In case it wasn’t already clear, I want to put it out there that I love the NBA. On a nightly basis, it’s the most exciting league, filled with the world’s greatest athletes playing the greatest game. Baseball is too slow. Football is too “shouldn’t I be concerned about the long-term effects of head trauma?” But the NBA hits that perfect sweet spot of pure awesomeness.
This isn’t to say the NBA is perfect. Adam Silver would likely be the first person to tell you the NBA is constantly evolving and looking for new ways to improve its product. The league has used Summer Leagues and the D-League to experiment with certain rule changes. Everyone within the NBA is constantly striving to improve upon the product, as great as it may already be.
Danny Leroux from Sporting News kicked off a cool idea called #NBAUtopia where he encourages everyone to pitch their own tweaks that would move the NBA one step closer to perfection. Danny got the ball rolling with this project by looking at the way-too-long NBA regular-season schedule. My suggestion doesn’t pertain to the grand structure of the entire league, but rather tackles a particular aspect of game play.
Basketball is awesome because it’s played by incredible athletes who constantly perform difficult, unbelievable athletic maneuvers. Their incredible abilities are best on display when they’re rising up through the paint towards the basket to throw down a viscous dunk. Dunking is awesome. That’s just a fact. But there can be different degrees of awesomeness to a dunk. A player leading a breakaway who slams home a dunk uncontested is sometimes very very cool, but the ease of the endeavor takes away slightly from the viewing experience. The best kind of dunks, and I’d venture to say the best plays that happen in the game of basketball, involve a poor and naive soul who attempts to contest a dunk and ends up a sacrifice to the YouTube gods for all eternity. There’s truly nothing better than witnessing a posterization, and I’ve got the supporting evidence to prove it.
Part of the awe that’s inspired in the viewers of these dunks is the high degree of difficulty involved in pulling them off. It’s one thing to dunk a tennis ball in your driveway on a nine-foot hoop with no defenders in sight. It’s a completely different task when there’s another huge, incredibly athletic person doing everything they possibly can to prevent you from dunking. It creates a sense of danger and uncertainty for the dunker as not all dunk attempts are blessed with happy endings.
There’s a big problem in the NBA today. The problem is an exploitation of an existing rule that is severely limiting the number of awesome contested dunk attempts in games. The rule in question is the charge, and it’s in need of some serious tweaking. The charge rule has pure intentions. Offensive players shouldn’t be able to push off a defender, or use unnecessary force to create space. The primary defender on a ball handler has a right to play up close on his man. Should an offensive player push or shove his way into unfairly gained open space, he deserves to be assessed a charge. But the harm that the charge has done to basketball isn’t when the foul is drawn by the primary defender. The culprit in this perversion of the charge rule is the secondary defenders who slide in under attacking players on their way to the basket so they can do the lamest possible thing a person can do: fall down. And the worst part is that if a player does a really excellent job of falling down, his team is awarded the ball and his opponent is assessed a foul.
This is the most counter-intuitive rule in all of sports. Basketball players combine speed, strength and leaping ability to create the most visually appealing sport known to man. The free-flowing nature of the game encourages players to put their God-given talents on display at the drop of a hat. Anything that impedes the rare combination of power and grace that NBA players possess should be removed from the game. The NBA is ultimately part of the entertainment industry and should modify its rules to create the most entertaining product. Watching guys crash into each other and fall down doesn’t count as entertaining.
Secondary defenders taking charges is also a player safety issue. The NBA has been marred by injuries to superstars over the last few seasons. When a player slides in unseen beneath someone moving at maximum speed towards the basket, they’re putting themselves and the shooter at risk of injury. These plays now are considered gritty, and the players who draw these charges are heralded as selfless teammates doing what’s best for the greater good. I can’t fault a player for taking advantage of the way the game is officiated. But the incentive structure needs to change so that players don’t feel compelled to put themselves and others in harms way.
The best part of this whole ordeal is that it’s very easy to fix. One way to address the problem would be to extend the restricted area beneath the basket farther out. With less time available to defenders considering setting a bogus charge, they’ll be more compelled to actually play defense and contest the shot in a normal fashion. The other simple solution is to change the charge rule to stipulate that only a defender who’s actively engaged with an offensive player is allowed to take a charge from said player. While there’s some grayness to the phrase “actively engaged,” I don’t think NBA referees would have too tough a time distinguishing between an actual offensive foul and a play where a late rotating defender never attempts to make a play on the ball.
At the end of the day, changing the charge rule will only benefit the NBA. More players driving to the hoop will try and attempt death-defying dunks without having to worry about picking up a stupid foul. And more defenders will feel obligated to actually contest attempts in the paint, which will result in either more awesome rejections at the rim or humiliating posterizations. Does anyone wish Brandon Knight had taken a charge? Would anyone have preferred Andrei Kirilenko just set his feet and fall down? No way! As fans, we want to see incredible athletes doing incredibly athletic things. It’s why we watch on TV, buy tickets for games and loop awesome Vines for hours on end.