Credit NBA boss Adam Silver for his willingness to change. More than any other American sports league commissioner, Silver is regarded as progressive, pragmatic, and daring -- doing whatever it takes to improve the sport, and raise the profile of the Association.
Just this season, Silver has looked into a number of largely fan-friendly adjustments, and it isn't just lip service: Legalized gambling and fantasy gaming (the NBA's ownership group has already invested in FanDuel on Silver's watch); reformatting the NBA's east-west playoff format; and just recently, attempting to remedy the hack-a-player rule to prevent free throw shooting contests.
So it is with great optimism that we submit one more (related) game flaw: Fouls in general.
The Warriors - Hawks contest from a couple weeks back was an enjoyable, closely contested game between two good teams. But the way it went down was a bit peculiar by today's standards: the teams combined to shoot just 28 free throws, including an excellent 18-plus minute first half stretch without a single free throw attempt!
The result was sublime. Until the 6:11 mark in the second quarter, the ball never stopped moving from one team to the next. Both the Atlanta Hawks and the Golden State Warriors consist of expert, unselfish passers, and that only aided the result. One Stephen Curry trap would lead to a no-look pass to Draymond Green, who would deftly whip the ball north to Klay Thompson on the wing, who would tap the ball to his left for a wide open Harrison Barnes pocket three. On the other end of the court, seconds later, the Hawks would do the same thing: Jeff Teague or Dennis Schroder running away from defensive pressure, and heaving the ball to Al Horford, who would leap into the key and rifle the basketball to either Kyle Korver or Mike Scott. It went on.
In that moment, we were watching the best version of basketball, yet. A skilled game between two uber-skilled teams. No matter how much a recreation league team practices, only an elite, world class group of players could ever hope to play the game so superbly. Only the very finest coaches could hope to follow the action, and subtly tilt the game's development with appropriate tactics.
So why isn't the league encouraging everyone to be like the Warriors and Hawks? Let's ignore the fact that their collective success (plus that of the San Antonio Spurs, and maybe even the Boston Celtics) should provide plenty of encouragement on their own. The league can make the game better with tweaking, and it may be time to do so.
To be fair, it isn't easy to make some of the required adjustments. But it is possible, and any efforts to improve the game have to start somewhere. Here are three fixes to make the
world league a better place.
It is a skill to earn a foul, and an exceedingly valuable one. James Harden, Dwyane Wade, Karl Malone, and countless others seemed to master the art. Even outside of the painted area, Jamal Crawford, Reggie Miller, and (dare I say it?) Stephen Curry have worked the rules to earn additional free throws.
But there's a difference between attempting a shot that will be contacted and offensively seeking out contact without the intent to make a shot. And if that's too hard for referees to gauge, just stop rewarding players who have no intention of scoring on the floor. It isn't basketball, it's a derivative skill. And intentionally forcing non-basketball violations is not a skill to be rewarded and encouraged.
It doesn't matter that it has been done this way for a while. The two most iconic plays in the sport -- the dunk, and the three pointer -- were also illegal or non-existent at a time. The NBA has always been about innovation and change. Change the rule so we don't have to see the game devolve into...this. Or this.
This is a personal pet-peeve, and perhaps a bit controversial. But rewarding guys for getting busted in the chops makes no sense in the context of the league as we know it. The sport revolves around skilled, larger-than-life athletes who are widely regarded to be among the very finest humanity has to offer. So why are players credited for creating dangerous contact and forcing whistles?
The problem is much less frequent than the no-intent free throw fouls, but they are related. The league would be better if players were rewarded for making an effort to defend properly, and it would be safer, too. In the interests of keeping the game free flowing, the NBA should lighten up on charge calls.
For players outside of the restricted area, sure, they have a right to their ground, and we can't reward guys for just bowling them over on purpose (sorry Russell Westbrook). But think about all of the perimeter and post defenders who simply opt to stop working on defense by creating a charge-flop. Or who rush to undercut a driving player in order to create a charge (looking at you, Derrick Rose). If someone is capable yet unwilling to defend properly, they don't deserve the benefit of the doubt. The NBA could really double-down here by going a bit easier on hand contact at the rim.
Play the Advantage
The best ideas are stolen from somewhere, so here's a goody from across the pond. In international soccer, referees are empowered to ignore fouls and infractions when the issuance of a foul would clearly benefit the offending team. Put it in stone and make it a part of basketball, today.
This comes up more often than people realize. How many fast breaks have been called back following a shot clock violation? How many one-on-none scoring opportunities are turned into free throws (or worse, a back court in-bounds play) because a helpless defender harmlessly snatches at the offensive player's jersey? What about those plays where a team scores, but the basket is waived off due to an irrelevant off-ball defensive foul elsewhere? The sport could regain some of its toughness, and edge, but at the same time grow more free-flowing, skillful and artistic. Just make rulings with regard to context. The viewers would then see the best version of basketball possible.
This may not be the most aggressive fix for the foul-related problems in the NBA, but it does have the advantage of being the easiest to institute, as well as the one with suggestion with no real downside.
Now let's hear your suggestions!