The Case for Hard Fouls in the NBA: A Reply to LeBron James
I'll be the first to admit that I don't care for the hard fouls like the ones the Chicago Bulls laid on LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in ending the Miami Heat's 27-game winning streak. Like ESPN's Henry Abbott, I'm a proponent of the NBA as a stage for beautiful basketball, purveyed by world-class athletes whose skills and synergy combine to create plays that cause fans to jump out of their seats with excitement. If I wanted to watch a clunky, clumsy, foul-filled mess of a game, I need only flip over to the NCAA tournament.
That being said, I can't simply jump to LeBron's defense with regard to his comments following the Heat's first loss since Feb. 1 (via ESPN's Michael Wallace):
Let me calculate my thoughts real fast before I say (what I want to say). I believe and I know that a lot of my fouls are not basketball plays. First of all, Kirk Hinrich in the first quarter basically grabbed me with two hands and brought me to the ground. The last one, Taj Gibson was able to collar me around my shoulder and bring me to the ground. Those are not defensive...those are not basketball plays.
To hear James tell it, you'd think the Bulls had a thirst for blood. But the video evidence suggests otherwise. Here's the Kirk Hinrich foul to which James is referring:
In LeBron's mind, Hinrich's decision to wrap him up with two arms while he was driving to the basket signaled some sort of malicious intent, as if Captain Kirk were trying to tackle him. Hinrich's take? (via Michael Wallace):
I got the foul but he almost made it so I kind of...you don't realize how strong that guy is and you forget sometimes, but with his speed and strength, you can't take anything for granted, so I still feel like I got the worst of it, obviously. But it was just one of those plays. I knew I was going to try to take a foul and then I just started going backwards and pulled him with me.
Hinrich admits that he wasn't exactly trying to take it easy on the three-time MVP. At the same time, he corroborates what the video appears to show and what makes intuitive sense—that LeBron is a big, strong, fast dude; that he's almost impossible to stop when he's got a full head of steam; and that, at Hinrich's size (6'4", 190 pounds), one would probably be better off hanging on for dear life than trying to draw a charge against a 6'8", 265-pound freight train of a man.
Which appears to be what Hinrich is doing here. By grabbing onto LeBron, he's both taking the foul and attempting to brace for impact. Against any other player, Hinrich would've been in perfect position to either make a play on the ball or take a charge.
But against LeBron? A swipe at the ball would've hardly stopped the man, and a charge might've left Hinrich with some serious head trauma. Kirk still winds up banging the back of his head on the floor even after clinging to LeBron as a means of self-preservation.
Not that anyone should necessarily pity Hinrich or even pat him on the butt for what he did. The play he made was anything but textbook and does come with some stench of intent attached.
Still, when you're talking about stopping a guy of LeBron's unique corporeal prowess, the resulting play is bound to look worse than normal. It's a matter of colloquial physics: The bigger (and faster) they are, the harder (and more violently) they fall, regardless of whether the contact is any more severe.
That was certainly the case with the Taj Gibson collision that James discusses:
The image of LeBron being restrained from lift-off and getting up thereafter with his headband askew suggests flagrant contact. But, upon further review, it appears that Gibson is making a (late) play on the ball to prevent the three-point try, and that any contact with James' head and neck thereabouts is largely incidental. This is how Gibson explains the event in question (via Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel):
I just tried to make a play on the ball, but I fouled him. When he fell, it looked like I collared him. I was really trying to grab him, just not hold him up. Nobody was intentionally trying to hurt anybody out there. When he said those comments, I was really shocked. But it's part of the game, I guess.
Again, it's not that Gibson does the "right" thing or that he defends that play well. Gibson is big enough to challenge LeBron body-to-body on a charge, and if he slides to his left a split second sooner, he might be in proper position to take one.
But alas, Taj is "late" to help, but how late, really? Would another player of similar size to LeBron have gotten from point A to point B as quickly and decisively in that situation as James did?
We're once again confronted with the fact that LeBron is a freak of nature. In this case, his quickness and ability to build up momentum in the blink of an eye leaves Gibson with no choice but to make a play on the ball from behind, lest he allow LeBron to parade past Jimmy Butler's token grab on the way to the rim.
It's a tricky issue for everyone involved, to say the least, though not exactly one without precedent. LeBron has also acknowledged the parallels between his predicament and that endured by another former Miami Heat champion and a one-time teammate of his with the Cleveland Cavaliers—Shaquille O'Neal (via Ira Winderman):
As a kid, I used to watch a lot of Lakers games and I used to see Shaq get hammered and he would get two free throws and then he would finally deliver a blow and it would be a technical foul, it would be a flagrant foul. I've seen it. I've seen it before. We're not ones to complain, but I just brought it to light.
Like LeBron, Shaq's powerful build and keen understanding of how to use that build to his advantage left most defenders helpless to stop him, particularly one-on-one. Even Dikembe Mutombo, a four-time Defensive Player of the Year, was made to look like nothing more than a flailing nuisance against the Big Diesel:
The point is, superhumans like LeBron, Shaq, Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin (among others) have been and likely always will be difficult to defend and even tougher to officiate precisely because they're superhuman. Players of that order have a distinct advantage over the vast majority of their competitors on any given night simply by virtue of having won the gene-pool lottery.
The question then becomes, is it fair to let these specimens run roughshod over the rest of the league? Or should the opposition be allowed some leeway in "leveling the playing field?"
And, if so, to what extent should knocking a dude on his derriere be permitted as part of that approach?
