It is undeniable that the NBA has shown a marked decline in the caliber of competitive basketball in recent years. The lockout shortened 1998-99 season led to a decrease in fan-loyalty and, as a result, Commissoner Stern took a tighter grasp on the league and instituted some changes he perceived to be steps to increase fanbase.
Stern’s alterations took the shape of everything from on-the-court rule changes to make the game more exciting (e.g. eliminating illegal defense and adding a defensive three-second rule) to moves to improve league image (e.g. off-court dress code for players and requiring draft entrants to attend college.) All of these decisions to change the game of American professional basketball were met with mixed reactions at best. The former led to the rise of the ‘two-man game’ dominating the NBA for a half-decade and turned the game into a mirror image of NCAA ball. The latter brought dear Mr. Stern mostly cries of prejudice and racial discrimination.
Yet the predominant changes to NBA basketball in the past decade have been far more social than administrative. Game action corrected itself to a large degree after Stern’s rule changes as the impressive passing and overwhelming teamwork of squad’s like the Mike D’Antoni Phoenix Suns overcame the two-man offense and rose to prominence. The massive and continuing influx of European players into the American game, however, is already showing a far greater impact on the court.
The majority of European (and though there are as yet fewer of them, South American) players, grow up playing soccer rather than basketball. It is a basic fact that soccer still dominates the global sports scene and is a far easier game to just pick-up and learn in poorer nations.
Soccer, not to its discredit, is a game of flopping. Soccer players flop because the clock never stops. If a soccer defender falls over waiving his arms in a sad attempt to draw a non-existent foul the ref can simply not blow his whistle and play continues, putting the flopper at a distinct disadvantage (which in certain nations means ‘Colombian Neck-Tie” time!) The soccer referee’s ability to simply rule ‘no foul’ when one player unexpectedly goes sprawling is what allows players to flop without destroying competitive play.
This is not the case, however, in basketball. If the ball-handler drives the lane and someone (either he or the defender) flops to the hardwood, the ref must blow his whistle. In basketball, significant contact between ball-handler and defender is always a foul because it is a violation on either one party or the other.
When you introduce (not to sound too Darwinian here) a massive torrent of players who grew up and learned sports where flopping is a part of the game one can only assume them to continue to flop. An overexaggerated flop will generally draw the foul on one’s opponent if only for the fact that a foul must be called and the poor sap on his back appears to be the one who has been wronged. This is particularly problematic in an American game which is based around the ability to bump and swat one’s opponent with a certain degree of leeway (as it adds to the excitement… are you listening, Mr. Stern?)
None of this is to imply that European basketball is not without its merit but simply that the European style of play, when mixed into the American game, is impossible to officiate justly. As the continual improvement of foreign nation’s basketball programs undoubtedly means further emigration of players from ‘soccer-nations,’ there seems only one clear solution to salvage NBA basketball and, sadly, it means David Stern making another change.
Something must be done about the officiating of the NBA. Everything with that dirtbag Tim Donaghy and the haze of doubt he has left over the outcomes of innumerable NBA games in recent years (most notably the Suns-Spurs 2006-07 playoff series) aside, the real problem is not the refs but the rules.
The rules currently used to govern fouls in the NBA were fine before the all the Oscar-worthy actors like Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker arrived on the scene; but they are here now and something needs to be done. There are many viable solutions to consider: institute a flopping foul, make it a technical, actually crack down on all the complaining for a whole season rather than the first week… whatever. Try something now before it is too late. (Anyone watched the NHL lately?)
Perhaps the first change the NBA needs to make is to oust Commissioner Stern. This midget captain has been going down with the ship for far too long and I say it’s time the league jettisons Der Commisar and lets someone else right the ship. If nothing else it will mean we won’t have to watch him waddle his stubby little legs out to the podium 30 times next draft night.