Letter to Ronnie Nunn, director of officials
by Dennis Hans / December 11, 2006
Dear Ronnie Nunn,
I recently finished the first month of my first season as a subscriber to the league's official cable channel, NBA TV, where you appear each Wednesday to educate viewers on the rules and how refs go about their work. You do a terrific job explaining the nuances of each play and the rule or rules in question, and I'm persuaded that the refs have the toughest job on the court. I'm also persuaded that many of the rules are a mess, and that we could make the refs' job easier, and the game more safe and fun to watch, if we fixed them. Let's consider one class of plays that's a frequent topic of your segments: block/charge (B/C) calls.
I was stunned to hear your November 8 explanation for a disastrous and dangerous development – B/C calls involving help defenders that are determined largely by who beats who “to the spot. ” You said that coaches are coaching their players to try to beat drivers “to the spot,” and that the league is reffing accordingly so that refs and coaches are on the same page. While “beat to the spot” is a useful concept for judging contact between a dribbler and primary defender (so long as the ref isn't sucked in by an out-of-control Devin Harris or Darrell Armstrong hurtling laterally or backwards to create a smidge of contact and thus the illusion of an offensive foul), it's all wrong for help-defense plays.
In adopting this approach, the NBA is catering to the very control-freak coaches who've done so much to muck up the game. In the glory days of the 1980s, this play required the help defender to be directly in the path well before the driver leaves his feet, thus giving the driver a chance to maneuver and thus avoid a collision (much as defenders are given the space to avoid screens). This contributed to a more free-flowing offense, a faster pace and fewer B/C collisions than today. Exceptions abounded, particularly on any team that employed Dick Harter as an assistant coach, but in general help defenders were more likely to use their feet to avoid collisions while getting themselves in position – on the ground or off – to make a play on the ball with their hands.
Today's “beat to the spot” nonsense makes the help defender's job considerably easier, and it amounts to a huge subsidy to mediocre defenders (e.g, the Collins twins, James Posey, Michael Doleac, Jason Kapono, Antoine Walker, Anderson Varejao, Kyle Korver, Othella Harrington – it's a long list) whose stock would plummet if in help situations they had to make a play on the ball. The NBA boasts that its players are “the greatest athletes in the world,” but this rule is affirmative action for stiffs, as well as B/C obsessed non-stiffs such as Robert Horry, Andres Nocioni, Jared Jeffries, Jermaine O'Neal and Shane Battier.
I understand that you and the refs don't write or interpret the rules, so I'm not faulting you for lunatic rule interpretations imposed by higher-ups. But I do fault you for not publicly pointing out their idiocy and danger.
I've been writing for several years about how the evolving interpretation of the B/C call has, over time, dramatically changed the character of the NBA game for the worse. Granted, a variety of factors have contributed to the game becoming progressively more slow and ugly since 1990, but in my view there's a direct correlation between making the charge-seeking help defender's job easier and offenses becoming more tentative and players' movements more herky-jerky. NBA acceptance of blatant traveling was a tacit acknowledgement that dribble penetration would all but disappear and league-wide scoring would fall below 90 if the rule was enforced. While the 2004-05 ban on perimeter touching has resulted in a slightly faster pace, more room to maneuver for the league's most gifted players, and the emergence of a few genuinely enjoyable teams, most notably the Suns, the trend of catering to charge seekers has accelerated.
In the past few seasons we have had the frightening spectacle of help defenders sprinting from the weak side or from under the basket – often directly at the driver – to get planted outside the restricted line a split second before the driver (who may be airborne or about to elevate) reaches that spot. This has led to a number of scary collisions and falls (I'll cite some examples below) and surely has James Naismith rolling over in his grave.
RIGHT FROM THE START
Some people hate to say “I told you so.” Not me. Back in 2001, in the online edition of the Sporting News, I alerted the hoop world to to the foolishness and danger of two policy changes that were far worse than the sum of their awful parts: the recent introduction of the restricted line (which at that time was dotted), and the new criteria refs were applying to B/C calls. The essay was titled “15 steps to an exciting NBA”; here, reprinted with my permission, are two steps addressing the B/C problem:
10. Bring fairness and common sense to the block/charge call, which currently is interpreted to discourage the drives and runners that draw oohs and aahs and to encourage boring jump-stops and jump shots. On the rare occasion someone attempts a running one-hander, usually there are one or two off-the-ball defenders planting themselves on the spot where the shooter will land. They're not defending the shot, just some meaningless plot of wood. What does that have to do with basketball? Worse, the league hasn't figured out that the driver physically commits to his directional path on his second-to-last step.
