Current block/charge interpretation
unfairly favors defenders over high-flying penetrators
Every playoff game, NBA refs confidently call charging
on one or more high-flying drivers. It might be Paul
Pierce swooping in for a finger roll or Robert Horry
dunking lefthanded on Vlade Divac. Every game, the announcers
show a replay. Every game, they say "That's a good call,
because the help defender's feet were outside the restricted
That "restricted zone," the solid-line semicircle that
extends out several feet from the basket, was intended
to promote freedom of movement and driving to the basket,
two facets of basketball that, once upon a time, made
the NBA a joy to watch. Alas, it has had the opposite
effect. It has never been easier for a helping defender
to draw a charge or harder for a driver to drive, and
there's less freedom of moment in the NBA today than
at any time in the last 40 years.
The problem is that NBA refs have become obsessed with
the restricted-zone line. They have one of the world's
toughest jobs, and they've simplified one aspect by
basing their airborne-driver block/charge decisions
on two factors only: Are the defender's feet outside
the restricted zone at the moment of collision, and
are they set? If the answers are yes, it's a charge.
NBA refs who are focused on the defender's feet will be
clueless on the most important consideration: Where
was the defender when the driver reached the point of
no return -- that is, the point at which the driver
could not change his directional path even if he had
wanted to? That is well before the moment of collision,
and that is how the best refs made the call in the years
before the league painted a line on the court.
Focusing on the defender's feet enables today's NBA refs
to be consistent, but the result is countless unfair
calls, foul trouble for exciting players and too many
decisions by the likes of Pierce and Baron Davis not
to penetrate when they spot a momentary crease in the
defense. The fans lose and the players worth watching
lose. The only winners are control-freak coaches, scared
to death an opposing player will excite the crowd and
divert attention from their new suit and play-calling
prowess. And the only reason NBA commentators haven't
made a stink about it is because many of them are control-freak
ex-coaches, biding their time till they get a chance
to ruin another team.
Finding the Point of No Return
The first off-season order of business for the NBA is
to convene all the refs in a gym. They need to experience
what it's like to drive to the basket and attempt to
avoid a helping defender. They need to execute as drivers
and defenders in a variety of airborne situations so
they can establish in their own minds the point of no
return. They also need to see how easy it is for a defender
whose feet are set to slide his upper body a foot in
either direction once he sees the driver's flight path.
A slight upper-body slide is all it takes to convert
a glancing blow to a direct hit.
Players should participate as well, to confirm to everyone's
satisfaction just when that point of no return is reached.
You, too, can put yourself in the driver's feet: You
think you can beat your man off the dribble, and you
spot an opening that can get you into the lane for a
five-foot runner or maybe all the way to the rim. You
seize the moment and blow by your defender. As you do,
you spot a helping defender moving into your general
path. Time for some quick calculations. You can pull
up and shoot a jumper. You can put the peddle to the
metal and try to reach your destination before he establishes
position. Or you can calculate where the defender will
plant his feet and take evasive action by jumping to
his left or right (knowing that the block/charge requires
the defender to take the hit squarely -- grazing the
outside shoulder or colliding with a widely set leg
does not a charge make).
As the offensive player, you can't wait till you're
airborne to make a decision. Despite what you may have
heard, neither Houdini nor Michael Jordan in his prime
could change direction in the air. Nor can you wait
till you plant your take-off foot. A driver who intends
to jump off of one leg reaches the point of no return
just before his second-to-last step. That foot sets
the course. If you need to accelerate or change direction,
you do that by altering how and where you place that
second-to-last foot. First, your brain tells you "Explode"
or "Veer right." Then you relay the information to your
feet, and you plant that second-to-last step accordingly.
I defy anyone filling a lane on the break or driving
in a halfcourt setting to change directions AFTER planting
the second-to-last foot. Yet this is what the current
block/charge interpretation requires the driver to do.
My solution starts with extending the restricted zone
out another foot while rendering the actual line invisible
-- that is, it would be in the back of the refs' mind,
as it used to be, but not painted on the court. This
will free up the refs' eyes to look outward at the unfolding
play, rather than downward at the defender's feet. The
ref -- either a trailer or an under-the-basket ref --
should take "the long view," keeping both the driver
and the help defender in the line of sight, even though
the two players initially may be far apart. Refs also
need to develop a feel for the "right-left" or "left-right"
rhythm of a driver's steps. A righthander generally
leaps off his left foot, so refs should be ready to
look at the relationship between the driver and the
help defender as the driver gets ready to plant his
right foot -- the step before his take-off step.
If the defender is not set and directly in the path
PRIOR to the planting of the second-to-last-step, it's
a block. The benefit of any doubt should go to the athlete
doing exciting things, not the flat-foot floogie clogging
Granted, this will make it considerably more difficult
for a help defender to draw a charge. So what? Who cares?
Help defenders with athleticism can help in other ways.
They can strip the ball, block the shot or get a hand
in the shooter's face. As for the help defenders without
athleticism, they can find another line of work. Trust
me, no one will miss them.
The Past as Prologue: Revving Up the NBA
Getting the block/charge calls right will speed up the
game dramatically. Fastbreaks won't just be more numerous,
they'll actually be fast. Teams will attack the basket
in halfcourt, rather than milking the clock before hoisting
a trey. Instead of Allen Iverson being badgered to bulk
up, the bulked up will be badgered to slim down.
Exactly forty years ago, when there was no three-point
line and players didn't shoot nearly as well as they
do today, teams averaged 118.8 points per game. Pro
basketball was a wide-open, fast-paced game played by
tall, skinny guys who loved to run. Giving a fair shake
to drivers -- the one group of players capable of revving
things up -- is an essential first step to restoring
the freedom of movement that once was the NBA's hallmark.
Dennis Hans's essays on basketball
-- including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of
free-throw shooting -- have appeared online at the Sporting
News, Slate, InsideHoops.com and The Black World Today
(tbwt.com). His writings on other topics have appeared
in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald,
among other outlets. He can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu