Ask the average sports fan the biggest problem with the NBA, and they might very well point to the Golden State Warriors.
The Association's greatest superteam is steamrolling its way to the Finals. Their second-round playoff opponent, the Utah Jazz, haven't led for a single second of their series, and Golden State has won its six games so far by an average of 16.5 points.
Yet as much as we bemoan such dominance, we really do love dynasties. Professional basketball has been its healthiest during the least competitive stretches.
There's a far more insidious crisis facing the NBA — a trend that's suppressing ratings, feeding into criticism of the game, and casting a cloud over what should be an increasingly bright future.
We're talking, of course, about the incessant flopping in all its various forms.
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The NBA's existential problem comes from a well-meaning place. The crux of the issue is players are just too smart these days.
When it comes to the NBA rule book, the superstars understand the letter of the law, the way referees call the rules, and how to push the envelope between that theory and the reality.
James Harden is the NBA's foremost con artist, without question. His entire game is predicated on waiting for a defender to have a momentary lapse of judgment. As soon as Harden sees a limb extended or a player's head turned, he attacks — not looking to score, necessarily, but looking to draw a foul.
It's a brilliant decision, really. Harden simultaneously earns high-percentage looks from the stripe and puts his opponent in foul trouble.
He and others like him are wise, to be sure. They're also ruining the NBA with their ever-creeping adoption of flopping in every possible play.
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There is a specific type of flopping that's particularly disgusting.
The 2017 NBA playoffs have been rendered nearly unwatchable at times by shooters like Harden flopping the second they feel contact on the perimeter, hoisting up "3-pointers" to try to get to the line for three shots.
This new breed of offensive flopping is an epidemic in the NBA, one which threatens the long-term health of the league. At least one former NBA official believes some of the worst flops are offensive fouls that are whistled the other direction because referees haven't fully appreciated what Harden and his ilk are doing.
Indeed, such rule-bending makes old school flops to draw charges seem downright novel. The issue came to a head during Game 2 between the Rockets and Spurs, when Patty Mills was called for a foul on a Harden 3-pointer despite backpedaling with his hands practically behind his back.
We should be on the edge of our collective seats this postseason. There have been a number of thrilling, last-second nailbiters, and the level of talent in the Association has never been higher.
Instead, we're left complaining about players drawing whistle after whistle, turning a free-flowing sport into the stop-and-start, play-by-play rhythm of the NFL.
At least on Sundays, there's actual violence between the stops in play, though. NBA players are reinforcing all of the worst stereotypes about how soft they are when they should have the sports world in the palms of their hands.
When even your diehards want to watch something else, you have a looming catastrophe on your hands.
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Really, though, the threat doesn't stop with flopping. Not even close.
Take Isaiah Thomas, who stretches the limits of the NBA's palming rules, as Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg correctly pointed out during the first round of the playoffs.
Or take LeBron James and his constant borderline traveling, as he takes his first step with the ball on the way up from his final dribble, stops the ball at the very last second, then takes two more steps to the rim.
It's technically legal, and it's absolutely frustrating for those who root for the other 29 teams in the Association — until their own star ball-handler does the same thing, anyway.
Even the Golden State Warriors, who generally avoid flopping on 3-pointers because they're chucking from 30 feet out, force the officials to make difficult calls for 48 minutes.
They're the kings of the illegal screens. That was true with Andrew Bogut last year, and it remains true with Zaza Pachulia this season. Golden State knows just how to grab, chip, shift, and move to free up space for their lethal shooters.
Truly, show me any successful NBA team, and I will show you a franchise looking to skirt the rules.
If you're not cheating, you're not trying — the fans be damned.
So what can we do about it?
The easy answer is, "Stop calling the flops as fouls, and start calling players for their illegal screens and traveling," but the universe is never that simple.
Many of the flops are indeed the result of fouls, with the offensive player embellishing the contact to get the officials' attention, for one.
Those afrementioned travels are often legal, as players use the "gather dribble" to take an additional step that's not quite a violation but obviously goes against everything we were taught about the game growing up.
The illegal screens can pass muster from time to time, as an offensive player is allowed to move to a different spot to set a pick as long as he beats the defensive player there. That's why not all "moving screens" are worthy of a whistle.
Yet many, many more of these violations are such awful calls they make you want to throw your remote through the television — or flip the channel to basically anything else.
The NBA has to do something about this. These are the days when the product should shine the brightest, not put off the average fan. If we don't stop this trend now, the players will keep trying to expand the grey area. We can't trust them to protect the game when there are wins and losses on the line.
But again, what's the solution? How do you protect the offensive player's right to free movement while punishing him for exaggerating contact?
How can you reward players for knowing the rules without having basketball become a turn-based RPG video game?
Most of all, how do you institute a rule set that makes for the best possible basketball — because that's the only question that matters.
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The answers are both systemic and granular.
For now, the NBA can insist its referees officiate these particularly onerous situations with a renewed vigilance. We'd guess that call to arms has already gone out through the league offices.
Really, though, Adam Silver & Co. need to address this problem from top to bottom this offseason. The competition committee should take a long, hard look at just how it wants the game to be played.
Adding a fourth official is absolutely necessary. The NBA is already investigating how to institute that change in the D-League; the sooner that modification makes its way to the big leagues, the better.
Second, the NBA needs to clarify what exactly is a shooting foul beyond the 3-point line. This offseason, issue a rule change that emphasizes any foul committed on a "shot" deemed to be unnatural by the officials will result in an inbound from the sidelines instead of free throws.
The NBA has changed the rules to modify the on-court product before, after all. That's why we no longer have hand-checking on the perimeter and why offensive freedom of movement is considered sacred. Motion leads to exciting basketball, rather than the drag-out game we saw in the late '90s.
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Last and most importantly, the NBA has to do a better job explaining its rules to the fans. Be clear about what's traveling, what isn't, and what the difference is. Describe how the rules are designed to promote movement and why not all contact that appears equal is necessarily a foul in two different situations.
Educate your fans. Have a conversation about what we want from the game. Ask your broadcast partners to dedicate time to this initiative, and help them create presentations of the information that won't put the watcher to sleep.
People are willing to change their minds, but you have to give them a reason. You just have to give them a better explanation than "because we said so."
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