BY GARY GRAY
The NBA is terrible, and it has nothing to do with central heating and air conditioning. Allow me to explain.
Between Games 5 and 6 of the Pacers-Heat Eastern Conference Finals series, a total of 75 foul shots were taken. And in the final two games of the Thunder-Spurs Western Conference Finals, 117 foul shots were taken. In the “heated” game in San Antonio this week that lit up Twitter, 33 were taken.
There’s a major flaw in the NBA: The refs dictate outcomes, and that’s bad.
Let’s look at soccer. The sports are similar, and so examining the differences between the two reveals the flaw. They’re similar in that they involve constant play up and down the field/court, with players taking on both offensive and defensive roles in a fluid, nonstop manner. There’s no equipment aside from a ball and a goal. Neither is a contact sport. Both require agility and speed and finesse. Defenders must make use of how they position their bodies in relation to the offensive players. Defenders do not have the option of plowing through someone.
The offensive players, in response, are forced to use their skills to move around the defenders or to use speed and techniques to get the defenders out of position. Space is a vital concept in both sports. Spreading the defense through passing can force the defense to chase the ball and lose track of offensive players. This opens up channels of space that can then be exploited by the offense to make movements toward the goal.
Both sports use the term dribbling. In basketball you can’t use your feet. In soccer you can’t use your hands.
The playoffs drive NBA fans to pull out handfuls of hair and drink heavily. Why? Officiating. Psychological testing, I’m sure, would reveal to us all that when our team loses, we view the officiating as skewed in the opponent’s favor. When our team wins, we see the officiating as fair and balanced. But this is where I will, not for the first time in my life, abandon psychology and turn to soccer.
A 60-second space of time in an NBA game can be dominated by the sound of the whistle. Fluid? The NBA certainly is not that. Offensive players have learned, an education that has coincided with adjustments to the rules, that they need to be in the act of shooting whenever they’re bumped. They’ve also learned that the defensive player must be a statue, which has been stationary for an established period of time, in order for any contact between the two players to be blamed on the offensive player. Therefore, offensive players have determined the easiest path to points is to jump into the air and into the defensive player and to toss the ball into the air. This is considered “in the act of shooting.” “Driving to the lane” is also popular because the defense collapses into the driving player. The driving player jumps into the sea of bodies where physical contact is inevitable. When bodies slam together, the whistle blows. And if there was an “act of shooting,” then the offensive player is shooting foul shots.
Back to soccer. There are similar rules. To simplify and summarize, defensive players are not allowed to make contact unless the player is making a clear play on the ball and the contact is incidental or is a consequence of the play on the ball. The defensive player has as much right to the ball as the offensive player. The same holds true in basketball. The fluid play of soccer, combined with the rules surrounding contact, results in periods of rapid whistle blowing which can cause play to screech to a halt.
Officiating is harshly criticized in both sports. With so many calls being made throughout a game, criticism is easy. The officials are human and anyone making hundreds of rapid-fire decisions under a microscope in the age of endless replays will be an easy target.
But here’s where the difference between soccer and basketball is enlightening and makes basketball a frustrating sport to endure as a fan. Most of the fouls called in soccer, legitimate or not, result only in a change of possession, and possession in soccer is easily transferred from team to team throughout the game without the production of goals. Thus, the majority of calls, with the exception of penalty kicks, do very little in determining the outcome of the game.
Now to the NBA. The calls in basketball, as long as there is any sort of motion resembling the “act of shooting,” result in foul shots. Another way to say it is that the fouls in basketball result in points and points have a direct effect on the outcome. As many astute commentators correctly point out during live broadcasts, the team with the most points wins. Thus, the officiating has a very strong influence on the outcome of the game.
Three of four bad calls throughout a soccer game will result in changes of possession or a few free kicks. Three or four bad calls in the NBA can result in a nine- to 12-point shift in the score. Thus officials are dictating outcomes. It doesn’t matter if the calls are good ones or not. The officials are the ones making those calls frequently over 60 minutes and a huge number of those calls result in points. A common, and understandable, response to criticism is that the game is fast-paced and officials can’t be expected to get each call right. That’s a valid point. But given that reality, should so much rest on each decision when those decisions are admittedly very difficult to make and often times impossible to make? The answer, clearly, is “no.”
The fix? Stop giving foul shots for fouls “in the act of shooting.” Just switch possession. This would accomplish two things. One, players would stop leaving their feet with no realistic intention of making, or even taking, a shot. Players now jump if they’ve been bumped behind the three-point line in a pathetic display attempt to get three shots at the line. The sad part is this: as pathetic as it looks, it works.
Second, the bad calls wouldn’t mean so much. They would have much less of an impact on the game. Officiating is tough, especially in a sport with constant movement. The less it determines outcomes, the better. A simple change of possession would leave it up to the players to score the points. Additionally, this “fix” doesn’t eliminate foul shots. As in soccer, there are areas to be protected. Flagrant fouls and technicals should result in foul shots. And after a team has committed a certain number of fouls in a period, fouls committed in the lane should result in foul shots.
But there’s no need to send players to the line every other play. That takes basketball off the court and to the line. It turns the NBA into an uncontested, free-throw shootout, and that’s lame.
Gary Gray lives in Seattle and works as a compliance analyst in Bellevue. He is writer who graduated with a Law degree from Williamette University in Salem, Ore.
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