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NBA BASKETBALL Dec. 24, 2002
The NBA Needs a New Cliché: "Make him earn a defensive stop."

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League executives should take a cue from America's corporate scandals and enact penalties that deter rather than reward intentional fouls and thuggery.

"Make him earn it at the line."

Those seven words sum up much of what is wrong with the NBA: a regulatory design that punishes athletic artistry and well-honed skills while rewarding thuggery and the deliberate breaking of rules. The league claims to want a clean, fast-paced, free-flowing game, but its rules provide incentives for intentional fouls that slow the game down and rough play that takes a physical toll on the gifted penetrators fans pay to see.

If a fastbreak is launched, reach out and grab the nearest body and stop the break in its tracks. In a halfcourt setting, if your man beats you off the dribble, wrap your arms around him before he can get up an easy shot. If you're a help defender incapable of preventing a basket or increasing the degree of difficulty of the anticipated shot without fouling, mug the would-be scorer with sufficient force to prevent the deuce while avoiding the viciousness that would earn you a "flagrant foul." The NBA has rules that reward each of these unskilled plays. In every case, the worst you can do is surrender the same number of points you likely would have surrendered without intentionally fouling. Often you'll save your team a point, sometimes two.

An effective regulatory regime discourages deliberate violations of the rules. In business, you don't want CEOs studying Security and Exchange Commission regulations to see which ones they can profitably violate. You don't want pollution penalties so light that companies engage in so-called "rational rule-breaking" - e.g., spewing more toxic waste than the law permits because the extra profits from increased production far surpass the price of a puny fine. Penalties must be sufficiently stiff so that it's never in a company's interest to intentionally violate the law.

NBA, take note. Hardly a game goes by without a few plays illustrating what's wrong with your regulatory design. I'll cite a couple from the nationally televised Thanksgiving game, where Indiana stopped Dallas's 14-game winning streak. Though Pacers are the guilty parties in these examples, Mavs do the same stuff (sometimes worse, as we show below). League wide, these tactics are standard operating procedure.

Penalties that don't penalize

On one play, Dirk Nowitzki got by his defender, drove baseline and elevated for a layup. Brad Miller, who was guarding someone else, rotated over a bit late. Rather than attempt to make a clean strip or block, he jumped into Nowitzki with sufficient force and follow-through that Nowitzki would have no chance of sinking the shot. It was clear from the angle Miller took and his arm action that his sole intent was to commit a forceful, effective foul.

Miller succeeded. Instead of surrendering a two-point field goal to Nowitzki, he forced him to "earn it at the line." An excellent 85-percent free-throw shooter, Nowitzki produces, on average, 1.7 points after such a foul; the league averages are 75 percent and 1.5 points. And those numbers explains the logic behind the "no layups" philosophy first popularized by Chuck Daly's "Bad Boy" Detroit Pistons. Four such fouls a game will save a team, on average, two points - .5 points per prevented deuce. That's a significant savings - and a powerful incentive to commit forceful (but not "flagrant") intentional fouls when you perceive little chance of preventing the deuce without fouling.

Football is a collision sport. A good, clean hit to the body is one technique that defensive backs use to reduce the likelihood a receiver will hold on to a pass. Basketball, at least in that sense, is not a collision sport. An intentional mugging should not be considered a legitimate defensive play and it certainly shouldn't be rewarded. It cries out for a penalty that penalizes - that is, one that imposes a cost GREATER than the number of points the mugging prevents.

The league should award the fouled team three points (two points for the player and an additional point for the team). This would amount to a modest but inescapable one-point penalty, as the fouling team ends up surrendering one more point than it likely would have surrendered without the intentional foul. Such a penalty is not so severe that refs would hesitate to impose it, but severe enough to serve as a deterrent. Also, by removing free throws from the equation, the penalty has the additional virtue of speeding up the game.

Turnabout for vicious thugs and their coaches

Miller's foul against Nowitzki should not be confused with vicious fouls - the type Kenyon Martin committed last season against Karl Malone, Tracy McGrady and others, that Charles Oakley committed against Vince Carter, that Oakley and Miller (as Bulls) committed against Shaq, and that, in the 2001 playoffs, Dallas's Shawn Bradley and Juwann Howard committed against Malone, Derek Anderson and Malik Rose. (Anderson sustained a separated shoulder, which doomed the Spurs championship hopes; Malone injured his back, rendering him immobile for the decisive fifth game, which the Mavs won by a point.)

For vicious fouls against vulnerable airborne drivers, I propose a five-game suspension for the first offense- served not in the comfort of home but as a marked man for the same number of games in an Australian rugby league. For a second offense - assuming he survives his suspension - the penalty would double and be served on the rugby field by the player and his coach.

Hugging is not a hoop skill

On another Thanksgiving-night play, Nowitzki drove on Jermaine O'Neal and left the Pacer flat-footed with a nifty spin. O'Neal, realizing he'd been had, grabbed Nowitzki arms before he could lift them for a layup attempt. O'Neal prevented the easy deuce, and Nowitzki stepped to the line.