What's important to remember here, and what the clip of Shaq busting Mutombo's chops reminds us of, is that superstar contact is hardly ever a one-way street. It's easy to imagine John Brenkus and the folks over at ESPN's Sports Science putting together a piece showing how the biggest and strongest stars dish out nearly as much punishment as they take. As much force as LeBron absorbed by barreling into Hinrich, there's no doubt that Kirk felt (and probably still feels) plenty of pain from that particular collision.
Even Sports Science's bit on Blake Griffin's famous posterization of Kendrick Perkins illuminates, in some small way, the extent to which basketball's biggest beasts are afforded a greater measure of freedom when attempting to launch themselves at the hoop:
Griffin knows a thing or two about the perks and perils of being a dominant athlete. On the one hand, his brash brand of physicality (and penchant for flopping and complaining to the officials) has made him the target of excessive and malicious contact:
On the other hand, those same qualities, at times, force officials to consider Griffin's superior strength when judging the impact of his contact, as was the case with this would-be-game-winning shot against the Dallas Mavericks:
All of these concerns involving the elite-of-the-elite athletes boil down to what the league intends to do about the inherent phenotypic differences between human beings. The NBA has a long history of legislating in such a way that makes the pro game a more egalitarian one, particularly with regard to size. From the creation and widening of the three-second key to the institution of the 24-second shot clock, the three-point line and, most recently, tighter restrictions on perimeter contact, the powers that be have gone to great lengths to even out the odds of success between players and teams alike.
Because everyone knows that bigger is better, unless the rules reconfigure the game to the contrary.
The evolution of the modern athlete once again appears to have forced the NBA's hand, or at least brought matters to such a precipice. Advancements in strength-and-agility training, nutrition and (yes) performance-enhancing substances across all sports have made all athletes bigger, stronger and faster than ever before, and have enabled those with built-in advantages to exploit said advantages to an even greater degree.
These forces of science and technology have already incited action among other major sports leagues, including the NFL and MLB, to various extents. The former, in particular, has done plenty to modify its rules of play in recent years to make its game safer and to cut down on injuries in the face of liability lawsuits. Both have also taken stands against the use of performance-enhancing drugs, albeit with inconsistent results so far.
The NBA has taken up a similar mantle against PEDs, but as important a move as it is, it's beside our main point here. The bigger issue is that the rise of otherworldly athletes like LeBron presents the Association with yet another threat to the fairness that it has tried so hard to establish and maintain over the years.
On the one hand, is it fair that some players are so vastly superior to their opponents as to be unstoppable without the use of extraordinary force as an impediment? On the other hand, is it fair for those superior players to be targeted and victimized for who and what they are, rather than being allowed to maximize the value of their gifts as any other player would hope to?
As far as science has progressed, it still has yet to give us a way to ensure that everyone in the NBA possesses the same attributes—save for outright (and illegal) discrimination—and let's hope it never does. What makes basketball so exciting and so interesting is the freedom of expression that it affords to people of all shapes, sizes and styles within the same realm. Point guards can post up near the basket, centers can shoot long jumpers and hybrid forwards like LeBron can take guys off the dribble and drive to the hoop.
Where, more often than not, they run into fierce, physical resistance.
Unless the NBA decides to outlaw physical contact entirely, it seems highly unlikely that anything can or will be done to curb the hard hits that LeBron and his cohorts take. The league may not like that just about every coach of every team ever has treated fouling as a strategy for success, rather than as a pattern of erroneous infraction worthy of reprimand.
However, so long as there's an advantage to be gained from dropping the hammer, be it the immediate benefit of a player potentially missing free throws or the accumulated benefit of a slasher thinking twice about driving into the paint, hard fouls will be an inevitable, if regrettable, part of the game.
Perhaps eradicating free throws is the solution. Replace two-shot fouls with instant points, and, chances are, you'll see fewer intentional fouls and hard hits, more points and better flow. Teams might not be so willing to protect their turf at all costs if the result on the scoreboard is the same as it would be if the defense parted like the Red Sea.
Do you agree with LeBron's complaints?
Of course, the concept of a flagrant foul is meant to deal with at least some of this mess. But even those come down to judgment calls more often than not, as the use of instant replay and the differentiation between a flagrant 1 and a flagrant 2 would suggest. There's no easy way to discern between contact that's "normal," "unnecessary" and "unnecessary and excessive," even with slow-motion replay and especially when the game is being played at such a tremendous speed.
Even more so when the highest-flying athletes are involved. In all likelihood, the degree and type of contact Hinrich and Gibson used against LeBron wasn't considered unnecessary or excessive because of an implicit understanding that such is part and parcel with impeding the progress of someone of James' ilk.
In absolute terms, the force involved was undoubtedly abnormal. Relative to LeBron or Shaq or Dwight or Blake, though, that might just be the average impact needed to make a difference.
I'm all in favor of basketball as a graceful game that showcases the talents, both inherited and developed, of some of the best athletes on the planet. Over the years, I've become a huge fan of watching LeBron do his thing as he's honed his jump shot and grown to be an all-around threat the likes of which the NBA has rarely (if ever) seen.
He's also earned the benefit of the doubt here in some respects. LeBron's never been one to complain to the media about the punishment he's absorbed throughout his 10 years in the NBA. Hence, the fact that he's piping up now may well point to the contact in question being unnecessary and/or excessive.
(Either that, or he was factoring in the additional sting of seeing a bitter rival snap the Heat's streak.)
But it's also important to keep in mind the nature of competition, how it drives people and teams to push (and, at times, skirt) boundaries in the never-ending effort to gain an advantage. So long as there are players whose prowess rivals that of the X-Men and so long as basketball is a contact sport, there will always be shots taken and shoves absorbed that border on the profligate.
LeBron James and company will just have to accept that if they wish to continue dominating the NBA, for better or worse.
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