Can the NBA Cure the Flopping Epidemic, or Is It Part of the Game?
Delaney's right about flopping. For players, the point of embellishing contact—or faking it entirely—is to influence officials to make calls in favor of the offenders' respective teams.
It's another manifestation of players seeking out every edge possible in pursuit of victory, following the spirit of the old sports adage, "If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'."
But the impact of flopping as a scourge on the game can be felt far beyond those in zebra stripes.
Players who don't flop have their differences with those who do. Coaches and executives whose teams are negatively impacted by the acting chops of their opponents are left to cry foul about the apparent lawlessness of the sport. Fans at home who see instant replays, slow-motion shots and YouTube clips are left to wonder how and why offenders get away with flopping that seems so obvious to them.
The issue is one of integrity and authority. Can the NBA ensure the quality of its own product? Can it police its players and, just as importantly, come to the aid of its own officials? Would doing so require the institution of harsher penalties than the relative slaps on the wrist administered to today's serial floppers?
Or is flopping now so closely intertwined with the sport itself as to be beyond excision? Is it here to stay, whether anyone likes it or not?
Before we discuss how to solve the league's flopping problem, let's rewind to the roots of the not-so-punctilious practice.
In May, Grantland traced the origins of flopping in the NBA back to Frank Ramsey. The Hall of Fame guard and seven-time champion with the Boston Celtics was the subject of a 1963 piece by the legendary Frank Deford, entitled "Smart Moves by a Master of Deception," in which Ramsey detailed how best to get a call under certain circumstances, from fielding contact as an on-ball defender to creating it in pursuit of a three-point play.
Ironically, Ramsey's coach (Red Auerbach) and former teammate (Tommy Heinsohn) came to be among the most outspoken opponents of flopping. Unfortunately for them, some players evidently took Ramsey's advice to heart. From Mike Newlin and Bill Laimbeer to Vlade Divac, Derek Fisher and now Dwyane Wade and Blake Griffin, the "art" of flopping has been passed on from generation to generation, however regrettably.
Not by accident, either.
Clearly, flopping has worked well enough over the years that players have willfully decided to continue fooling referees in this manner. If there were no competitive edge to be gained from acting, players probably wouldn't do it.
Whether embellishment is more of a problem now than it used to be is difficult to discern. It's possible that flopping has always been as rampant in the NBA as it is today, but that the practice is more visible than ever now that the league's media footprint is so expansive.
Most NBA games weren't televised until after David Stern stepped in as the league's commissioner in 1984. Up to that point, very few contests ever saw the light of day, and most of those that did were shown on tape delay.
That stands in stark contrast to the present day, wherein the league's content is easily accessible to people all over the world. Now, every team has all of its games broadcast in some way, whether it is locally, nationally or via NBA League Pass. Moreover, the Internet is crawling with NBA-related video content, ranging from brief highlight clips to full replays of classic games.
In short, there's no way for floppers to hide anymore. If a player flops and garners a whistle as a result, chances are that there will be some way to verify it visually.
More often than not, that verification can be achieved through a simple YouTube search. Type in the terms "NBA" and "flop" together and YouTube will spit back well over 86,000 results. The more these instances are seen and discussed, the more embarrassing the situation becomes for the league.
Nobody likes, or wants, to be lied to—NBA fans included. We want to enjoy watching games where we know that those partaking are abiding by the same set of rules, and that those who aren't are reprimanded accordingly.
So far, the punishments instituted by the league don't appear to have done much to solve the problem. Prior to the 2013 NBA Finals, David Stern told The Associated Press (via NBA.com) that flopping isn't going to disappear until there are stiffer penalties in place:
It isn't enough. You're not going to cause somebody to stop it for $5,000 when the average player's salary is $5.5 million. And anyone who thought that was going to happen was allowing hope to prevail over reason.
The policy to which Stern referred called for players to receive a warning for a first offense, a $5,000 fine for a second, a $10,000 fine for a third, a $15,000 fine for a fourth, and a $30,000 fine for a fifth violation. Every flop thereafter would likely incur a suspension of some sort. Come playoff time, warnings were eschewed in favor of immediate fines for floppers.
In total, 19 players around the NBA were warned for flopping during the regular season. Five of those players wrote $5,000 checks to the league after second offenses, but not one drew fire for a third transgression. Eight players were hit with $5,000 fines during the course of the 2013 postseason.
And yet, even the commissioner would admit that flopping remains a serious concern for the NBA and that more must be done to stem the tide of deception:
We knew that flopping was going to be far from perfect. And we gather more attention because we were giving it more attention. But the point was to do it gently, look at all the flops - and there have been plenty - penalize the most egregious very gently.
