On the Sunday following the NFL Draft, a second-round series opener in the NBA playoffs dominated sports discussion. The ubiquity of Warriors-Rockets chatter was exactly what the league was hoping for.
The conversation, for the most part, centered around referees. That is assuredly not what Adam Silver & Co. would have wanted.
The Rockets drew 24 fouls and shot 29 free throws, but their postgame comments were almost exclusively about the calls they didn’t get. James Harden actually said the words, “I just want a fair chance, man.”
If the irony of that statement isn’t apparent to you, we’re watching a different league — but we’ll get back to that. On a micro level, Harden’s position is understandable when you dig into the specific issue he’s complaining about: The landing space foul.
We can really thank Zaza Pachulia. When his clumsy closeout resulted in an injury to Kawhi Leonard, it changed the complexion of not only a playoff series but the league at large.
The NBA’s response was a renewed focus on a shooter’s freedom to land. The concept was sound: if reckless closeouts create added injury risk, calling more (and sometimes flagrant) fouls on those plays will serve as a deterrent.
That hasn’t really worked. The prevalence of outside shooting in today’s NBA means players close out just as hard, and often as recklessly, so there are simply a lot more fouls called on those plays. Perhaps more to the point, there are more of those plays for referees to adjudicate.
The requirements are simple: a perimeter shooter has the ball, a defender is moving towards him, they both jump and move more or less towards each other, creating contact as (or more often after) the shot is released.
That play has, for the most part, been called a shooting foul for the past couple seasons. Especially in the regular season, the offensive player has gotten the benefit of the doubt on landing space regardless of how far that space is from their takeoff point.
This is where Harden’s irony-soaked plea for fairness makes sense: For several MVP-level regular seasons, he has played to this rule and consistently gotten this specific call.
If you’re watching Rockets-Warriors, you know the move: Harden jab steps at his defender, throws a forearm into his gut, takes a skip-and-a-jump backwards then jumps 3-4 feet forward while launching a shot and creating a lower-body collision.
That was three free throws all year for him; less so in the postseason. It must be maddening to have the rules adjusted to your great disadvantage at the most critical time of the year.
The NBA’s real problem, though, doesn’t exist on the granular level that Harden wants to draw attention to. The league’s real troubles are never as small-picture as that — small controversy is just grist for the mill, and there will always be complaints about referees.
The macro problem here is that far too much of the energy is wasted — by the NBA’s stars more than anyone — trying to fool referees. It’s not a good look; it’s not basketball, frankly.
Sports leagues are entertainment products, and it seems clear that free throws are the least entertaining part of basketball. Blatant attempts to seek free throws seem universally unpopular (outside of the few fans it directly benefits) and there’s certainly no support for the insufferable quantity of on-court complaining.
Philosophically, playing the rules rather than the sport is fundamentally anathema to entertainment. The Rockets’ entire franchise philosophy walks a dangerous line in this respect — I’m all for using math and analytics to try to beat the game, but that strategy becomes particularly joyless and unpleasant when built around the whistle.
Players trying to trick officials who are asked to do a completely impossible job is not what anyone wants. The NBA has indicated as much with previous attempts to legislate similar behaviors out of the game, but those have been unsuccessful thanks to a lack of real commitment.
While this is undoubtedly a league-wide issue, the Rockets make a great avatar — in James Harden they have the NBA’s most successful and talented foul-seeker; in Chris Paul, the very embodiment of the constant superstar-referee conflict. Whatever you think about the appeal of their approach, their success with it makes it hard to blame them for persisting.
“I wouldn’t say that he’s found a way to… cheat the rules,” Kevin Durant told reporters before Game 2. “I just think that he has a style of play, and it might not to be what everybody might like to see, but it’s been effective and I don’t think he’s been cheating the game at all.”
When it comes to this foul-drawing debate, Harden is Amazon (or any number of other large corporations) — reaping billions in profits and somehow getting a tax refund. He’s doing everything he can within the current rule framework to have the greatest possible success.
As Durant put it, “[Harden] plays inside the game, plays within the rules of the game … shit happens.” At some level he’s right, but it does seem to happen with great frequency where Harden is involved. Just because something is within the rules doesn’t make it good. It certainly doesn’t make it entertaining.
It’s on the NBA to solve this, to find a way to convince guys that the goal should be putting the ball through the rim from the floor, not angling for an opportunity to do it from the free throw line. It’s not an easy job — it may not even be, strictly speaking, totally accomplishable — but it has to start with a committed effort to change the incentive structure.
“Referees aren’t going to be perfect all game, just like players aren’t,” Durant said Tuesday. We’ll always discuss them, but the less players deliberately involve them, the less opportunity we’ll have for questionable calls and the less central the conversation will be.
Which brings us to KD’s best point of all: “I think more so than just the talk of calls and officiating, it should be about how great all of these players are on the court, how they uniquely bring something different to the table.”
That’s the conversation we should be having, and if the league can get its players to stop focusing on referees then we all can, too.
Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear him on the Bay Area sports radio station 95.7 the Game, 5a-6a every weekday morning. You can listen to his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. You can find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.