Guiding principle for refs: In order to earn a charge, the defender must be set and directly in the path before the driver plants his second-to-last step. The benefit of any doubt should go to the active party – the artistic, athletic driver. Quit rewarding these passive flatfooted floogies!
13. Ditch the dotted line. The intent was good – promote driving to the hoop – but the dot hasn't delivered. Refs are so focused on seeing if the defender is outside the dotted line at the moment of the block/charge collision that they don't get a good look to see if he was stationary at the time the driver committed (see Point 10). This results in countless blocks being called charges, and further discourages driving.
Sometimes defenders step forward to get outside the line, moving underneath the vulnerable driver. Accidents are waiting to happen, if they haven't already. Possible solution: If Point 10 doesn't take care of this problem, put the onus on secondary, helping defenders to avoid collisions with drivers. That is, they are entitled to leave their man to defend the driver, but only to make a play on the ball.
I expanded on those thoughts in the May 2002 essay “NBA Refs Need to Put Themselves in the Driver's Feet” and followed up a year later with “Block/charge interpretation is ruining the NBA”. The latter drew fan mail and effusive praise from the Warriors excellent broadcasting team of Bob Fitzgerald and Jim Barnett. Barnett was an NBA backcourter from 1966 to 1977, so he has witnessed the evolution of the NBA, the good and the bad, for 40 years. He's not a fan of penalizing a guy who beats his man off the dribble just because some other guy who has nothing to do with the play runs over to the driver's landing spot and imitates a bowling pin.
THE BREAKS OF THE (UNDERCUTTING) GAME
My warnings proved prescient. As we'll see from the following examples, scary falls or collisions don't guarantee a serious injury, but they greatly increase the likelihood. In none of these case do I think the defender intended to endanger the other player. But he had been coached to help-defend in a manner that did just that.
• Gerald Wallace arrives late (by the old standard) to try to draw a charge on airborne Curtis Borchardt, who is knocked off kilter and breaks his fall with his wrist, which breaks. (To add insult to injury, the ref called a charge.)
• Andrei Kirilenko breaks his wrist on a nasty spill after help defender Kwame Brown hustles from under the hoop to get outside the restricted line as Kirilenko elevates, creating the unintended undercut effect.
• Brad Miller catches a pass on the right side maybe 18 feet from the hoop and sees a clear path to the hoop. Weak side defender Dwyane Wade knows what he must do to earn brownie points from Coach Stan Van Gundy and sprints across the lane to plant his feet outside the restricted line just in time for a knee-on-shin collision with Miller. Wade's hurting; he'll play but struggle for a few weeks before regaining his groove. Miller's a bloody mess. He'll miss a couple of weeks, then come back – probably prematurely – and soon thereafter develop another problem with the same leg, which turns out to be a broken bone, which puts him out for a far longer stretch.
• Nenê drives on Tim Duncan when he sees Horry sprinting at him, trying to get set outside the restricted line and beat Nenê to the spot. To avoid another foul (even an unjust one), Nenê attempts an awkward, unnatural stop on one leg. Is that what caused his knee to explode? One can't say for sure, but I watched the replay several times and that's how it looked to me. That was opening night 2005-06 and it put Nenê out for the season. Even now, his knee is far from right.
• It's the 2006 Finals and Josh Howard beats his man off the dribble. Shaq moves laterally into Howard's path very late (though I think a charge was called). Shaq falls backwards, and 350 pounds crash into the side of the leg of an innocent bystander, creating the first “collateral damage” (CD) injury of the Finals. Miraculously, Wade sustains merely a bad sprain rather than ripped ligaments, and he goes on to lead the Heat to the title. (Kirilenko and Leandro Barbosa each missed six or more weeks after similar CD plays involving careening Spurs far lighter than Shaq. The Suns accused Manu Ginobili of flopping, while my vague recollection of Kirilenko's injury is that Beno Udrih made no effort to remain upright after drawing contact. The court would be a safer place if players were expected to try to retain their balance rather than try to lose it.)