We could end that immediately if we decided to suspend players, but that might be a little bit draconian at the moment.
Indeed, it would be difficult for the NBA to unilaterally lower the bar for suspension, albeit beyond Stern's own assessment as to the severity of such a punishment. The players' association filed grievances with the league office and the National Labor Relations Board when Stern first announced the initial guidelines for governing flops last October.
Stern knows as well as anyone that harsher penalties would only embolden the players to respond with greater conviction, even as new union president Chris Paul—a notorious flopper in his own right—searches for an executive director to replace the disgraced Billy Hunter.
It's no wonder, then, that Stern didn't put up a fight when the league's Board of Governors voted this past July to leave the flopping fines unchanged for the upcoming season. (Well, that, and Stern works for the owners...and he's coasting toward retirement in February, but I digress.)
There's also the problem of figuring out how best to distinguish a flop from normal contact. Not all flops are cut-and-dried, nor are they all worthy of reprimand.
"Many times, there’s a flop that doesn’t change the call," Delaney explained. "In other words, if a player flops, it doesn’t negate the fact that there was illegal contact on the front end. Sometimes people will say, 'Well, there was a flop on that play.' Yeah, there was a flop on that play, but there was still illegal contact on the play, so the foul that was called was the correct call."
According to ESPN.com, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has commissioned a study on flopping at Southern Methodist University. The goal? To see if there's a precise, scientific way of singling out flopping and assigning punishments accordingly with the assistance of video footage and motion-capture technology.
The results of the study could go a long way toward helping the NBA streamline its procedures for assessing and punishing players for flopping. Better information should make it tougher for players to flop without getting caught, thereby making the practice itself a much riskier proposition for those who might otherwise try to cheat the system.
The NBA, to its credit, has already begun to mull a potentially pivotal technological overhaul of its own. During that same pre-Finals press conference in June, Stern suggested that the league might eventually establish a centralized video review facility, not unlike the one currently used by the NHL in Toronto (via ESPN.com's Henry Abbott):
We're actually even toying with the notion of whether replay can be done [by] offsite review, the way it's done in the NHL, to relieve the burden on the referees, who are stuck in the middle of intense gametime action.
This could help to stamp out flopping if the NBA were to establish a protocol of some sort for issuing in-game penalties for it. Perhaps the league could ask officials, operating from a remote location, to chime in when they see instances of flopping, and those working the game could assess personal fouls and/or technical fouls.
What should the NBA do about flopping?
That would likely require a complicated, coordinated effort of a sort still well beyond the scope of the NBA's capabilities. If there are easier and cheaper ways to eliminate flopping, you can bet the league will explore those avenues first.
And there may well be ones worth considering. Once the owners have a chance to see how the current flopping rules play out over the course of another full season, they could join the league's 10-person competition committee in recommending (if not demanding) that floppers be hit with more substantial fines. Better yet, if the league and the players work together, they might have the wherewithal—political and otherwise—to implement suspensions of the sort that Stern has already referred to as "draconian."
Suspensions for acting may seem harsh, but there is precedent in NBA history for using them to eliminate unwanted behaviors.
"If you recall years ago, when any kind of altercation took place on the floor, players would come off the bench," Delaney noted. "Many times, they’d come off the bench in support of their teammates, not necessarily really wanting to get into a fight.
"But that behavior changed through education and awareness, and a rule change was made to raise awareness about the consequences for taking that action. Today, when something happens on the floor, no one comes off the bench. The reason being, they know they may be suspended, or they will be suspended and the fine can be pretty heavy."
The rules to which Delaney referred became a hot topic of discussion in 2007 when the NBA suspended former Phoenix Suns' teammates Amar'e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw a game apiece for leaving the bench during Game 4 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs. The Suns lost Game 5 and went on to cede the series in six.
Have you heard much about players leaving the bench since then? Probably not. That's because players adjusted to the rules. They learned to police themselves after the league gave them the penal impetus to do so.
That figures to be the case with flopping going forward. If the existing rules don't curb the practice and/or the players don't cut it out themselves, the NBA will have little choice but to take matters into its own hands and to dig deeper into the players' pockets to discourage the league's thespians from exaggerating—or wholly inventing—contact.
As Delaney said: "Like all things in the NBA, if players don’t take a level of responsibility and police themselves on it, there’ll be more teeth put to it."
Hit me up on Twitter for more flop talk.
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