Five rule changes made necessary by 2015 NBA Playoffs

Making rule changes could go a long way to improving the game, especially the "Hack-A-Player" rule, which puts DeAndre Jordan at the line far too often.
Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

By Matt Zemek

The 2015 NBA Playoffs are over, and frankly, they were forgettable in many respects. That first-round series between the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers remained the best playoff series over the next three rounds. That’s not the way things are supposed to go in May and June.

Yet, while these playoffs were unforgettable for people outside Oakland and Cleveland, they must not be forgotten by the people in charge of revising the NBA’s on-court rules each offseason.

Let’s cast aside policies (which are different from rules), such as the way in which replay review is governed or the way in which the playoffs are seeded and structured. Here are five on-court rules that need to be introduced or amended in time for the 2015-2016 season:

5 – TIERED FLAGRANT FOULS

What is a tiered set of flagrant fouls? For background, start here with this piece written during the Golden State-Houston series. It’s worth digesting all the details of that piece, but the basic points are as follows:

1 ) Provoking a flagrant foul from an opponent should not be rewarded, or at the very least, it shouldn’t escape complete punishment. If Player B completely loses control, but Player A made a more subtle physical action (with physical contact, an important part of this) to provoke the action, Player A should get some form of punishment, just not as severe as what Player B will face.

This is a tiered system of flagrant fouls.

The other basic point of that article, linked to above, is this:

2) If a flagrant foul is not called in real time during a game, but is discovered to have occurred upon replay review after a game ends (in Seacaucus, New Jersey, presumably), that player should be assessed a foul for the next game in which he is able to play, plus additional penalties such as having to sit for 10 minutes or conceding two team fouls for the first quarter of that next game. 

Flowing from that last point, under this system of tiered flagrant fouls, a flagrant should decrease in severity of punishment if it is determined that a live-ball common foul was missed by the officials on the floor, leading to the flagrant foul in question. If failures in live-ball officiating lead in any way to the commission of flagrant fouls by players, those flagrants should generally be downgraded in severity.

A needed postscript on all this: Tiered flagrant fouls should bring forth a system in which certain numbers of each classification of flagrant foul (there should be four classifications, three at minimum) disqualify players for the next regular season game. When the playoffs start, accumulations of various flagrants should also result in disqualifications when they reach agreed-upon thresholds.

4 – REVISING THE CLEAR-PATH FOUL

We saw this on a number of occasions in the Houston-Golden State series: A player literally did have a clear path to the basket, and was fouled either from behind or the side by an opponent who made no real play on the ball. Yet, because of the angle from which the foul occurred or because of the spot on the floor where the foul occurred, the clear-path rule did not apply.

Very simply, then, the NBA has to make the notion of a “clear-path” foul a lot more expansive, to include a lot more situations in which players have clear paths to the basket and are fouled by opponents who aren’t making plays on the ball. This is plain common sense.

3 – CLARIFYING AND SIMPLIFYING THE FLAGRANT FOUL

The need to have tiered flagrant fouls is a response to provocations and missed live calls by officials. In terms of punishing lazy basketball and rewarding effective drives to the basket, a separate rule amendment is needed: Simplifying the definition of a flagrant foul.

In a sport which has become very physical, it is misguided — well-intentioned, yes, but still misguided — to cite excessive or unnecessary force as the basis for a flagrant foul. Why is this the case? Consider the fact that when a shooter is airborne, a given amount of force poses a greater injury risk compared to when that shooter is not airborne. The same amount of force could be applied by the defender in each instance, but that set amount of force is a lot more dangerous in one scenario than the other.

It’s so much more helpful to define the flagrant foul through this prism: Is it a basketball play or not? Simplified: Is the defender making an honest play on the ball? Any on-ball situations will be so much easier for officials to call if they’re given this rewritten rule for flagrant fouls.

