TL;DR Rant #3: The Problem with the NBA
I often find that my opinions are most highly engaged when I read something so bizarre and ridiculous in the realm of sports or movies. Today, it was a sports article that set me off. I was reading an article that excused the Heat’s game-5 loss because of an “out-dated rule” referred to as “fouling-out” that forced LeBron James to the bench. That statement alone, before even reading the article, set me off on at least three different tangents that I will discuss below.
Tangent #1 – Making excuses for top teams/all-stars is distancing the league from fans – Among the NBA’s worst qualities is the fact that the league is not simply promoted by its all-stars, but practically run by them, separating most fanbases from the sport. I will admit that most any sports league in the world is a popularity contest of sorts between the teams and the players themselves. But the greatest point scale in the popularity contest is, of course, winning. Except the NBA, where the biggest popularity contest is being in the biggest market with the most endorsements. This immediately shuts out most markets west of Miami/New York and east of Los Angeles. So that leaves any team outside of big markets with the leftovers. Is it because of the cap? Not really. Is it the owners? For the most part, no. The problem is the league’s design allows for the players to stack teams, making only the top 5 or so teams in the league viable for a championship year in and year out. The argument against this is “but the Lakers suck this year.” And my answer is, “Well, is it an aberration for the Lakers to suck a season or be amazing?” (And let’s not get into the fact that there is evidence that the NBA is rigging the lottery to help bigger market teams, even though the Knicks still suck.) This is all beside the point. Certain teams/players get more air time and privileges than the rest of the league to fuel the bigger markets. This may be a profitable method right now, but it is not sustainable, as the markets are slowly dying in the less-appreciated cities. By the players having control over their team for the most part, the league is lopsided, in the win column and in the media, making the rest of the league and its fans alienated and less engaged. And that means their wallets are less engaged. So let’s get to the truth of my bias, which is from an NFL fan perspective. The parody of the NFL is its greatest attribute, as its player and cap control limits stacked teams to fewer seasons. The entire league is designed to balance itself out (the draft is in reverse order of last season’s success, no lottery like in the NBA) and this allows only a few teams to be consistent when they are lucky to have a healthy and great QB for a decade. Even then, over a decade, that team is likely to only win 2 Super Bowls. But I digress…the NBA’s imbalanced structure and treatment of its stars leads to tangent #2.
Tangent #2 – LeBron James is the last player who should complain about fouling out – Because of the league’s structure, the all-stars of the NBA are not only praised, but often pampered. The league does not benefit from its all-star players being hurt, fouled, or causing fouls. Anything that keeps them from scoring points or staying on the court hurts the bottom line. It is an undiscussed but oft-whispered fact that referees tend to side with all-star players, even in away games. There is an argument that this isn’t intentional and could simply be based on name-recognition affecting calls, but that doesn’t make it any more or less right. The fact that a game occurred in which James was fouled-out, even in a playoff game, hardly makes up for the countless fouls in his favor he has enjoyed throughout his career. Does that mean an all-star can’t be fouled? No, going to the opposite side of the scale doesn’t help anything. But the point remains that all-stars like James getting fouled-out of games is not an atrocity, it’s karma gasping for air. And, no, I am not arguing he should be fouled-out more often. In fact, quite the opposite. I think he, and the rest of the league and its all-stars, should be on the favoring end of fouls less often. Let the boys play, as they say. Which leads us to tangent #3.
Tangent #3 – Fouling-out may be an old rule, but the rule itself isn’t why the rule sucks – The writer would eventually make a point in the article that the NBA is the only sport that ejects a player after reaching a foul threshold. The one exception was soccer, as you can receive two yellow cards to be ejected, but those are significant offenses and not “regular fouls” like in the NBA. This was perhaps his most valid argument. NFL teams would run out of cornerbacks pretty quickly if they were ejected after a certain number of pass-interference penalties. But, I find the problem in the NBA to not be with the fouling-out rule itself, but a different problem that is two-fold.
#1. Drawing fouls is a skill instead of a vilified habit – Beyond its lack of parody and balance, my least favorite thing about the NBA is the frequency of its fouls. The fouls are so frequent, the game has players that develop ways to draw the foul. It is so common and so accepted, you have broadcasters and announcers complimenting players on a successful drawing of a foul. This method is even used to knock a team’s best defensive player out of the game when he fouls-out or gets into “foul trouble”. And soccer gets all the heat for flopping. The NBA has instated a rule that penalizes players for flopping, but this has only grayed the area between flopping and drawing fouls, and has further alienated “regular players” from the all-stars. As was mentioned earlier, the bigger the name, the more likely you are to draw the foul. Which brings us to point #2.
#2. Fouling-out further separates the degree of success between “no-names” and all-stars – If anybody has a right to complain about fouling-out, it’s the players few people know of. Before a game even begins, a handful of players know they are at a severe disadvantage, and it goes far beyond their skill set versus their opponent’s skill set. The “regular player” knows the all-star standing across from them is going to get most of the calls because of their name recognition. This puts the “regular player” in a situation in which they must play flawless defense to stop an all-star that is already more naturally gifted and will get the foul calls in their favor. You have to be physical to stop them, but if you’re physical you get fouls called on you. I’m not saying that fouls are unnecessary. You can’t smack a player in the face while he’s trying to dribble or take a shot…or ever for that matter… But the constant fouls has de-evolved the game into an emasculated form of its once glorious self. The strategy is to “score or draw the foul trying” instead of “score and keep the other team from scoring”.
TL;DR – The fouling-out rule isn’t what sucks about the NBA, the NBA is what sucks about basketball.