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Making Sense of the NBA's New Flopping Rules

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Making Sense of the NBA's New Flopping Rules

Will flopping finally be a thing of the past in the NBA?

Perhaps, if commissioner David Stern has his way. As league spokesman Tim Frank told the Associated Press on Thursday, the competition committee has been hard at work devising a way to discourage players from embellishing contact as a means of coaxing referees into making ill-advised calls in their favor. 

The most likely solution? "Postgame analysis" and retroactive fines, to be implemented during the 2012-13 season. That is, rather than put the onus on referees to judge acting jobs within the flow of the game, the league office will consult the video after games and hand out fines if they've determined that the player in question did indeed flop.

At this point, the move appears to be a smart one by the NBA. Flopping has long been a part of pro basketball, though the practice of such tactics seems to have increased of late.

Whether that's actually the case or simply the perception, in light of improvements in video technology as a whole, and replay in particular, is another story.

Regardless, the prevalence of flopping and the attention paid to it by players, coaches, executives and fans alike have grated on the credibility of the league's men in stripes. The more frequently players fool the referees and get away with it, the more foolish those referees appear to be in the eyes of all those paying attention.

Mike Bantom, the league's new executive vice president of referee operations, is eminently aware of this. As he told the AP:

"I think one of the things that I'd just like to focus on is I think there's a perception out there that kind of throws into question sometimes the competence of our officials and even the integrity of them at times, and I think that that's not true to begin with and unfair, and I want to try and change that perception." 

Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Taking the decisions over such infractions out of the referee's hands may seem counterintuitive; after all, they should have the power to regulate the game, shouldn't they? But it actually makes more sense.

The refs have enough on their plates during live action as is and needn't be subjected to policing (and potentially screwing up) what would be another, even more difficult kind of judgment call.

As for the players, there figures to be some pushback in the early going. Observers can expect to see players pushing the boundaries to some extent, unless/until someone gets caught and slapped with a fine.

Even then, it may take quite some time for even the league's most notorious floppers, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, to name a few, to give it up.

It's likely that many of these players have been practicing their acting chops for years, perhaps even since the salad days of youth basketball, at the behest of their coaches. Old habits die hard, especially those that have yielded advantages in the past.

Whether the threat of a fine will be enough to deter potential violators from doing so remains to be seen. The dollar amounts associated with these infractions won't likely seem significant compared to the exorbitant salaries that the players pull in, but, then again, the league isn't keen to collect bills.

Rather, the goal is to stamp out a perceived problem with the threat of a penalty.

Marc Serota/Getty Images

The key to the efficacy of the NBA's new policy, though, may well rest with how the league opts to handle repeat offenders. A modest fine should deter some (if not most) in due time, but there will be those for whom the cost-benefit analysis still favors flopping.

Those cases figure to warrant heftier fines, if not outright suspensions, to discourage those most dedicated to the unscrupulous practice.

The league has done well to craft new rules to protect its officials in a "minimalist way" in recent years. Prior to the 2010-11 season, the NBA instituted a new policy whereby referees could issue technical fouls for a wider range of behaviors, including (per ESPN's Henry Abbott):

• Players making aggressive gestures, such as air punches, anywhere on the court. 
• Demonstrative disagreement, such as when a player incredulously raises his hands, or smacks his own arm to demonstrate how he was fouled.
• Running directly at an official to complain about a call.

• Excessive inquiries about a call, even in a civilized tone.

And before last season, the league upped the ante for the techs themselves, making them more expensive and imposing a one-game suspension for each infraction over 12 incurred by a given player in a season.

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The new rules haven't necessarily cut down on the overall frequency of techs, though they appear to have influenced a reduction in flippant behavior towards officials to some extent. At the very least, they've resulted in fewer players racking up obscene tech totals.

In fact, the number of players with double-digit techs per season has dropped, from 13 in 2009-10 and 2010-11 to eight in 2011-12.

Granted, the latter stat may not be the most useful, considering that the schedule was shortened on account of the lockout, though the fact that no player officially accrued more than 12 techs is telling. Suspensions, it would seem, are useful deterrents when attempting to discourage unsportsmanlike conduct in basketball.

If the NBA is smart, then, it'll approach tricking officials as it has abusing them; by benching those for whom a lighter wallet isn't enough of a disincentive.

It won't likely end flopping for good, just as the new tech rules haven't eliminated referee abuse, though, at the very least, the league is moving to protect the integrity of its employees, its game and its public image before the situation gets out of hand. 

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