on the floor and his opponent initiates contact that results in the dislodging of the opponent, a foul should be called IMMEDIATELY.
When J.J. gets these calls, he does not usually fall down. This is unlike Scola or Varejao (or Vlade before them). Barea sticks his face very close to the jersey of the offensive player, and he’s so short that he usually doesn’t have to worry about getting his nose cracked by the other guy’s head. When the opponent backs up, J.J. certainly has “a legal position in the straight line path of the dribbler.” By backing him down, the opponent is certainly not, “avoiding contact by changing direction.” J.J. is “dislodged” when the physical contact with the post player causes him to back up, and in his case, causes his head to whip back.
The rules are there to protect from this exact scenario. The only question now is whether the head-whip routine, “appears to have been intended to cause the referees to call a foul on another player.” But it is a foul! This will be a tricky one. As will many others. A charge is properly taken by “sitting down,” and pushing one’s self backwards to slide on the floor. This prevents back and head injuries. Watch Shane Battier sometime. Part of that process requires the defender to put his weight on his heels. If the contact is less than expected, he still might fall over. There will be plenty of grey area. I hope Barea doesn’t fall victim to unfair punishment for what is actually legal defense. Perhaps the rule will be directed more toward plays like this one: