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NBA Needs to Be Harder on Shooters and Floppers

Points are great, but come on. Give defenders a chance!

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Brooklyn Nets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Last week Portland Trail Blazers guard Gary Trent, Jr. got investigated for violating the NBA’s flopping rules in a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. He was issued a warning for the theatrics, which didn’t sit well with some Blazers fans. Let’s take a look at the issue in today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag!


They busted Trent for flopping? Gary Trent? One of the hardest workers in basketball? What the [NSFBE word redacted]? First of all the call was BS. Second of all they’re not doing this with anybody else’. James Harden anyone? Ever seen him play? Can you call this out please, so maybe the league office can see or explain?

Call Me Dude on Fire

Actually I’m glad the league is looking at things like this. I wish they’d look at them more...or as you say, at least with more consistency.

The NBA has biased the rules towards offensive players over the last 15 years. Rules adjustments that started as, “No handchecking!” have morphed into an airtight prohibition against anything that might possibly interfere with offensive players, including actually defending them.

I was certainly in favor of this evolution. How long could we watch Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, and Hakeem Olajuwon take turns backing down defenders in isolation? The only difference between attempts were side of the floor and distance from the bucket. How long could we watch defenses slow down the game even further by mugging those players and/or sending them to the line? Back in the day, the only meaningful pass in the league was the post-entry pass. No matter how good the players involved were, that was boring as snot.

The rules changes brought fresh air into the game. Kick-outs, drives, and multiple-pass possessions returned to the court. Stars still thrived, but five players started to matter instead of just one. Scoring increased, plays got prettier, the league was better overall.

The rise in enjoyment reached its peak, for me anyway, between 2011 and 2016. That encompassed the Mavericks title, the Big Three in Miami, one more hurrah for the Spurs, plus the beginning of the Golden State title runs. Team basketball reigned among the best franchises and permeated down to all but the worst. I remember the 2012-2014 Trail Blazers particularly fondly. They played the most beautiful basketball we’d seen in the Rose City since the Drexler era.

As the Warriors Revolution continued, though, offenses got more specialized. The three pointer changed from occasional weapon to default shot. Corner threes replaced post plays, pretty cuts, and defense-shifting passes as the gold standard.

Analytical minds are quick to point out that the three-pointer is the most valuable shot in basketball. Corner threes are the easiest to make. Fantastic. Nothing wrong with that.

At the same time, though, defensive rules have become so draconian, offensive players so protected, that even though everybody knows that opponents will run high pick and roll to free shooters, nobody can actually defend it. The problem isn’t that screens and threes have risen to prominence. The problem is, when you take away the teeth of defenders, there’s little reason for the offense to choose anything but.

After the smoke clears, we’re left with the same 90’s-style predictability, just inverted. Instead of one pass to the post and then gang-rush for the offensive rebound, we see one screen and then a pass for an open three. Scores are not longer 93-87, they’re 120-115. When those gaudy numbers happen every night, spreading slowly to all 30 teams, how much can you really watch before you say, “I’ve seen this already.” It becomes like a pinball score: lots of noise, but you’re never really sure what “good” is.

The NBA isn’t going to reverse the offensive trend, at least not soon. Eventually I think they’ll have to, but they’ll cling to deep bombs and raucous scoring sprees as long as they can in the name of “excitement”.

Since that’s the case, it’s absolutely imperative that the league enforce the rules correctly, also interpreting where the advantage lies, distinguishing who needs tight inspection and who needs a little grace.

At this, they are utterly failing.

Under current rules, dribblers, passers, and shooters can get wide open on a whim. Fair enough. They’re skilled and success has its privileges. But half the time when they don’t succeed, offensive players get bailed out by ticky-tack fouls. If a defender goes under a screen, the ball-handler will pop a three. If the defender tries to follow over the screen and comes anywhere near the dribbler afterwards, it’s a whistle. Either way, that’s a win for the “O”, a loss for the “D”.

Offensive players, including some we could name in Portland, understand this and work it to their advantage. NBA players have long employed the, “Scream and grunt when you put up a layup” routine. Now they lean, fall, yell, and double-clutch 24 feet from the basket to draw a whistle. Once upon a time fouling the jump-shooter would get you chewed out or benched. Now it happens eight times a quarter, minimum, even to the league’s best defenders.

If the NBA doesn’t change the rules favoring offense, it should even out the discrepancy by scrutinizing players with the ball, not just the players trying to defend them.

  • Fouls should be demonstrable, coming when defenders make decent impact against the body and/or alter the path of the shooter’s arms during the shot.
  • A player’s shooting motion should be vertical and, for the most part, smooth. Any obvious leaning into defenders should invalidate all but the most egregious fouls. Angling towards a defender while jumping gives the defender permission to make contact. The refs will not make the call under those circumstances unless there’s a train wreck.
  • If a shooter double-clutches and goes up into the body of a defender who closed with them, but did not otherwise make contact, that’s on the shooter. Their arms could have gone up free and clear if they had just taken that shot in the first place.
  • If the defender touches a shooter’s hand after the ball is out of it but there’s no other contact, that’s a high-five for getting the shot off clean, not a whistle and three free throws. Follow-through cannot be offended. If the defender was close enough to make that kind of contact, maybe the shooter wasn’t quite as open as he thought.

Finally, offensive players flopping should be viewed like billionaires trying to finagle a tax break. The rules already advantage you. You’re free to run with it, but if you try to game the system for more, you’ve got to go home now.

Any player who demonstrably flops should have the book thrown at them: a minimum three-game suspension for the first offense, increasing to four, five, and so on for successive offenses. Players who end up in gray area should get two freebies, a warning on the third “too-close-to-call” incident, and any gray-area offenses after should be deemed flops. This should hold true for the primary options on each team and the 12th man. If this forces the most skilled generation of NBA players ever to incorporate honest play into their repertoire, so be it. If that means the ball gets distributed more on a given night because a chronically-flopping superstar can’t risk a suspension, that’s fine too.

Players suspended for flopping should be highlighted to referees. Nothing official need be done other than to make refs aware that this player is prone to gaming the already-permissive system, so don’t blow a whistle unless you’re absolutely sure.

Measures like this won’t fix the system. They won’t even it out. They would at least keep the guys who get to eat all the cake already from hogging the appetizers too, giving other players a chance to eat every once in a while.

So yes, I am glad the league looked at Trent’s potential flop. I think they should do it with more consistency, and not just with minor players. If the rules aren’t going to be equal, at least use common sense balance when enforcing them.

Thanks for the topic! Feel free to send in your mailbag questions to!

—Dave @DaveDeckard / @blazersedge