My NBA playoff-watching habits might best be described as mercurial. It’s not unusual for those who come over for a viewing session to ask, “Who the hell are you rooting for?” The answer, with a few exceptions, is generally, “Basketball.” It’s not even so much a “good game,” though that’s always a bonus. The Mavericks-Spurs contests haven’t been terribly competitive, but watching Dallas perfect its offense over the past week or so — dribble-attack, moving Dirk around in the halfcourt, swinging weak side for Josh Howard when the Spurs overcommit — has been one of the early pleasures of the postseason. Seeing Houston use Luis Scola to full effect, the probing of Tony Parker and Rajon Rondo, Josh Smith and LaMarcus Aldridge learning how to fill out their games, Chauncey Billups teaching the Nuggets what it means to run a set offense? These are the things that excite and, by and large, the events that have defined the opening round of the 2009 NBA Playoffs. We’ve seen the triumph of basketball — actual on-court machinations — over sidebars.
Until last night…which is why when the alarm went off this morning, I buried my head under the comforter. I knew that banners like “Flagrant Fallout” would headline the coverage, that writers I depend on to educate me about the game would devote column inches to a debate that can’t be won, that the discussion about basketball today would approximate those awful back-and-forth cable news shows. As a guy in the business of sports web media, I should value the heat that stories like the Howard and Rondo/Miller incidents generate for traffic, but as a person who tends to approach basketball as a New Critic, the debates bore the hell out of me. Maybe it’s the Clipper blogger in me, but I’ve always taken for granted that bad — even fatal — fortune will bestow itself on certain teams in certain situations. This reality is unsatisfying, but life presents certain inconveniences, and few of them are intentional. It’s irrational to believe that every missed call is a conspiratorial stunt aimed against your team. Even worse, debating the governance of the game sort of defeats the point of basketball which, for me, has always been that it’s a refuge from…well…debating the governance of life. We can argue how to defend the pick and roll or whether there’s a correlation between pace and offensive efficiency, but discussions about who gets screwed and to what extent aren’t particularly interesting.
That said, I think last night’s events bring some salient points to the surface, the most important of which concerns Rajon Rondo’s foul on Brad Miller. The play has already been subject to varying interpretation, and those on either side of the debate are unlikely to change any minds. As an observer with no rooting interest in the series other than to see even more stellar basketball, what I saw was a flagrant foul by Rondo. The argument that Rondo was making a play for the ball seems specious. How could a basketball player who consistently demonstrates uncanny body control somehow fall three feet short of his intended target and instead strike an opponent across the head? It’s untenable.
By failing to enforce the flagrant foul rule, the League is doing something dangerous: It’s inviting players and coaches to engage in the sort of risk analysis that will inevitably lead to more head-thwacking. Manufacturers routinely measure costs against benefits when deciding whether to enhance the safety of a product. If they spend $400 million on a fix, will it save an amount equal or greater than $400 million in legal settlements? If the answer is no, the company generally won’t greenlight the adjustment. We make these calculations in our own lives. When a two year old visits my home, I take some additional measures to make my pad a little more child-safe, but I don’t eliminate every hazard.
It’s undeniable that striking a player across the head as he drives to the basket serves as an offensive deterrent on a number of levels. A player who is assaulted in that manner is probably less assertive going to the hole in the future, and he might even be a little less likely to drain his free throws because he’s still recovering from the blow. In other words, hitting a guy in the head has real benefits that could probably be measured in points. What are the costs in that equation? Two shots and the ball. If the League eliminates those costs, it encourages all but the most principled actors to size up risk in a way that will result in the exact kind of behavior the League wants to avoid.