Actors refer to it as improvisation: the entertainer reacts spontaneously to the stimulus in his or her immediate environment, and subsequently a performance is given extempore without planning or preparation.
In the NBA, it is known as flopping.
The playoffs are central stage for Oscar-worthy performances, and as these acts are brought to the forefront of the NBA world, they take precedence. We must begin to ask questions as many have asked before: Why is flopping a relevant issue? How can it be addressed?
The first question is easier to answer than the second.
Flopping is relevant because it is an act that affects the outcome of games and ultimately its integrity. Many critics of the NBA cite flopping as one of their principle arguments for losing interest in the game, but it’s not just critics of the NBA, it’s also a concern among its strongest proponents.
Why ask this question now?
Simply put, it has gotten out of control. This is not to say that flopping was not around decades ago. There are plenty of historical floppers (just ask Bill Laimbeer), but rather what started as a slender trunk is now a full tree with branches extending in every direction.
Essentially, we can make the case that the flop has accentuated over the past decade to the point where unabashed flopping performances can be seen multiple times a game.
Let’s examine why this is a progressive issue amplified over time.
The problem stems from a select few perpetrators who took flopping to a new level. We can call them paternal floppers. When we look at historical said floppers, such as the notorious Bill Laimbeer, it’s impossible to imagine his actions remaining isolated to those moments in which he is playing.
Eventually players around him are forced to alter their own approach to the game in order to compete. Throw in multiple cases of paternal floppers over the course of a decade, and the problem is exacerbated.
What we have is a sort of Herbert Spencer logic of “survival of the fittest.” On the streets, when you get an elbow to the chest no one is sliding across the floor, and no one is getting free throws.
In the NBA, flopping serves a distinct purpose to gain an advantage over an opponent. From an evolutionary perspective, those who adapt have an advantage over those who don’t—it’s science man!
While NBA refs try to be objective and recognize genuine fouls over flops, the fact is a player will get more calls in his favor if he embellishes the physical contact with a superb acting performance. Now that flopping has become a regular occurrence, we start to see referees overlooking plays where there is a legitimate foul because the player has not embellished it. This is a problem.
That brings us to the second question: How can flopping be addressed?
Last year there was a push to amend NBA rules against flopping by instituting technical fouls as a consequence of obvious flopping, but it did not come into fruition. League officials understand that flopping takes place every game, and undoubtedly they understand its adverse effect on the game and its integrity.
Why else would the NBA omit specific stat lines like offensive fouls drawn? Perhaps the more important question is: why was the push for a change met with failure?
Ultimately, the merit of the decision is based on what makes the game better, and it was decided that issuing technical fouls for flopping will hurt the game more than it will help it.
Yes flopping is dishonest, and not too many fans enjoy dishonesty in competitive sports (with the exception of Tim Donaghy), but it has also evolved into a tactical strategy that is executed with a certain amount of discretion by smart players.
This brings us to the Big Man/Small Man paradox.
If Allen Iverson rams his elbow into Shaquille O’Neal on the way to the basket, it will not be called nearly as much as when Shaq pummels Iverson while driving to the hoop. The same foul is committed in both cases, however, because Shaq is bigger and less affected by the same foul, flopping serves as the equalizer in getting the call.
As much as flopping is looked down upon by everyday fans, there is a method to the madness.
Of course, there is always a line that gets crossed, and flopping is used beyond its practical means more often than necessary. This is an exploitation of the rules, and although it may not be appropriate to penalize flopping with an official foul, it still requires some sort of action.
Referees already have difficulty being objective with their calls, and adding another dimension (especially one as subjective as faux-flops) would only create more problems and coaching headaches.
Naturally, the most effective method for flop-reduction is to discourage it. While there are a few ways that flopping incidents can be discouraged, the most logical way is to train referees to look for the right things, and accept the fact that they will not always get it right.
If certain paternal floppers are confronted by the officials or the league behind closed doors, and faced with some degree of accountability, maybe we will have a foundation for change in the right direction. Without accountability, flopping will continue to worsen.
Until a sensible solution can be found, it’s a part of the game that will continue. We might as well embrace the beauty and humility of these theatrical performances.
...Stay tuned for a nod to this season’s top performers!