O'Neal wasn't the least bit rough, but why REWARD a guy for raising the white flag? His intentional foul was an admission he was a beaten man. He didn't try to recover (say, by following Nowitzki to the hoop and attempting a swat), nor was he willing to trust in his teammates to have his back. He simply wrapped Nowitzki up.

O'Neal is an outstanding young player with a host of well-honed skills. His two-handed hug, however, is not a skill. Most any lug in the crowd could have executed that hug.

Again, to put a stop to this nonsense simply convert the reward to a penalty: the fouled player and team get three points, rather than merely an opportunity to earn back the two points stolen by the guy who made a lazy, non-basketball play.

If the league thinks three points is too much, or is afraid that players will get winded if play doesn't grind to a halt every minute, it can try this penalty: two free throws and the fouled team retains possession. On average, this would produce 2.5 points for the fouled team, as a possession on the side is worth, on average, a point, and the two free-throw attempts are worth 1.5 points. So the penalty for what we'll call the "Done Got Schooled Again" foul would be .5 points (2.5 points minus the two points the foul prevented). It's not much, but at least it's not a reward.

A new cliché for the NBA

The intentional fouler does not deserve a pat on the back or an incentive to recommit his unskilled, often bruising acts. Nor is he entitled to say to his victim, "Hey, chump, go earn it at the line." It's the fouler who has something to prove. He has to prove he's capable of making a legitimate defensive stop, which means preventing a hoop WITHOUT fouling.

So here's a new cliché for the NBA: "Make him earn a defensive stop." Print it on posters and shout it in promos. Let the words ring out in every arena and on every playground where lugs have a license to mug.

A "defensive stop" occurs when you prevent the other team from scoring by blocking a shot, making a steal, slapping the ball out of bounds off a dribbler's knee, or working hard (without fouling) to make a shooter take a tough shot that misses. Defensive stops require effort, talent and skill. Intentional fouls sometimes require effort; they rarely require talent or skill. Bill Russell or Hakeem Olajuwon, not some three-headed center eager to use all 18 fouls at his disposal, should be held up as the model NBA defender.

The proposed penalties will impose a heavy price on any team trying to win through intimidation - that is, win by systematically committing hard fouls on gifted foes driving the lane until the gifted foes exit with an injury or quit driving out of self-preservation. Thug ball is bad for skill players, bad for fans and bad for the game. Granted, it's good for thug teams, but when the rules work to their advantage it's time to revamp the rules.

Remember fastbreaks?

How many times have you witnessed a fastbreak opportunity nipped in the bud by a defender reaching out and grabbing the first available body? Invariably, the ex-coach/ex-player color commentator will praise the grabber for a "smart foul," and his teammates and coach will acknowledge a job well done. All realize the opposing team will have a harder time scoring in a halfcourt setting than on a fastbreak. Unless the defensive team is over the foul limit, starting over in the halfcourt, against a set defense, is exactly what it will have to do.

Players love fastbreaks. Fans love fastbreaks. Sportscasters in search of highlights love fastbreaks. The league pooh-bahs say they love fastbreaks. Ball-control coaches, who live in terror that an opposing player might do something to excite the crowd, hate fastbreaks. Why cater to the men who delight in giving us 75-68 games? Why reward an act that requires no skill AND prevents "the greatest athletes in the world" from displaying their artistry in the open court for fans who overpaid to watch them?

Have you ever heard two fans talk excitedly about "that great intentional foul by Rick Fox that prevented T-Mac from igniting the crowd"?

How about an incentive NOT to intentionally grab? How about an incentive for the defender to get his butt in gear and try to prevent a score without fouling? Recalling once more that the purpose of a penalty is to penalize, and considering that the grabber figured the other team would very likely score two points if he didn't grab, let's award the fouled team three points and give the ball back to the fouler's team.

Foggy thinking along a "clear path"

Even when the NBA set out to truly "penalize" a particular intentional foul that requires no skill and deprives fans of a thrill, it devised a solution that rewarded the act. I speak of the "clear path" rule. When a player in the open court has a clear path to the basket and thus a near-certain two points, and a trailing defender reaches out and grabs him, the defender is "penalized" thusly: the fouled player is awarded a single free throw and his team retains possession of the ball.

As noted above, a sideline possession is worth, on average, one point, and a free-throw attempt .75 points. Thus, on average, the player committing a clear-path foul is SAVING his team .25 points! Announcers should call this preposterous rule by its rightful name: "The Clear-Path Intentional-Grab Reward."

To penalize a player for committing a clear-path foul that prevents two points (and a thrill for the fans), award the fouled team three points. Make the penalty an actual penalty and refs will never have to invoke this idiotic rule again.

It's all pretty simple. If the league truly wants to penalize the rich variety of intentional fouls, none of which require skill or make the game fun to watch and play, it must impose penalties that penalize rather than reward.

Dennis Hans is an occasional college professor, a freelance writer, an aging lefty playmaker and an unlicensed shooting guru who is running for president of the NBA Players Association. His essays on pro basketball have appeared online at the Sporting News, Slate, InsideHoops.com and The Black World Today (tbwt.com). His writings on other topics have run in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald. He can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu.

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