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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Opinion: New “Van Gundy Rule” Bad for League, Impossible to Enforce Consistently

The NBA has announced a new policy that outlaws flopping. Calls and non-calls are subject to post-game video review. Fines for repeat violators can reach $30,000 along with game suspensions.

Many have openly campaigned for such a rule, none more openly, longer, or louder than ex-Knicks and Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy. So, this rule really should bear his name. It certainly reads like one of his on-air screeds turned into poorly thought out policy.

The “Van Gundy Rule” stinks of awful nativist assumptions* and an awful process, leading inevitably to awful policy.
*For the record, I’m generally a JVG fan, and I am not accusing him of nativism. But, his (partly tongue-in-cheek) jostling of international players about importing their ref-baiting practices from soccer is now encoded into policy. When this thing goes sour he better not run from it. This is his baby as much as anyone’s.

So-called “flopping” is just nativist pearl-clutching masquerading as a competitive problem
Let’s start with the basics. Not to put too fine a point on it, but no one can define a flop with much useful precision. For all the pearl-clutching about it, little consensus exists about what it is.

Put another way, I have seen far more consensus about where flopping comes from (keeping in mind that we are talking NBA geography here, which is always laughably imprecise) than what it is. I’m picking on JVG because he has been the most vocal proponent of an anti-flopping rule. In his heart of hearts all I think he could tell you is that whatever Anderson Varejao does is flopping, but whatever Charles Oakley did was not.

In practice, everyone tries to draw calls. So flopping is an act of labeling that describes people rather than actions in any precise way. A “flopper” is strongly associated with a European* (again, NBA geography) style thought to be heavily influenced by international soccer, where it is common for players to actively bait officials into calls. Some people deride that style for a variety of reasons.
*In NBA geography, “European” effectively refers to any non-black players born outside the lower 48 or Asia. Black players born in Europe or who emigrated there are only inconsistently referred to as European.

Styles, as they say, make fights. So I have no problem whatsoever with people who loathe soccer-style ref-baiting. Arguments about aesthetics are pretty much at the core of talking about sports. However, aesthetics makes a lousy basis for crafting competitive policy.

To wit, the league defines flopping in the broadest and most imprecise terms as if to ensure a policy that is as whimsical as possible.

The NBA said flopping will be defined as “any physical act that appears to have been intended to cause the referees to call a foul on another player. [...] The primary factor… is whether his physical reaction to contact with another player is inconsistent with what would reasonably be expected given the force or direction of the contact.

I see at least three problems with the “Van Gundy Rule,” and all three seem intractable.
(1) Flopping is a fake problem poorly addressed — The league started with a small subset of missed calls (and ill-defined non-calls), labeled them flops, and defined them as a unique competitive problem. More importantly, game officials already have the power to address competitive problems with a delay of game technical foul or an unsportsmanlike technical foul for actions that interfere with the game. It is not at all unclear why these tools are insufficient. To the extent that official miss calls they’re no different than other misses.

But the “Van Gundy Rule” goes beyond post-hoc overkill to miss the mark entirely. The game suspension provision actually benefits an opponent who was never wronged by a flopper while leaving the opponent who was actually harmed with no recourse at all. Suppose, for example, that Paul Pierce gets his 6th flopping penalty after a bogus charge call awards him two game winning FTAs. NY loses its game on a bogus call while Philly gets to play Boston the next night without Pierce. NY gets screwed twice. How is that justice?

(2) “Flop and frisk” policies open the door to biases — Televised images generally, and slow motion photography specifically, bias movement. Modest head nods become exaggerated bobs on TV. This is important since the NBA will now use TV to determine whether movement is a reasonable response to the force exerted. This process seems wide open to unexamined biases about whose actions are “reasonable” and whose are not.

(3) Offensive players will get a pass — In the prevailing narrative, only defenders flop. Offensive players should play by the same rules but they rarely expect to.

“I like the rule,” [Kobe Bryant] said. “Shameless flopping, that’s a chump move. We’re familiar with it. Vlade (Divac) kind of pioneered it in that playoff series against Shaq, and it kind of worked for him.”

An enthusiastic supporter of the rule, Bryant’s value is now largely tied to “getting to the free throw line.” Not unlike former Knick Steve Francis, whose screaming dribble drives into multiple defenders “earned” him almost six free throws per 36 minutes, Bryant seeks out and often exaggerates defensive contact to get free throws. According to this rule, such players should be among the league’s most shameless floppers but that seems very unlikely to happen.

14 comments on “Opinion: New “Van Gundy Rule” Bad for League, Impossible to Enforce Consistently

  1. Nick C.

    Good point about offensive players flopping or exaggerating contact. Reggie Miller are you listening?

  2. Brian Cronin

    It’s truly absurd. As if Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose will suddenly be called for exagerrating contact. Can you say “selective enforcement,” boys and girls?

