Just two weeks into the season the NBA’s seen some great moments. Kevin Love’s return to dominance and the Wolves being the most entertaining team in the league. Indiana looking like they can finally knock off Miami. Boston pulling off one of the most improbable comebacks in basketball history, rallying from four down in 3.6 seconds against Miami. The Lakers — totally humiliated in three of their five losses — somehow managing to drill the Clippers on opening night and then beating Dwight Howard and the Rockets in Houston, with a big assist from Howard’s missed free throws.
And maybe the best development? The NBA fining James Harden $5,000 for flopping.
Harden is certainly one of the top players in the league — though even with one Achilles, I’m putting Kobe above him on the list of best two-guards — but he’s quickly become one of the most annoying. He possesses unique skills, and a lot of them, but I don’t enjoy watching him play anymore, primarily because of his flopping and his crazed desire to draw a foul on every drive to the basket and every shot attempt. Watch Harden’s drives. Making the basket on the forays to the rim seem secondary. His primary concern is drawing a foul. To do this he initiates contact, but not by bumping his body against the defender’s. Instead he’s an expert at sticking his elbow out and making contact with the defender. He searches for that contact, then decides to attempt the layup. It becomes maddening.
And then there’s the flops.
My favorite part of this absurd collection? So many of them involve Mike Breen on the call and he chuckles at each one. Heheheheheheh. Jeff Van Gundy has the appropriate outrage but you’d think after the 50th time that Breen would learn that Harden is overselling it. Instead it takes the replay — and the chuckle — before Breen acknowledges Harden’s unique ability. Yet he almost sounds proud.
Obviously Harden isn’t a lone wolf on this. Everyone in the NBA does it, including the most dominant player of all, LeBron. Somehow Harden bothers me more, perhaps because for many players, especially the top ones, the flop is simply something they occasionally use on defense or when dribbling. For Harden’s it’s becoming the top weapon in his arsenal, a signature, like Jordan’s fadeaway or Magic’s junior skyhook.
Chris Paul also holds a master’s degree in this diabolical art. As it is with Harden, it’s more upsetting when a great player perfects the move. If a less-talented player does it as a way of staying relevant or contributing to the team maybe there’s some honor in it. With a star, they’re simply lowering themselves and bringing down the game, or at least my viewing experience. Maybe that’s what I told myself while excusing Derek Fisher’s flops throughout his career.
Harden’s trickiest when on a drive while Paul’s masterpieces occur most often on the dribble, when he expertly leans in or uses an off-hand to touch the defender, followed by a violent whiplash where you’d fear for Paul’s future if you didn’t know he was in complete control of the theatrics.
Obviously the players deserve blame — or, depending on your view, credit — but I put responsibility on the referees. Fines accomplish nothing. The best way to eliminate them will take time: Stop calling them as fouls. Let the player plummet, let them flail. Play on. The players would adjust, just as they adjusted when discovering flopping works.
Flops happen anywhere, on a moment’s notice. But I think it helps to classify the atrocities on some type of sliding scale. The dribbling ones are the worst. I might say rebounders who flop when they get touched in the back by an opposing player are next, since those are always called and almost always it was simply a light shove that, if the player hadn’t flopped, wouldn’t have displaced them from their rebounding position. Charges — and the way defenses have become overreliant on them to stop drivers — are a scourge but aren’t necessarily flopping. Contact does occur. Again, if refs stopped calling them I think the ploy would fall out of favor.
Vlade Divac is probably considered one of the Founding Fathers of flopping and his influence can be seen in every game today. Every time a post player falls to his back on the block when an offensive player takes a dribble and puts either his butt or a shoulder into the defender, Vlade lights up one of his cigarettes leftover from his rookie season of 1990. Officials often do ignore this play and the resulting non-whistle often leads to a dunk or layup as the offensive player scores while the defender stares up in disbelief. Will it stop them from trying the same thing a week later in another city? Probably not. But it probably keeps them from doing it later in that same game.
I know there’s little chance the refs will change their calls and no chance fines will alter player behavior and stop flopping. So I’ll suffer in silence, falling off the couch every time Harden, LeBron, Paul and all the rest fall to the floor.