The NBA's flopping strategy

October, 3, 2012
10/03/12
2:39
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
“Flopping” will be defined as any physical act that appears to have been intended to cause the referees to call a foul on another player. The primary factor in determining whether a player committed a flop is whether his physical reaction to contact with another player is inconsistent with what would reasonably be expected given the force or direction of the contact.

-- NBA news release

The NBA is getting in the business of busting floppers, and it has its sights set on reactions that are "inconsistent with what would reasonably be expected."

Tricky territory, indeed.

Of course, the vast majority of NBA flops are subtle. Good floppers are artists, masters of disguise. A player driving with the ball, for instance, might scream "Hey!" in the manner of someone who has been mugged, when in fact there has not yet been contact. Or two players go for a loose ball and one takes aggressively to the floor after only an inkling of contact.

Not to mention everyone's favorite tough basketball call, the block/charge, where a player driving at the hoop meets a stationary defender who flies backward to his backside in a theatrical bit of referee begging that may or may not have been inspired by real contact.

With anti-flopping rules, based on postgame video review, now in the rulebooks, the worry is that the NBA has entered the tricky business of parsing a wide array of marginal plays every game. What genius can figure all that out by watching postgame video?

A prediction: That worry is misplaced. This video-review program won't do much and will certainly leave every one of those tough-to-call plays alone.

Not a huge change: The worst thing about these rule changes is that they are unlikely to change much. It's a very timid step, which is welcome news for those nervous about the rules existing at all. These rules aren't designed to change much.

To understand, consider the league's position. The problem the NBA needs to solve is not how to eliminate every flop from the game. The problem it's trying to solve is how to keep the league from looking foolish in the media and online day in and day out. It acted on this issue once that became a daily reality, through Jeff Van Gundy's routine rants on game broadcasts, #FlopoftheNight and a growing class of "wow, that was a whopper of a flop" chatter.

The flop talk didn't just get people talking about something embarrassing. It got people talking, and showing video of, something where the league was both blatantly in the wrong and entirely impotent to do anything about it.

Sometimes, on a few plays a season, an artless flopper is caught perfectly on video. On those days, it's exceedingly obvious that the referees have been played. With every view of that video, the league lost a valuable ounce of the public's respect.

This rule is about getting that respect back.

Job one: Keeping the league from looking clueless
The new policy doesn't do much about those marginal calls. But those horribly embarrassing plays where referees were blatantly duped, and that got people talking on studio shows, sports radio and the like were damaging.

From now on, that video will come with an important sidebar: news that the play is being reviewed and is subject to a fine.

Impotence: over. The NBA is back in charge of the NBA.

All those tough-to-call plays? They'll remain tough to call.

The NBA's news release says: "Physical acts that constitute legitimate basketball plays (such as moving to a spot in order to draw an offensive foul) and minor physical reactions to contact will not be treated as flops."

I read that part in parentheses as a clear endorsement of the age-old technique of drawing a charge, even if -- even as coached by referees -- it does involve theater. I also read it as the league taking a pass on plays where it's hard to say whether the player should have gone sprawling.

The open question is whether these fines are enough to keep so many players from putting so much effort into deluding referees. Many insiders insist players go to great lengths to avoid those kinds of fines -- indeed, a fifth offense would cost a whopping $30,000, a sixth offense some mysterious additional amount too grave to announce at this time.

The fixed-dollar fines are a huge deal for a player making the minimum. But are they any concern at all to someone making $15 million?

And that's the heart of the matter. In the NBA now, some of the most brilliant and competitive players are also some of the most brilliant and competitive floppers. I'm talking about LeBron James throwing his head back violently while driving the lane, Chris Paul falling down in the open court after a little bump from a defender or Dirk Nowitzki jumping out of bounds, as if shoved from behind, while rebounding. The qualities that make a great athlete (anticipation, balance, vision, abhorrence of losing) are helpful in making floppers, too.

Those best players, however, are too good at it to get caught in really obvious offenses. And they make far too much money to really sweat the fine.

It says here that the NBA's new program will go a long way toward reducing the embarrassment flopping causes the league but won't do much to stop the best floppers from plying their complicated trade.

Henry Abbott | email

TrueHoop, NBA

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