Running through screens or setting screens are obviously in need of separate parameters as far as flagrant fouls are concerned, since they are not on-ball actions. This is where a “necessary/unnecessary force” distinction makes a lot more sense. If the NBA distinguished between on-ball and off-ball plays for flagrants, that change alone would vastly improve the sport.

2 – FIBA BASKET INTERFERENCE AND GOALTENDING RULES — NOW!

Basketball is a game of powerful athleticism, strong bursts of vertical action with rapid-fire continuity. It should be in the interest of any basketball league or structure to encourage players to move as freely as possible, and to accordingly discourage flagrant fouls or other things that disrupt or inhibit free movement of players. Liberalizing basket-interference and goaltending rules, in accordance with FIBA standards, will create a more free-flowing product. We saw basket interference play a crucial role in some Spurs-Clippers playoff games. Refs made proper calls on those plays, but remember: It’s a lot more important to cite how awful a rule is than to debate whether the refs properly enforced that awful rule.

In the NBA and in college, current basket-interference and goaltending rules are awful. They inhibit movement and force players to wait to jump for the ball when it’s near the rim. Basketball shouldn’t be that way. VIVA FIBA!

1 – HACK-A-PLAYER HAS TO BE REDUCED … BUT SO DOES THE PURPOSEFUL FOUL

Basketball fans hate the tons of timeouts teams get — this is true in the colleges as well as in the NBA. However, just imagine how much games would speed up (and how much better the product would be for ticket buyers) if both Hack-A-Player AND the standard-issue purposeful foul at the end of a game were marginalized by rules.

Fans don’t pay good money to see free throws. They also don’t pay to see final minutes of games turn into free-throw festivals. Action must be taken if basketball is to win even more of a loyal following … and if East Coast fans don’t have to be put through three-hour playoff games in Los Angeles that started at 10:40 p.m. Eastern time.

For both Hack-A-Player and the standard purposeful foul (fouling when trailing by five points with 25 seconds left, let’s say), all the NBA has to do is award two shots and the ball for each foul deemed purposeful (i.e., not violent but not a basketball play, defined as a legitimate play on the ball).

Boom. Done.

The only thing worth adding to the above rule is that a distinction should be made between the Hack-A-Player and the late-game purposeful foul.

Here’s a decent starting point: The purposeful foul generally applies to the final two minutes of the game (which is why the NBA appropriately put in place a Hack-A-Player limit in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter). Outside the final two minutes of a game, Hack-A-Player (which is essentially a more targeted version of the more broadly labeled “purposeful foul”) can still be allowed to exist, but there need to be limits to the use of the tactic.

Here’s the basic solution, with the salient distinction at the outset:

If DeAndre Jordan gets the ball in the low post, sure, go ahead and wrap him up. He has the ball near the basket. You don’t want him to score. Make him earn two free throws. That’s an accepted part of basketball, and since Jordan got the ball, it’s fair game to foul him.

What’s NOT okay is when Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are running the floor on a 2-on-1 fast break, and are about to create a layup or dunk … and Boris Diaw fouls Jordan 60 feet from the hoop. That’s not a basketball play because it involves someone who doesn’t have the ball and isn’t in the play. That’s the stuff which shouldn’t be allowed. If Jordan gets the ball on the break, okay, you can foul him (responsibly, with an appropriate amount of contact), but you can’t just grab a guy 60 feet from the goal when his teammates are running the break and have an advantageous situation.

If the Clippers are dumb enough to give DeAndre Jordan the ball in spots on the floor where he shouldn’t have the rock, the Clippers are putting themselves in position to be victimized by Hack-A-Jordan. However, if they never put the ball in his hands and have their two best players steaming toward the hoop, they should not be penalized for the Spurs lazily (smartly, but still lazily) being able to bear-hug Jordan in backcourt.

If the NBA made this basic adjustment in response to Hack-A-Player — allowing it only when the player to be hacked is the player with the ball — the product of professional basketball would become even better than it is now.

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