  3. thenamestsam

    I’m worried this is going to make it very, very hard to play help defense if they actually enforce this. As Battier has said (and everyone knows), if you don’t fall, you don’t get the call. Honestly, how many charges per season do you see called where the defensive player doesn’t fall? If they’re going to start calling those flops, and they fit the definition above, it’s going to dramatically decrease the ability to draw charges. That seriously affects the offense defense balance of the game.

    On the other hand, that’s all based on the “if they actually enforce this” part, and I just don’t see them doing much of anything with this. Early in the season I expect them to make an example out of one or two guys who have blatant ones in nationally televised games, but I expect this to go away pretty quickly. That’s essentially what happened in soccer. One world cup they made a huge deal out of how everyone who dived was going to get a yellow card. They stuck with it for about 6 months, and now it has been a couple years since I’ve seen a yellow for diving (watching 2-3 games per week).

  4. jon abbey

    one thing the NBA is great at is ceasing to enforce dumb rules once it becomes clear they’re dumb. remember two years ago when they started calling Ts for hanging on the rim? those calls were nonexistent last year, and rightfully so.

    so if this doesn’t work, I don’t think it’ll be a problem, but I’m glad they’re at least trying something, as less flopping can only be a good thing.

  5. flossy

    thenamestsam: I’m worried this is going to make it very, very hard to play help defense if they actually enforce this. As Battier has said (and everyone knows), if you don’t fall, you don’t get the call. Honestly, how many charges per season do you see called where the defensive player doesn’t fall? If they’re going to start calling those flops, and they fit the definition above, it’s going to dramatically decrease the ability to draw charges. That seriously affects the offense defense balance of the game.

    Since the only repercussion will be a fine long after the game is over, I doubt it will make a difference. That’s enough time for league officials to differentiate whether someone fell down in the course of taking a legit charge vs. for example, LeBron James acting like he’d been hit by a truck a good half-second after he ran into a Chandler pick in last year’s playoffs (not that LeBron will ever get called for this shit).

  6. Juany8

    flossy: Since the only repercussion will be a fine long after the game is over, I doubt it will make a difference.That’s enough time for league officials to differentiate whether someone fell down in the course of taking a legit charge vs. for example, LeBron James acting like he’d been hit by a truck a good half-second after he ran into a Chandler pick in last year’s playoffs (not that LeBron will ever get called for this shit).

    Lol it’s ironic that Miami’s defense would suffer by far the most if this was allowed. Pretty much their entire starting lineup flops nonstop at the slightest contact. I’ve heard someone say, the incentive to stop won’t come from the fines or fouls, it’ll come from the shame of being officially called a flopper for all the league to see. A lot of these guys are very proud lol, although I could see someone like Ginobli or Scola not caring lol

  7. flossy

    Juany8: Lol it’s ironic that Miami’s defense would suffer by far the most if this was allowed. Pretty much their entire starting lineup flops nonstop at the slightest contact. I’ve heard someone say, the incentive to stop won’t come from the fines or fouls, it’ll come from the shame of being officially called a flopper for all the league to see. A lot of these guys are very proud lol, although I could see someone like Ginobli or Scola not caring lol

    Yeah I forget who said it (maybe Simmons, ugh) but I do think that the league should try to make the review process quicker–not instant, but fast enough that a fine for a flop in the 2nd quarter could be announced during a timeout or something. Players are prideful, and it would burn to have the PA guy and TV commentators announce that “so-and-so has been fined $1,000 by the NBA for flopping with 9:14 left in the 2nd quarter” or what have you.

  8. The Honorable Cock Jowles

    flossy: Yeah I forget who said it (maybe Simmons, ugh) but I do think that the league should try to make the review process quicker–not instant, but fast enough that a fine for a flop in the 2nd quarter could be announced during a timeout or something.Players are prideful, and it would burn to have the PA guy and TV commentators announce that “so-and-so has been fined $1,000 by the NBA for flopping with 9:14 left in the 2nd quarter” or what have you.

    The NBAPA would have a field day with this.

  9. Brian Cronin

    The Lebron flop against Chandler is a perfect example. Yes, that is a blatant flop and yet I guarantee that’s not going to be called as a flop. This is just going to be used the way David fears – to punish players that the league has already decided are “floppers.” Guys like Manu. I just don’t think flopping is nearly as big of an issue as they’re making it out to be – just have the referees be more observant. Flops are called less during the playoffs because refs decide not to call them as much. If flopping is such a problem, just tell the refs to call ‘em like they do in the playoffs.

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with Derrick Rose milking contact to make sure he gets a foul call.

  10. David Crockett

    jon abbey:
    one thing the NBA is great at is ceasing to enforce dumb rules once it becomes clear they’re dumb. remember two years ago when they started calling Ts for hanging on the rim? those calls were nonexistent last year, and rightfully so.

    so if this doesn’t work, I don’t think it’ll be a problem, but I’m glad they’re at least trying something, as less flopping can only be a good thing.

    To its credit the league also backed down after the composite ball mini-fiasco from a few seasons ago.

    What I didn’t get into, for lack of time, is that the fine structure really was a shot across the bow directed at the NBAPA. That just seems unwise to me.

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