NBA makes right call with flopping sanctions

Mere hours before the first presidential debate of 2012, the NBA laid down the law on flopping.

While the candidates are safe from NBA prosecution, most of us are expected to approve of the message being sent to players.

Suddenly, Derek Fisher’s free-agent market value is in, well, free fall. Manu Ginobili, who popularized the “Euro Step” despite hailing from Argentina (yeah, I know he played in Italy, too), has scrapped plans for a post-retirement career teaching the finer points of the Patagonia Plummet. Somewhere on the planet, Vlade Divac was seen retrieving an emergency pack of smokes and swearing off a threatened comeback.

Anyway, according to a statement released Wednesday by the league, first-time flop offenders will suffer the indignity of a warning. The second offense will include a healthy $5,000 fine, with the third time earning a charming $10K. The fourth flopping infraction will be accompanied by a righteous penalty of $15,000, which doubles on the fifth violation. If a player is convicted of a sixth NBA-determined act of theatrical falling, he will be given a role on the sitcom “How I Met Your Mother.”

Suspensions could be instituted instead of sitcom opportunities, giving the anti-flop measure considerable impact during crucial junctures of the season. When most of us consider the enormity of a typical NBA player contract, the fines might not seem to be much of a deterrent. But 60 grand could be steep to players who get by on their wits and are paid accordingly. For others, the fines might be the difference between sanity and a really bad decision on that eighth car.

So, after Commissioner David Stern spent part of last season vowing to rid the NBA of this epidemic, the league has taken steps to do just that.

“Flops have no place in our game,” said deputy commissioner Stu Jackson, even though a lot of flop fans might say the same thing about him. “They either fool referees into calling undeserved fouls or fool fans into thinking the referees missed a foul call.”

Now if the credibility-seeking league could get Tim Donaghy shipped to Mars, it really would be in business.

Oh, by the way, flopping violators will be identified during video reviews by the league office. This means NBA referees, who already have enough in-game responsibility to keep them busy, won’t be obliged to judge intent or mete out punishment while wrecking the flow of a game.

This hardly suggests that refs will simply ignore flop candidates, assuming that video can confirm their suspicions at a later date. Refs will continue to officiate as they have, because the new sanctioning system is unable to prevent successful flops from affecting the outcome of a particular game.

So, as one referee explained to me a few months ago, NBA whistleblowers will continue keeping a close eye on those players with a history of fooling them. That’s right  even veteran referees have been duped by these splendid thespians. But those with such reputations have been battling a boy-who-cried-wolf style form of flop rejection. If there’s a doubt about the authenticity of a fall, the historical faker won’t get the call … at least from those referees with enough experience to know what to look for.

The heightened scrutiny will bring some in-game risk for floppers as well. On the defensive end, they risk being out of position to make a play; an offensive flop would result in change of possession. That’s a pretty good way of policing things without requiring later video review.

As for the established floppers, referees really do game plan about such characters. Just like the teams they officiate, referees have day-of-game meetings to prepare for different situations long before they leave for the arena.

An interesting perspective on the cause-effect nature of the flop comes from an NBA assistant coach, who’s hoping the fines can clean up the game he loves.

“One problem we had in the past was getting referees to make calls to reward good defense,” the coach said. “Strong dribble-attack players lowering their shoulder or post players backing down and dislodging the defender got away with physically imposing their will on defenders with legal position.

“To start getting calls, and this goes way back, defenders started exaggerating the extent of the content just to get a ref’s attention. From there, well, it’s gotten pretty crazy. A really good defender, without the acting, would rarely actually fall over even with a lowered shoulder or dislodging in the post. Now a lot of guys actually coach how to fall in junior high and high school.”

What will the punishment of serial floppers provide the NBA? Well, without an outside-the-rules edge to serve as something of an equalizer, talent might become even more important.

With players required to actually establish legal guarding position when attempting to take a charge, superstar attackers of the basket will have more opportunities at the rim or the free-throw line. Rather than attempting to theatrically finesse their way to defensive stops, defenders will be required to dig in and play. This could open a roster spot or two for players who actually move their feet when they don’t have the ball.

But as one referee pointed out to me Wednesday, several of these dedicated offensive hotshots often use acting to their advantage. Players such as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Paul Pierce and Ginobili are quite gifted at the pantomime of bloody murder when brushed or breathed on during a devastating move to the hoop.

Putting on a performance, however, doesn’t mean a foul didn’t occur; some well-meaning players are simply attempting to make referees aware when they do.

This means that despite the attempted embargo on flopping, referees are still on the hook for making immediate decisions regarding legal and illegal contact. But their nightly challenges could be reduced a bit once money starts flowing into the NBA’s office-party fund.

The players, unless they’re aiming for that sitcom role, will be forced to adjust.