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Does the NBA have a flopping problem?

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The new NBA competition committee wants to penalize players, like Chris Paul above, who engage in non-contact flopping. (US PRESSWIRE)

As you’ve probably heard by now, the NBA’s new competition committee met this week in Miami, and there is momentum among its members for some sort of crackdown on flopping. It’s unclear exactly what will come of this, but the most likely scenario involves a system of retroactive penalties — levied after the fact, not in real time — for players caught flopping on video. This could be a system of escalating fines, perhaps even leading to suspension, and could be similar to the point-based system for flagrant fouls or for the mandated suspension a player receives upon earning his 16th technical foul (one of many rules that could be named for Rasheed Wallace).

In the near future, it is very unlikely that the league will give officials the right to enforce immediate, in-game penalties against floppers — a tool FIBA, the sport’s international governing body, gave its referees recently. The knee-jerk reaction will be that no system of after-the-fact penalties will ever deter millionaires from flopping during games. That might be true, though the technical foul limit, enacted in 2005-06, has had a minimal effect on some of the league’s most notorious loudmouths — at least once those loudmouths approach the limit on Ts. And even millionaires prefer to avoid $25,000 fines. What if the fine were, say, $75,000?

The early returns from FIBA suggest officials don’t make much use of in-game flopping rules, according to league sources. A real-time flopping call could slow the pace of the game considerably, halting the action and/or awarding free throws. It could also force officials to make yet another judgment call, one that they’re likely to be criticized for. The NBA could use a fourth official, watching video away from the court, to investigate possible flops deserving of an in-game penalty, but that, too, would necessitate a break in the action at some point.

Still: It’s an interesting discussion, precisely because flopping strikes such a chord with fans. We do not want the NBA to become like soccer in regards to flopping, as all soccer fans do in conversations with non-soccer fans is defend against the accusation that soccer is basically play-acting with a ball.

Every time I’m ready to dismiss the idea that the NBA has a very serious flopping problem, something like this happens:

That is truly, truly awful — embarrassing for James Harden, a wonderful player in general. It’s hard to tell if LeBron James actually makes much contact with Harden at all, but it’s easy to see that he does not touch Harden’s chest or head area, which flies dramatically backward as if James smashed into Harden’s upper body at full speed.

This is a problem, right? A black mark on the league?

But wait: The officials actually sniffed out this flop in real time! Harden did not draw a bogus charging foul on James, and the basketball gods punished the Thunder for Harden’s vaudeville job, since Nick Collison had to step into Harden’s place, thus leaving Chris Bosh open for a dunk.

There is no scientific way to prove it, but I suspect flops fool officials less often than we might expect, especially given the highlight-reel treatment reserved for plays like this Harden dive, or this Reggie Evans foolishness. Referees make mistakes all the time; that’s the nature of having three (typically middle-aged or older) folks trying to police a physical game between ten large and fast men running around a small enclosed space. A flop will occasionally trick a referee into whistling a foul when there was none. That, unquestionably, is bad.

But flops like that — complete fabrications of contact — represent only one species of flop, and I’m not convinced they work all that well. Officials looked past two separate Shane Battier dives in Game 4 of the Finals alone. The more common species of flop amounts to exaggerating the impact of actually illegal contact, flops in which it is sometimes difficult to determine how much flopping actually occurred. Take this Mario Chalmers play, which the very smart folks at ESPN.com’s HoopIdea deemed the NBA’s “Flop of the Night” in May:

I’m not sure what would happen to me if I ran around a curve into a Roy Hibbert moving pick, but I’d guess that I’d probably fall over. Chalmers adds a bit extra flair to make sure the officials notice the blatant illegality of Hibbert’s screen, but can you definitively say how much gusto he adds? Is this 80 percent foul and 20 percent flop? Fifty-fifty? Does it even matter? I’d argue the NBA has a much bigger illegal screen problem than it does a flopping problem. (And as Matt Steinmetz notes here, the NBA’s block/charge rule has essentially created one kind of flop — a type the league could legislate out of the game by making charging fouls harder to earn).

Or take this flail from Battier, also a “Flop of the Night”:

Battier’s arms look silly, but there is clearly enough contact to call a foul on Pierce. Even in slow motion, it’s hard to tell how tangled up Battier’s and Pierce’s arms get — an entangling that precedes Battier’s dramatic arm-escape routine. It’s worth noting that ESPN’s write-up of this flop contains a link to an obvious Chalmers flop — so obvious, in fact, the officials let the game play on as Chalmers slid on the floor.

Asking the league to review plays like this is asking for trouble, and likely for poor rulings. The league has struggled at times to dole out appropriate flagrant foul penalties, even upon review.

Still: The complete and total flop does exist, and it does occasionally trick referees into bad decisions, even if the above Harden flop failed to do so. And even an unsuccessful flop like Harden’s has the potential to hurt the other team. A player in LeBron’s position could fall over or lose his balance, and the presence of a body lying in the paint could muck up cutting and driving lanes. Retroactive penalties do nothing to reclaim lost points or possessions — missed opportunities that could impact the outcome of a game. Starting with retroactive penalties is a fair way to search for a deterrent without adjusting the NBA’s in-game experience. But some real-time justice would seem fair, right?

But how? The use of a fourth video official paying attention only to reviewable occurrences like this seems to be the best among a crop of otherwise inelegant solutions. But what’s the penalty, and when is it enforced? Would this video official interrupt the action during a timeout five minutes after the Harden-James flop and instruct the on-court referees to award James a penalty free throw (or two?) at some break in the action?

I’d love to hear your ideas. There has to be an in-game fix here somewhere, even if the problem in need might not be as widespread as we think. But for now, retroactive justice is all we’re going to get.

  • Published On 3:29pm, Jun 20, 2012
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