Erik Spoelstra Says No One Understands Flagrant-Foul Rules

Daniel O'BrienFeatured ColumnistMarch 28, 2014

Oct 23, 2012; Raleigh, NC, USA; Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra and small forward LeBron James (6) during a timeout against the Charlotte Bobcats in the first half at PNC Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

In the wake of some controversial calls during the Indiana Pacers' win over the Miami Heat Wednesday, Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra noted that there seems to be a widespread misunderstanding of the rulebook.

He told Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel there doesn't seem to be a uniform understanding of the intended flagrant-foul rules, and LeBron James and Co. will continue attacking regardless:

I don't think anybody has a clear understanding of the rules, of what 'verticality' is, of what a flagrant foul is or is not. Sometimes it depends on the size of the player, of whether it is deemed unnecessary contact or unnatural contact.

But, at the end of the day, LeBron is going to continue and the rest of our guys are going to continue to attack, so they'll continue to make it an interesting subject for people to have to decide whether that's a foul or not a foul or a flagrant or not a flagrant.

Spoelstra's comments come after a hotly contested, extra-physical matchup between Indy and Miami, one in which the Pacers prevailed 84-83.

Late in the fourth quarter, James was called for a flagrant foul when he elbowed Roy Hibbert on his way to the rim.

Indiana's big man rose up to contest the drive and caught a chin-full of LeBron's elbow, causing him to be a bit woozy and needing to take a breather.

Hibbert has been able to take advantage of the "rule of verticality" countless times over the years, being able to jump straight up and down during contact with an attacker without committing a foul.

This time around, LeBron wanted to make him pay for getting in his way. He definitely sent a head-rattling message to Hibbert, but it was at the cost of a flagrant foul.

Teams have wondered what it will take to draw a foul from Hibbert, considering there's often a gray area as to whether the defender actually jumped straight up and down and who initiated the contact.

Here's a video explanation from the league, ironically demonstrating the Heat's Chris Bosh on defense:

In plays like this one, (which is generally similar to the LeBron-Hibbert encounter), the result is usually a no-call and play continues. But in the case of the LeBron-Hibbert play, it seems like the referee's subjective assessment of the elbow was enough to warrant a flagrant.

Below is the NBA's set of rules regarding plays that involve elbows. It explains that the factors of an elbow foul situation are weighed in varying degrees, dependent on the context of the play.

Whether on the floor or during postgame reviews, the officials and the league office consider the following criteria when evaluating these types of fouls:

Severity of Contact

• Legitimate Basketball Play

• Legal Positioning

• Intent or Reckless Swing

• Thrown Elbow •Result of Contact 

None of these criteria necessarily carries more weight than another; they are considered in varying degrees as part of overall context of the particular play.

The rules go on to explain how elbows are assessed on the "flagrant" scale, noting that "significant but not excessive contact" will earn a flagrant 1, which is what LeBron earned:

Flagrant Foul Penalty 1 

When a player attempts a move where there is not ample room but despite the obvious risk continues, and makes significant but not excessive contact with an extended elbow, a Flagrant Foul 1 will be assessed. This is also the case if the elbow is swung, apart from a basketball move, and makes significant but not excessive contact.

Ultimately, the rules and the nature of the game leave a lot of subjective judgement up to the officials. This is why Spoelstra contended that there's a lack of clarity and general misunderstanding of the rules league-wide.

And as such, he's going to let his thoroughbreds play hard and inevitably force the referees to make tricky calls.

Will confusion reign if these two teams play a ragged brand of ball during the Eastern Conference Finals?