A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Flop and Punishment; Adapt or Suffer

with 14 comments

Image by baldeaglebluff via Flickr

During the game Saturday night, James Harden executed a flop to perfection against Tyson Chandler. He bumped into Chandler, and then when Chandler reacted by putting his arms up, Harden flopped at a point where Chandler’s elbows protruded maximally. Worked like a charm, Chandler got whistled for a technical.

Among the television announcers, Jeff Van Gundy talked about how they need to fine players for such flops, while Mark Jackson said you can’t fine a guy for trying to help his team.

I can’t think of a finer scenario for a meditation on flopping and rule making.

If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’

First let’s talk about this from the perspective of the specific player who commits the flop. Coming to the world of NBA basketball and seeing how referees call the game, it is irresponsible NOT to flop. A player should do all he can to help his team win short of some great universal moral transgression. Flopping causes no physical injury to the opponent and on average helps your team.

What’s more, basketball has long accepted the strategic breaking of rules. Players regularly commit fouls with the intent of getting caught so as to stop the clock, or put a hapless free throw shooter to the line such as Shaquille O’Neal.

More generally, the nature of all laws is that they are essentially meant to be broken by anyone who is willing to pay the price of the consequences for the benefit the violation confers. In any setting where regular rule breaking takes place, it can be assured that the typical consequences of such action are simply not consistently serious enough to fulfill their intended purpose.

With flopping we have something that often times works (i.e. they don’t get caught), and when it doesn’t work the consequences are only those of a blown play at most. Clearly fear of a blown play in the face of the way referees currently call the game is not enough to stop the behavior.

You’re blind ref!

The first place everyone looks when trying to hang blame is at the referees. The poor referees of basketball, partly because of the flopping, get more hate tossed their way that perhaps any other referees. This despite the fact that the large number of possessions in a basketball game and the relatively even success between offense and defense mean that none of their screw ups has anywhere near the consequence of a wrongly awarded penalty kick in soccer.

While I’d never assume that the NBA’s refereeing system bordered on perfection, it seems pretty safe to say that if there were obvious ways to make referees much better at identifying fouls on the floor in the heat of the moment way, it would have been implemented.

Bottom line is that getting calls right in an incredibly fast, incredibly physical game like basketball is very hard. And it gets much harder when you realize that every single player on the court isn’t simply trying to outsmart the other team, they are also trying to trick the referees.

Thanks a lot guys.

Hindsight is 20/20

The next thing that then needs to come up in the minds of decision makers with every problem involved in managing player behavior is in the punishing of players after the fact. Obviously this is already done in the case of physically dangerous behavior. It’s also done in the case of socially embarrassing behavior, which really isn’t questioned as much as it probably should be imho.

When Van Gundy discusses fining guys for flops, I’m guessing the idea shocks some people.  Players in general won’t like as it literally means more money coming out of their pocket. Jackson sure didn’t like it, and brought up the point about it being unreasonable to take money out of a guy’s pocket for trying to help his team.

That argument resonates intuitively, but ask yourself “Why the heck not?”. If Chandler comes back and decks Kevin Durant tonight, can he not also claim he did it for the good of his team? Would such a rationale make him any less likely to get some kind of severe after-the-fact, money-losing, punishment for his actions?

Of course not. While there is a pragmatic reality that the players’ association probably needs to be closely involved in any kind of policy such as this, there’s nothing fundamental that should prevent fine or suspension type penalties for floppers.

Above all when considering rules and penalties, a league needs to ask “What’s best for the game?”, “What can we do to make our basketball a beautiful and entertaining event to watch?”. On the whole the NBA has done a good job of this. It’s not a coincidence that the game is much more oriented to fun-to-watch agile marvels than it was 50 years ago.

They have not however exhausted all of their options to try to stop flopping. It’s possible that they completely understand how they could curtail flopping and simply choose not to. After all, it tends to be the more agile players who can pull off the flopping well. I cannot speak for their frame of mind, only that it is clear that there is a way to adapt to make the game a more honest one.

And that the Association must either explore that way, or continue to suffer as players become more and more adept cry babies.

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14 Responses

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  1. It offends some players (and fans) sense of machismo often seems to be the big factor. If a big (for example) gets a lot of charge calls, you’ll have a lot of his own fans calling him out for being “soft” and various other sexist and homophobic slurs. Often they’ll say he needs to block the ball, or “intimidate” the opposition, EVEN WHEN IT’S NOT the optimal option.

    On the other hand, we don’t want the NBA turning into the Serie A, with extended theatrics trying to “earn” the foul (followed by a lazarus-like revival from the magic sponge). The comeuppance on the basketball court (the blown play) tends to be a bit swifter, though, so I’m not quite as concerned…

    Ravenred

    May 23, 2011 at 5:16 pm

    • I’m with you that in terms of affecting who wins, flopping is not as big of a deal as people think.

      It is however a major aesthetic issue, and it’s not simply a macho thing. Who wants to watch a game that’s constantly stopped because of fake fouls? Well, me, I suppose since I still do watch, but I ain’t watching because I love watching guys standing around – I’m watching in spite of that.

      Matt Johnson

      May 25, 2011 at 12:21 am

      • Well… I suppose the question is why call charges at all? Personally, I love to see a well-executed drawn offensive foul (if it’s there). I think it’s a valuable part of the game which Shaq left a bit of mockery given how many charges he got away with.

        Ravenred

        May 28, 2011 at 11:03 pm

      • Why call charges? Because I want to see basketball not jungleball. Full respect to the Baumgartners of the world, but I want my stars to play more like the Gretzkys.

