The NBA’s lame-duck commissioner, David Stern, acknowledged last June that the league needed to do a better job of discouraging players from flopping, otherwise known as the effort to fool referees into making a call on their behalf.
Six months later, the question remains: When is the league going to start?
“Flopping,” acknowledged Suns first-year head coach Jeff Hornacek, “is off the charts.”
He’s not alone in thinking that; you’d be hard-pressed to find a player or coach who doesn’t believe the tactic is more prevalent than ever. This, after the NBA announced before last season that it would review any incidents in which a player appeared to feign or exaggerate contact in order to draw a foul. After one warning, it would impose a $5,000 fine for each subsequent flop. The league upped the ante when the playoffs started last spring, announcing that flops would draw an immediate $5,000 fine.
In all, the NBA said it confirmed 24 violations by 19 different players on 13 different teams during the 2012-13 regular season. Since it required being caught twice to merit a fine ($5,000) during the regular season, only five players paid any sort of penalty: Reggie Evans, Gerald Wallace, J.J. Barea, Kevin Martin and Omer Asik.
Among those 13, only Martin and Allen were on offense.
Which is precisely why the league’s supposed interest in eradicating the practice is viewed, at best, as a colossal joke and, at worst, a shrewd means of making its stars appear even more extraordinary. Granted, attempts to draw an offensive charge by defensive specialists appear to be down; but they’ve been replaced, and then some, by the league’s most recognizable faces and talented scorers acting like full-blown charlatans, flinging their arms and snapping their necks and shouting in pain from the slightest contact.
Watch Chris Paul or James Harden for an entire game, and you’ll witness at least a half-dozen obvious instances of farce at its finest. They are far from alone, but they may be the most diligent and expressive. At least they didn’t try to deny flopping, as James did, only to be fined by the league a few days later for doing just that; after which James reversed field and defended flopping as an acceptable strategy. It’s one thing for Jesse Pinkman to get caught in a lie and then try to justify it; it’s another when it’s your reigning MVP and two-time defending champion.
In any case, what was once a growing nuisance has now become a full-blown epidemic among the game’s most visible ambassadors.
“It’s unbelievable,” says veteran forward Channing Frye. “It’s just part of the game now. It’s becoming an art.”
As an offensive player, Frye said it in admiration and added, “If you have one of those guys on your team, you’re loving it.” One man’s art, of course, is another man’s eyesore.
“They need to clean that up,” says Warriors center Andrew Bogut, whose primary job is to prevent scorers from getting to the rim. “Some guys just look for the body and a way to draw contact and then fall back. That’s not basketball.”
Flopping dates back to the very beginning of the NBA, but it seemed to rise in popularity as smaller lineups and more international players entered the fray. Playing small invariably meant having an undersized power forward or center guarding the post; fighting to hold ground and keep from being backed into the paint only to suddenly give way and fall to the floor gave the impression that the larger, stronger offensive player had suddenly unleashed excessive force, thereby warranting an offensive foul.
International players such as Vlade Divac and Manu Ginobili, raised in soccer-dominated cultures where fooling the referee by taking a dive (soccer parlance for flopping) was considered more clever than cowardly, added their particular expertise to the craft.
Strictly by the numbers, the NBA is on pace to far surpass the regular-season count of 24 last season. As of Dec. 29, the league already had identified 16 incidents, with both Corey Brewer and Harden receiving $5,000 fines for having flopped twice in the eyes of the league. Paul has received his warning for an incident back on Nov. 11 vs. the Minnesota Timberwolves, but in the eyes of the league, he has not, as the rule states, committed “any physical act that, following review, reasonably appears to be intended to cause the game officials to call a foul on another player.”
Paul leads all point guards in free throws attempted with 186. Harden leads all shooting guards with 241.
“Some star players look offended if they’re touched going to the rim,” says former shooting guard Tim Legler, “and it’s because of the license they’re given by the officials.”
That part is understandable. The league, as a whole, is hyper-sensitive to any sort of physical contact that might incite a skirmish. Larger-than-average athletes wrestling with the faces of terrified courtside fans as a backdrop is simply not the corporate-friendly image the league prefers. Combined with the youngest and least-experienced officiating staff in decades, it’s not surprising that better-safe-than-sorry is ruling the day on any intimation of physical contact. You know, like a doe-eyed point guard flailing at the air or an endearingly off-key singer in a commercial staggering as if he’d run into a wall.
“Harden,” Bogut says, “has gotten to a whole other level.”
Flopping wasn’t rampant in Hornacek’s playing days, he says, “because the game was more physical, so you just played through the contact. With the new rules, it’s hard to guard star players. But that’s the way the league seems to want it.”
Supposedly, it doesn’t. Supposedly.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.