NBA’s Refs are the Key to Fixing Flopping

It’s a depressing fact that somehow in this year’s playoffs, despite the Westbrook injury, the D-Rose knee saga, the Clipper disappointment, the Laker soap opera, the J.R. Smith disappearing act, the emergence of Roy Hibbert, Tim Duncan’s rejuvenation (and leading his Spurs to a fifth title – whoops, SPOILER ALERT), and LeBron’s monstrous consistency despite the collapse of his supporting cast (expect a post on this in the immediate future, by the way), the biggest story of the league’s second season has been FLOPPING. I just gagged a little.

However, these be the facts of life, so I guess it’s necessary that I at least offer a few thoughts about the issue. The problem with the NBA’s recent “anti-flopping” initiative is, well, that it’s not going to work. You could fine players excessive amounts of money (which is not the current case; $5,000 to these guys is nothing), assess technical fouls, or even hand out suspensions, but that won’t fix the fundamental problem that causes flopping in the first place, which lies with the NBA’s referees.

When it comes down to it, inconsistent and poor officiating is the reason players are flopping now more than ever. Before I address the referees, however, let me dispel two myths about flopping:

Players known for flopping are not “dirty” or “soft” players.

Typically, being coined as a “flopper” is viewed as a bad thing, but I don’t see why that is. If a player is able to control his body in a way to make it look like he’s been fouled, that is a very particular and useful skill, and that player has every right to use this to his advantage. Deception is a part of basketball, just as it is in any other sport. If football receivers can set accidental “picks” on secondary players or sell contact to get a pass interference, why can’t basketball players flop?

Flopping is a calculated risk.

People have to remember that flopping doesn’t have a 100% success rate. Many players who flop will not get the call they want, and will lose on that particular play. If a shooter flails around or falls after a shot, that makes his shot that much more difficult. If a defender falls backward in the post, they risk giving up an uncontested layup. If the player embarrasses himself or creates a negative play for his team, isn’t that punishment enough?

Still, the onus is on the referees.

The unavoidable fact with flopping is that until referees are able to figure out what is a flop and what is a legitimate foul, the players are going to keep doing it. If I know that 60% of the time I can fabricate contact and get to the free throw line, I’m going to use that fact to my advantage as much as possible. It would be foolish not to. The precedent has been set that most times, NBA referees are going to err on the side of caution and call a foul if they think contact has occurred. Since this is the climate of the game, players have adjusted accordingly.

The problem with this is that referees have not caught up, and are becoming too easily fooled. Either the players have become better actors or referees have become more gullible; maybe both. But regardless of the reason, more than a few times per game refs are basically left to guess about making the proper call.

Furthermore, it’s the unreliability of the refs that has caused flopping in the first place. Perhaps the most common misconception about flopping is that players are trying to create calls that aren’t there. However, the reality is that players don’t trust referees to see fouls that are actually legitimate. If a player feels his arm get hit on a layup, his first instinct is to embellish that contact as much as possible to ensure that it’s seen. Players have no faith that a ref will recognize a foul on his/her own anymore, and this has added to the flopping epidemic more than anything else.

So how do we actually fix this?

  • Firstly, people have to decide definitively about whether or not this is actually a problem that needs fixing. Obviously, the league feels like it’s a big enough issue that fines need to be handed out, but they aren’t committed enough to create penalties that would actually be meaningful.
  • Assessing penalties retroactively will not do anything. If I’m in game seven, and I know I can flop for the game winning free throws, I’ll gladly take a fine at a later date. I get that the NBA is trying to protect its referees by offering the power of film and review, but players just don’t care enough to stop. Whatever the penalty is, it must be assessed in the moment, and must affect the outcome of that game.
  • The problem with handing out penalties in-game is that referees are forced to decide what’s a flop and what’s legitimate, and I’m not sure they’re currently able to do this. Hell, refs can barely figure out what’s an illegal screen anymore.
  • Since no one has any faith that refs could successfully police flopping, something has to be done to improve their performance or abilities. Either train them better, add a fourth referee (which I don’t think is that outrageous, you pay a fourth as an alternate every game anyway), or allow challenge flags for coaches on particularly egregious mistakes (credit to Jeff Van Gundy on that one). Either way, something has to happen.
  • (Here’s a radical suggestion: make “and-1” baskets count as three points plus a free throw. If a player has more incentive to make the basket, he’ll be less inclined to flop on the shot. Plus, isn’t a bucket and a foul more impressive than a long jump shot anyway?)

Although I’ve refereed basketball for a large portion of my life, I have no empathy for the problem the NBA’s referees face right now. You’re supposed to be the best basketball officials in the world, so do your job. Players wouldn’t expect the league to cover their mistakes after the game ends, so neither should you.

So Mr. Stern, either find a way to enable your referees to police flopping, or find new referees who can. Don’t penalize the players for the ineptitude of others.


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