        Matt Johnson

        May 30, 2011 at 10:26 pm

  2. I’m fine with flopping, anything to help the team. But I’d support a diving technical call by the refs which would scare players from doing it and embarrass them when they get called for it.

    julienrodger

    May 23, 2011 at 7:07 pm

    • I don’t think you can accomplish much with technicals here. It presupposes that refs can confidently recognize the floppers. If refs were good at catching flopping, floppers would stop doing it simply because they weren’t getting anything out of it.

      Theoretically you could use instant replay for determining the technicals, but you can’t stop play to wait for such decisions (it would kill watchability), and I’m skeptical that decisions could be made with true certainty without such delay.

      Matt Johnson

      May 25, 2011 at 12:26 am

      • Of course technicals could be an effective deterrent. It gets right back to your comments about expected utility as a rationale for rulebreaking. Referees don’t have to be good at identifying flops; they just have to be good enough that the proposed punishment makes the expected utility of flopping negative.

        For example, suppose the penalty for flopping were REALLY harsh: an automatic flagrant 2 and a minimum one-game suspension. Even if referees only catch 10% of flopping, do you really think players are going to take that big a risk?

        That said, I’m not really against flopping. It’s a small thing and I’m not sure it helps (offensive foul) as much as it hurts (defensive breakdown/blocking call). Diving in soccer, feigning injury, and remonstrating with referees, all in an attempt to get opposing players carded or win penalty kicks, on the other hand, is the epitome of bad sportsmanship and needs to be eradicated from the game.

        Ben

        May 25, 2011 at 1:09 am

      • Well, effectiveness of deterrence is always a combination of both the cost and the likelihood of getting caught, so uping cost is only part of the equation even in an ideal world.

        The real world adds in the element that the higher the cost of the punishment, the more an official is likely to let it slide unless he is absolutely sure.

        In both cases, doing after the fact analysis has the potential to help matters.

        I do think that flopping is minor as a game changing type thing, however it makes the game worse to watch. Are aesthetic issues trivial? If the NBA thought that way, we’d still have no shot clock.

        Matt Johnson

        May 28, 2011 at 5:05 pm

  3. A little late to the discussion, but why couldn’t the NBA implement a “challenge” system, like there is in NFL? Where the coach has a certain number of challenges and can request a video review of the call. Having only a limited number would prevent abuse (team would lose the challenge only if proved wrong), and would not disrupt the flow of play any more than the unnecessary free-throws have. The same argument/problem occurred in tennis years back, and the video review/player challenge system has been implemented & seen as a huge success – the flow has not been disrupted and the fans are more into the match because the calls seem more fair (they realize that human error happens).

    This flopping has totally made me dislike the game, because I am comparing it to the 80s and 90s when I never saw this sort of thing. I mean, to see a man who is built like an NFL linebacker (6’8″ and 265 lbs *I’m looking at you, LeBron*) writhing on the floor like he’s been shot, then hopping up with a smirk and a wink because he fooled the refs just fills me up with disdain.

    Again, maybe that’s “how the game is played” now, but that doesn’t mean I have to respect it or watch it.

    KH1983

    May 28, 2011 at 11:17 pm

    • I should clarify: I did see Vlade Divac do this sort of thing back in the day, but he was the outlier, and had a very bad reputation because of it. In fact, other players that would flop would often be referred to as “pulling a Vlade Divac.”

      What happened that now it’s seen as awesome, so long as your team wins?

      KH1983

      May 28, 2011 at 11:20 pm

      • That dislike for flopping didn’t disappear. It’s still there. It’s just that it’s become so common now that some amount of acceptance becomes inevitable.

        Matt Johnson

        May 30, 2011 at 10:28 pm

    • Interesting. I actually have to disagree with you, but you’re making me think and I like that.

      The first thing that comes to mind is that we’re talking about referee error on foul calls here, and while you say “like there is in the NFL”, the NFL doesn’t dare implement their instant replay on fouls. Tennis really has nothing analogous (we don’t have tennis replays for players sportsmanship violations). So we really don’t have any successful model to go by here for your proposal.

      As far as the practical issues I see: There are probably more referee errors in basketball than in any other sport. (Presuming you ignore the fouls not called on linemen in football). Even if you limit the amount of challenges a coach can get wrong, all that will do is make the coach let things slide that have minor impact or are less certain. I don’t want the league to let those things slide, and I know there’s no time to catch them all during the game, so after-game penalties seem to be a thing that really needs to be used more.

      Matt Johnson

      May 30, 2011 at 10:46 pm

      • Oh, I understand that the NFL challenge flag is not used in cases of flagrant fouls & such. I’m just throwing it out there as an option for the NBA to discourage this sort of thing (thereby avoiding the awarding of points to the flopping team – resulting in a win for he who flops most). In fact, basketball is such a fast game that these fouls might be the only thing coaches would like or be able to challenge, since they are so OBVIOUS.

        And at this point, what good is an after-game penalty (Van Gundy’s proposal of about 10K, right?), except to mildly hurt the pocket of a multi-millionaire? The penalty would be nothing to a player like LeBron James or Dwayne Wade, who want nothing more than to win, and will flop 5x per playoff game with a 50K penalty, no problem. So long as they each get 10 foul shots extra per game each, right? Many games are decided by 10 points or less…

        And the tennis “shot-spot challenge” example was my own pre-emptive rebuttal to the inevitable argument that a coach “challenging” the NBA referee’s foul call on a flop would disrupt the flow of the game. If anything, knowing that the opposing team could challenge your flop might discourage players from doing it at all.

        KH1983

        June 1, 2011 at 10:12 pm

  4. …and when I say “similar to NFL,” I am visualizing the coach being able to throw a flag. Just so long as he doesn’t trip the players running downcourt. ha.

    KH1983

    June 1, 2011 at 10:21 pm


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