Thursday , Jan , 03 , 2008 C.Y. Ellis

The Flop: Pro and Con in the NBA

The Flop: Pro and Con in the NBA

The Flop is becoming an ever-increasing phenomenon in the league.  For those of you who don’t think this is late-breaking news, I have news for you: It’s going to get worse before it gets better.

The recent proliferation of flopping in the NBA has been credited to various sources – not the least of which is the influx of international players who grew up watching soccer superstars flop their way to victory.  While this is true, the evolution of the flop cannot be mentioned without mentioning hockey, and the flop has deep roots in basketball as well. 

Although I cannot remember the game, I distinctly remember a sideline report during a game of one of the Bad Boys’ championship runs.  Coming out of a huddle, the sideline correspondent excitedly reported that Bill Laimbeer told his teammates to keep funneling players to him because the refs were falling hook-line-and-sinker for his flopping.  That was almost twenty years ago.  The flop’s strategic use receded when the NBA adopted a more “international” feel to its rules (e.g., hand-checking).

In a very fast game where officials are charged with limiting physical contact, flopping or “embellishing” may simply be the means by which a player draws attention to a less-than-obvious foul.  This is what hockey players would have referred to as “taking a dive.”  Hockey, on the other hand, went in the opposite direction and just stopped calling penalties (unless, of course, one violently snapped back his head in a whiplash-like fashion so as to draw a slashing penalty).

Last night, watching the Fiesta Bowl, I saw a wide receiver for Oklahoma being held.  In order to expose the foul, he swung himself to the ground to reveal that the defender was holding onto his right arm.  He drew the foul.

Flopping, diving and embellishing are common to all sports.  They occur in every sport on every level. 

In my own “Washed Up World Cup League” (the old-timers playing soccer on the weekends), I don’t even try to keep my balance anymore.  A while back, a defender got under me while I was in the air.  Not really a foul in competitive play, but probably a foul in this league where our main goal is to stay away from injuries.  Anyway, in order to keep the play going, I tried to maintain my balance and ended up doing some serious damage to my ankle.  Since then, if it’s close I just go down.  Assuming you know how to fall (it is a skill, but one that is easily learned), it is just a safer move.  I’ll take a bump, scrape or bruise over severe ligament damage any day of the week.  Sometimes you get a call, sometimes you don’t, but at least you get to play again another day.

In defense of the flops, then, we can list both injury prevention and assisting the officials.  We’re walking a thin line, though, aren’t we?

Last night, I was watching the Clippers-Hornets game on the League Pass.  (As an aside, local commentators are awesome.  You haven’t really watched a Celtics game if you missed out on Tommy Heinsohn’s homerism; it is just wonderful unless you’re rooting for the opposing team.)  The local commentators were aghast that Chris Paul got away with an offensive foul.  As he drove the lane, he pulled up and tried a fade-away jumping while touching the defense player with his left hand.  They commented that the defender (Corey Maggette, I think), should have flopped to have drawn attention to the foul. 

There was an ever-so-slight push, but it was nothing like MJ’s swipe that secured the Bulls’ championship over Utah.  Are they saying that Chris Paul’s left arm has enough strength to alter the defensive player’s position to such a degree that Paul got off a much better shot?  Or, were they saying that, technically, it was a foul so it should have been called?  I hope they were not advocating for the former.  From where I was sitting, it was a good non-call.  If the defender had flopped and received the call, I would have been disappointed.

I’m also disappointed by the way that they are calling big men for offensive fouls when they post smaller guys.  Who really thinks that a 6’3” and 190-pound guard can be thrown into the fifth row by someone 5 inches taller and 50 pounds heavier when the big man bumps him with a shoulder coming off his pivot?  If the small guy just tried to muscle back and got moved, there would be no call.  Therefore, the incentive is to jump into the cameramen and try to get a call.  When the big tries to drive on the smaller player, do the refs call the smaller player’s swipes at the ball differently?  I didn’t think so.

In soccer, FIFA (the governing body) is permitting, and advocating, calling penalties for taking a flop.  It’s a tough call to make, but it does seem to be cutting down on the more egregious acting and players are getting penalized for being stupid.  If the official is unsure or unable to tell whether it’s a flop, he just makes no call.  If there is a foul, he is supposed to call it.  Those guys have tough jobs.  There is quite a bit of subjectivity in officiating a soccer match; that is probably why the refs get so many death threats, so it might not be the best system.

On the negative side of flopping, we are elevating technical rules over the affect of a potential foul on the game and we are creating a skewed incentive system in which defensive players are rewarded more often for not playing defense than for playing defense.  The guys can still play defense; however, the next time you see a guy take a charge, he’s not going to slide into the locker-room tunnel to make sure he gets the call.

It’s a problem that really cannot be solved.  Hockey stopped calling fouls and lost an audience.  Soccer started penalizing floppers and jeopardized the officials (although I’d imagine American hoops fans are not as rabid as international hooligans), but the problem still remains.

It is definitely not a problem that can be solved by saying, “Let’s do X, Y and Z.”  Rather, the league needs to assess the situation, come to a consensus on how to call the game, train the officials that only fouls that affect the outcome of the play should be called and allow these highly-trained officials the freedom to make subjective calls as to whether a technical infraction changed the outcome of the play.  Then, if a mistake is made, admit it and promise to try to get better.