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NBA Refs

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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 zone."

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.

The Answer

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 the lane.

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


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