What to do about hard fouls: Nothing [more]

Henry Abbott: If I’m David Stern, I want dunks. I want people watching that on TV, on smartphones all over China. Someone wrapping him up, or throwing him to the floor … it’s not good TV. It helps your team, but …

Shane Battier: Then what’s our goal? What’s our goal? Television, or basketball?

These sentences capture the essence of an exchange between TrueHoop writer, Henry Abbott, and Miami Heat forward, Shane Battier.  The topic for discussion was hard fouls in the NBA, and whether and how the league should address them.  Abbott clearly views hard fouls as a problem yet to be resolved:

“They make the game more dangerous and ugly than it has any reason to be, and the league should do something about it.”

Battier mostly defers on the policy question:

“We’ll let the commissioner and his good people worry about selling broadcast rights and whatnot.  Our job is to exploit the rules, within the rules, and get a competitive advantage which is the same in any sport across the board. Win the game. That’s the only thing.” (Emphasis added.)

There are a lot of relevant questions to be asked, including but not limited to:

  • Are hard fouls actually a problem?

Abbott says yes.  Battier doesn’t say, which at a minimum suggests that he isn’t losing any sleep over the hard fouls that he commits or receives.  From my comfortable seat on the couch, I sometimes cringe when a slow-motion, high-definition replay shows a driving player get whacked across the face before crashing down to the hardwood floor.  But the most important part of that sentence is, “from the comfortable seat on the couch.”

The players’ perspective matters a great deal on this issue because they’re the ones receiving those hits.  Impact is a part of the game and when a player is out on the floor, there is a lot of focus, sweat and adrenaline that changes the reaction — physical, mental and emotional — to what seems like a severe collision.  It might not always be quite as painful as it looks.  Then again, pain and injury are different concepts.  Broken bones, damaged spinal columns and concussions are to be taken seriously.  If hard fouls are leading to injuries, that’s a problem.

Which leads to the next question…

  • Is basketball comparable to football?

No.  As the expression goes, “Basketball is an impact sport. Football is a collision sport.”  At least I think that’s how it goes.  If not then I just made that up.  But it’s true.

In football, where advancing understanding of head injuries threatens its future existence, contact and collisions are fundamental principles of how the game is played.  On a given play there are a minimum of ten players — approximately 300 pounds a piece, at the NFL level — blasting into each other with all the force they can muster.  In the defensive backfield, safeties built something like Nate Robinson float around looking for a vulnerable receiver.  When the timing is just right he can level the unsuspecting and lanky target somewhere between the chest and the chin, commencing a wild whiplash and crash to the ground.  The defender struts around to raucous cheers from 70,000 adoring fans.  The receiver lies still on the ground.  Football is dangerous.

Basketball is not football.  It’s a game premised first on skill and second on physicality.  Think about the concept of a screen: One offensive player occupies a space by standing still with the implicit understanding that defenders must move around him.  It’s like the opposite of what football linemen do.

Now, some contact is inevitable — it occurs in practically every matchup on every play.  Post players engage in a quasi-wrestling match for choice real estate known as “the block.”  It usually begins with some type of misdirection by the offensive player to get his opponent looking or moving the wrong way before he aggressively steps around him, plants his rear in the defender’s space and using one arm — the one that isn’t making a pass target — to feel or even hold the defender in place so he can’t steal the ball or dislodge his position.  Depending on the players involved, it could be described as “physical play.”  Carmelo Anthony, Zach Randolph, David West and Kevin Love are some of the best in the game at “exploiting the rules” (to borrow Battier’s phrase) to be as physical as possible without being called for an offensive foul.  But none of this is even a little bit dangerous.  By and large, basketball is a safe sport.  Freak accidents can happen (see Louisville broken-leg injury) but they can happen in any walk of life, too.

  • Impact at the rim: Should something be changed?

I’m getting off track.  Abbott and Battier weren’t talking about post battles or screen setting.  The discussion is about hard fouls at the basket.  Abbott writes:

“Increasing the penalty for these fouls is all it would take to inspire coaches to tell their players to handle players shooting layups like they already tell them to handle players shooting 3s. Play D, contest the shot, but don’t foul.”

My first reaction is to ask what the new, increased penalty would be.  The flagrant foul rule already exists.  If contact is deemed unnecessary, the penalty is two shots and the ball.  If contact is unnecessary and excessive, the offender is also ejected.  In either case, he’s fined by the league.  It’s imperfect and subject to interpretation, but it clearly penalizes the most egregious fouls greater than usual.  Manu Ginobili’s flagrant foul against the Grizzlies very nearly swung the result of an important playoff game.

The way I see it there are two general ways to penalize flagrant fouls: reprimanding the offending player outside of the game itself (fines, suspensions) or reprimanding his team inside of the game.  The former requires bargaining with the players union.  The players we’re here seeking to protect would have to agree that — you know — they want more protection.  In deciding between increased player safety and the possibility of a huge fine, I’m reasonably sure that players will choose the one that costs them less money.

In the game itself then.  More than two free throws?  Automatic two (or more!) points and the ball, rather than send the player to the foul line?  Ejection of a player of the victim-team’s choosing (send LeBron to the showers instead of Battier?)  I guess there are endless possibilities.

My second reaction is that Abbott’s alternative basketball rules — whatever they might be, exactly — would have terrible unintended consequences. If in fact the rules changed such that interior defenders were deterred from fouling to the same degree three-point-shot defenders are, then the game will look like an all-star exhibition.  Once a perimeter player gets a step on his defender, the dunk is an inevitability.

The main problem with cracking down much further on hard fouls is that it disregards the huge component of the offensive player in a collision at the rim.  LeBron and Blake Griffin are like freight trains going to the hoop and defending that action is just not as simple as, “play D, contest the shot, but don’t foul.”  NBA rules, as they are interpreted today, greatly reward dynamic slashers that create contact with a moving defensive player.  We like to call it “body hunting.”  The stronger the offensive player is (think LeBron, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade) the greater his ability to stick a shoulder into the help defender, gather himself, and try to score the bucket and the foul.  Defenders of these plays are in the unenviable position of trying to prevent a basket, avoid embarrassment and, yes, avoid injury all at once.  Fouls — sometimes excessively-hard ones — are a necessary evil of this game of high-flying freak athletes trying to jump over and through each other for nasty dunks. To think there’s a possible set of rules that could encourage forceful drives to the rim, legitimate defensive effort, and a penalty structure acceptable to the players union seems idealistic if not naive.  I’d prefer they keep the rules as they are and continue to call flagrant 1’s and 2’s as necessary.

One final point on this, and it’s a broader one about NBA rules.  Abbott says to Battier:

“So, if you’re Frank Vogel, you’re saying basically, well, we’re not as good as that team but we can level the playing field by fouling the hell out of them.”

There’s a logical problem with that statement.  It’s internally inconsistent.  The rules are the rules.  If the field is level when the Pacers play the Heat, then the Pacers ARE AS GOOD AS THE HEAT.  They just play the game differently than the Heat.  What makes them good (defending the basket) is different from what makes the Heat good (attacking the basket).  (I don’t think that’s actually true, but that’s beside the point.)  It seems like rule-change proposals are made with the goal in mind to reward a certain type of skill.

The more tightly basketball rules regulate what players can do, the more narrow the path to success becomes.  In this case, explosive dribble penetrators would be better than they are now.  Teams that have LeBron or Rose will get better, even though those teams are already great because they have those players.  Teams that don’t have one will get worse.  The gap widens.  This is probably what the Vogel comment was getting at, but the point stands: the rules do enough to reward skilled play with the hand-check prohibitions and basic rules of basketball like free throws and foul outs.  The league holds onto the goofy “defensive 3 seconds” rule as an arbitrary way of opening up the lane for exciting drives to the rim.  (Maybe that’s part of the reason these hard fouls happen more often in the NBA than college, where a help defender is better positioned to play *normal* defense?) If anything, rule changes should aim to create more ways to succeed and lower the importance that a single player can have on his team’s success.

LeBron is incredible, the greatest player I’ve ever seen.  He doesn’t need any more help from the rule book.



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2 responses to “What to do about hard fouls: Nothing [more]

  1. Great piece here. I think it will be very hard to legislate the “hard foul”, but if they find a way, it’ll change the course of the NBA in much the same way as the hand-check rule. I do think the Bulls were trying the tact of fouling the hell out of the Heat to tilt the odds more in their favor, but it didn’t work. Should be interesting to see how this plays out.
    Check out my Game 3 preview for SportsFansNews.com: http://sportsfansnews.com/nba/heat-vs-pacers-what-to-watch-for-in-game-3/