"Greetings from the league office. You have been assigned flopper status."
This was Commissioner David Stern's tongue-in-cheek description of one possible approach to curtailing flopping in the NBA that was discussed Monday night by the newly formed competition committee. The idea would be to review potential flops in a "post-game analysis" and assess fines or points or some other retroactive penalty, similar to what is done with hard and flagrant fouls.
There has been an epidemic of flopping in the NBA this season. Well, actually, there has been an epidemic of talking and writing and ranting and worrying about flopping in the NBA this season -- whether there's actually been more flopping is impossible to measure, but there probably hasn't been any more than in a typical season. After all, it seems hard to believe there's more flopping now than when Vlade Divac was roaming ARCO Arena. But there sure has been a lot of noise about flopping. On this site alone in recent months, Tom Ziller questioned the wisdom of putting so much emphasis on the War on Flopping when the NBA has bigger fish to fry, just last week Dan Grunfeld delved into the ethics of flopping, and I myself examined the disconnect between the narrative about flopping and the reality in the case of Blake Griffin.
There's no question that flopping is an issue, as it has been for many seasons, and on the surface, the post-game review seems to be a reasonable approach to trying to address the situation. If the game moves too fast, and the "sellers" of fouls have gotten too good for the referees to accurately arbitrate in real time, then video review after the fact is the next best thing. However, the league in fact has discussed this solution in the past without implementing it, and with good reason. Assessing "flop points" after the fact might be much easier said than done, and there's no guarantee that it would be a real deterrent.
There are some plays every season that are such egregiously bad flops that everyone would agree that they are worthy of a penalty of some sort, were such a system in place. Reggie Evans' ridiculous pratfall when Greivis Vasquez gave him a slight nudge would qualify, as would Rudy Fernandez' head snap when he was untouched. If the replay angles clearly show daylight between the players as with Rudy's flop, or if the cause and effect of the contact are so laughably disconnected as with the Evans play, then Stu Jackson sitting at his desk the next day can feel free to send out his greetings card from the league office.
The problem is, the vast majority of the things that people like to call "flops" are not so black and white as these examples. There were probably not more than a handful of cut and dried fine-worthy flops in the NBA this season. For instance, I've been through Beckley Mason's "Flop of the Night" archive on TrueHoop, and I believe it would be next to impossible to assess fines for any of those examples that were supposedly as bad as it could get on any given night of NBA action.
The problem is that there is a tacit understanding that some amount of embellishment is acceptable and even condoned. The best example of this is the drawn charge. If there were no such thing as a charging call in the NBA, a defender would never be sent sprawling backwards onto his butt by an opponent on the attack. Not because there wouldn't be occasional collisions, but because the defender would brace for the contact and do his best to remain upright, because one can't play effective defense from one's butt. However, there is essentially no such thing as a charging foul without a player falling backwards, so that's what players do, and in fact what they are trained to do (that's what my high school coach taught me to do anyway, and I find it hard to believe that I was the only one being taught these things). Think of it this way: have you ever seen anyone draw a charge in a pickup game? No, because there aren't any refs. The presence of a referee provides an incentive to sell calls that does not exist without a referee.
So some amount of embellishment of contact is widely accepted and generally considered good, smart basketball. There is an embellishment continuum from the expertly drawn charge on one end of the spectrum, to Evans and Fernandez style play-acting on the other end. Where exactly would the NBA draw the line for assessing fines or penalty points? Bear in mind how poorly and inconsistently the NBA adjudicates flagrant fouls, even upon review. There are some very concrete questions to be asked regarding flagrant fouls (even if the wording in the rulebook concerning "unnecessary contact" is absurdly vague) -- was it a basketball play? Was the contact above the neck? Did the fouler attempt to make a play on the ball? Yet the league can't seem to be consistent from one game to the next regarding flagrants. Now imagine the room for second-guessing regarding flop reviews. No two people see a flop the same way -- devising criteria for what constitutes a punishable flop would be nigh on impossible.
If the system were limited to the most egregious flops like the Fernandez and Evans examples, there probably wouldn't be enough fines handed out over the course of the season to create a significant deterrent, but attempting to draw the line anywhere else would invite constant controversy with every video review. There's also the simple fact that the post-game review is of dubious value as a deterrent in the first place. If Reggie Evans could win an extra possession for his team during a game for the price of a monetary penalty or some "flop points" he'd proudly wear the penalty as a badge of honor.
There's little downside to adding a review process and fining the most extreme flops over the course of the season -- but punishable incidents would be few and far between, and the overall impact would be low. But as long as the in-game incentive remains in place -- that is to say, as long as the referees are being fooled into making incorrect calls -- nothing much will change. If the NBA wants to curtail the worst forms of on-court embellishment, they'll have to do a better job where the problem is happening, on the court.
Is there any reason that the officiating crew should not have gotten that Evans call right in the first place? Wasn't it pretty obviously a flop from the beginning? Instead the crew first assessed a Flagrant category 2 foul on Vasquez, which by rule is always reviewed -- after the review they downgraded the call to a standard foul. But it's not unreasonable to ask the referees to do better than that, is it? It seems that placing more emphasis on not rewarding flops during the game would have to have some effect. The crew might miss some legitimate fouls as well, but at this point it seems a small enough price to pay.
One point of emphasis that could have a significant impact on the practice would be simply to encourage the other referees to intervene if they have a different interpretation of the play. The way an NBA officiating crew operates, any of the three refs can make any call at any time. The reality is that only on rare occasions does one ref override another (you'll see it on charge/blocks and on the occasional out of bounds call). In general, the protocol is to let the ref who blew the whistle make the call. From a real world standpoint, it's not very practical to override a call with a non-call and so you never see a play where Official A has a foul and Official B says, "No, it was a flop, play on." The whistle has already blown, the play has already stopped.
But in the end, encouraging exactly this type of check and balance among the three members of the crew would allow the officials to avoid falling prey to most deceptions. The way the system works at present, the experts at selling contact only have to dupe one of three referees, since one whistle is all it takes to get the call. If the other refs were not in fact fooled (and you'd have to be awfully good to fool all three), take the time to get the call right, and restart the play with no call if necessary.
Post-game reviews of flops to assess penalties or fines is one possible way to curtail excessive embellishment in the NBA. However, the practical limitations of such a system dictate that it would either be very limited in scope, or fraught with controversy, if not both. It's also far from certain that such a system would actually serve to deter the behavior. The reality is that at present the league rewards flopping without attaching any risk to the behavior. Until the NBA does a better job of policing the practice in real time, in the course of the game, it will remain a widespread issue.