• Wade penetrates against the Bulls, ascends at the foul line and lobs an alley-oop for Shaq. Othella Harrington, in typical Skiles-coached fashion, comes running from 15 feet away so he can be planted at the precise spot where Wade lands. Harrington offers no resistance to marginal contact from Wade and thus falls flat on his back under the basket as Shaq, who is focused on catching the lob, descends. Shaq's foot lands awkwardly on Harrington and wrenches his knee. A scary end to a scary play, but Dame Fortune smiles on the Diesel. He escapes with a severe sprain and returns to action maybe a couple weeks later, only to catch a Jermaine O'Neal knee with his thigh, dooming the Heat's 2005 title hopes.
• New Spur Brent Barry, eager to show Gregg Popovich he understands the Spurs team-defense concept and is willing to “sacrifice his body” (while subjecting an opposing player to far greater risk), pulls a run-under on a driving Kobe Bryant. Kobe's scary fall momentarily silences the L.A. crowd, but he's okay. Weeks later his season will be ruined by a more mundane run-under play by Ira Newble as Kobe descended after snatching a long rebound. Newble had hustled over, perhaps to attempt a steal, and Kobe landed on his foot, wrecking his ankle (just as Ron Artest did to Shaq early last season).
• Dwight Howard grabs a loose ball near the foul line, sees an opening to the hoop, dribbles in and elevates. Boston's Al Jefferson simultaneously rushes forward from the baseline to try to beat Howard to a piece of wood just outside the restricted line. It's a dead heat, but Howard is airborne when the two meet. Howard's massive body rotates from vertical to horizontal as he hurtles toward the floor face first. Luckily, Jefferson is sprawled on the court, and Howard is able to slightly break his fall by getting a hand or forearm down just as his head is landing on Jefferson. The play leaves both players woozy, but they survive.
That was one of the scariest falls I've ever seen. Who knows what would have happened if Howard had been unable to break his fall in the nick of time?
Turning to the current season, Charlie Villanueva recently returned from a 10-game absence courtesy of a torn ligament in his left elbow, the result of a nasty spill as he drove and was undercut by Josh Childress. Shaq injured Chuck Hayes's knee and tore cartilage in his own when he tried to earn a gold star from Coach Riley by sliding over late to create a B/C collision. A week or so later Wade escaped another collateral damage situation when Antoine Walker slid over late to collide with a Hawk driver as Wade was skying to attempt a swat. It's not good to have your superstar descending from the rafters onto the uneven, unstable “surface” of prone bodies in the paint.
Few if any of these B/C collisions would have occurred 20 years ago because the help defender would have realized he was way too late to have any chance of getting a gift from the ref. Instead he would have made a play on the ball, engaged in some other non-collision help defense or simply gotten out of the way.
Stu Jackson and his merry band of rule makers have created an Orwellian NBA court where a defender chasing his man and trying to avoid screens is granted far more freedom of movement than a dribbler on the floor or driver in the air! The screener has to give the defender room to change direction, and the screener is far more likely to get whistled for sliding his body as the defender approaches. (The disastrous Shaq-Hayes collision was the result of Shaq setting what I call a “defensive moving pick.”) I've seen countless charge calls in recent seasons where the defender takes a very wide stance, then slides his upper body two feet in either direction as the driver is about to elevate or even after he has elevated, to make sure he takes the hit in the chest. Who cares? He wasn't set and stationary when it mattered. Or at least when it used to matter, back when NBA rules were written and fine-tuned by competent people.
The league has transformed the prettiest shot in basketball – the running one-hander – into the worst percentage play in the game. Because the nature of the shot requires an early commitment by the shooter, does not involve a traveling violation (whether called or not) with a variety of evasive steps and hops after picking up the dribble, and usually features the driver flying through the air for some time and coming down anywhere from five to 10 feet from where he took off, it gives a help defender ample time to read the play and go get in the way by the time the shooter descends – and then be rewarded by the ref with an undeserved charge call. I'm just thankful that my all-time favorite player, George “the Iceman” Gervin, played in a less scary era, so I could see all those beautiful finger rolls and runners that he shot off of one leg. If Ice came along today he'd lead the league in charges and sprained and broken ankles.
Speaking of broken, that word characterizes the NBA's current framework for judging B/C situations. Mr. Nunn, you and your superiors need to look to the past for sensible remedies. You must pay absolutely no heed to the wishes of those coaches who've dragged our beautiful game through the mud for 15 years. They worship toughness, not poetry in motion. They are the problem. Smart, humane rule revisions that tick them off are the solution.
Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball – including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting – have appeared online at the Sporting News and Slate. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets.