Friday, May 18, 2007

All Aboard: Abolish the Six Foul Limit

(A Special Feature from esteemed Section F contributer Jack Wang)

In light of the criticisms the NBA is taking over its strict leaving the bench rule, I thought I'd pile on by echoing Jack McCallum's sentiments against the six foul limit. He points out that the six foul limit was enacted in a bygone basketball era, at a time when it was not uncommon for people to go entire games without having a foul called on them. Basketball has changed into a much more physical game, and the foul limit has not adjusted. The strategy of trying to foul out the other team's best player, or at least saddle him with foul trouble, has become a part of the game. We have seen this throughout the playoffs with players such as Baron Davis going at Deron Williams and Tim Duncan at Amare Stoudemire. As a result, when a marquee player gets in foul trouble and has to sit down, the game suffers. One team has a huge advantage, and the fans get robbed of seeing the best player play.

I can think of two additional reasons for abolishing the foul limit which McCallum doesn't mention: 1) decreasing the rampant complaining about foul calls, and 2) diminishing the effect of the referees on the game.

Stop the Complaining
The NBA enacted a rule in the beginning of this season that prohibited players from complaining about foul calls (which seems to have been widely disregarded this postseason, as players seem to complain about every call; why this level of leniency couldn't have been applied to Stoudemire and Diaw is beyond me). I believe that the main reason players complain about foul calls is that it directly affects their ability to stay in the game. Because they can foul out, a poor foul call, especially one that gets them in foul trouble, forces the player to play softer defense and/or sit out for an extended amount of time. In other words, the ramifications of a foul on the player who is assessed the foul are vastly disproportionate to the impact on the game. It is not as much that the player thinks that the referee blew the call (though this may be part of it), but it is that the player might have to sit on the bench or play matador defense (although this theory clearly doesn't pertain to J.R. Smith, as those are his only two options anyway).

Players get the most upset at the referees in two situations: when they feel like the refs missed a foul committed on them (an issue of "how else could I have missed that shot" pride), and when they get called for a foul they feel like they didn't commit. Without the fear of fouling out, players would have much less objections to questionable calls, and the emotional complaints that the league wants to discourage would all but disappear. The ramifications of being called for a ticky-tack foul becomes much less important and one of the two reasons players go nuts is minimized. Think about it: rarely will you see a player go crazy when they are called for palming, goaltending, or defensive three seconds, even if those violations also result in a turnover or even a technical free throw.

The Effect on the Referees
This does not mean that teams would suddenly foul at every turn. The team getting fouled still gets two free throws, and the hack-a-shaq rules still apply. Also, this doesn't mean that we couldn't preserve or enhance the incentives to play solid D by enacting additional rules. For example, the fouled team could get one free throw plus possession after the 12th team foul of each quarter. I would also argue that abolishing the foul limit might even decrease fouls, since referees would no longer have to blow the whistle subjectively. In his article, McCallum alluded to the fact that referees will make certain calls in the beginning of a game to set the tone and not call them again the rest of the game, or when they refrain from calling fouls on star players to keep them in the game. It would eliminate the need to strategically call fouls, and the referees can call the game honestly. This could open up the game even more and result in the free-flowing basketball style that the league tried to encourage by stiffening the hand-checking rules.

Having no foul limit would allow the best players on the each team to have more opportunity to decide the outcome of games, as it should be. In light of the recent study that found a racial disparity between fouls called on black players versus white players, and what seems like complaints about officiating every year come playoff time, the league needs to take a serious look at finding ways to minimize the impact that referees have on the outcome of games.


MarcoPolo said...

This Jack dude is pretty sharp. I like some of the thoughts here better than the source material. Jack, you should write more columns. (Not in place of Adam - that came out wrong. You know what I mean.)

Rick said...

great idea - but it will never happen. the nba is scared of change

Dennis Hans said...

I wholeheartedly applaud the insights and sensible suggestions of the two Jacks.

I (and many others) have been sounding the same theme for a long time, but the NBA Rules and Competition Committee are a stubborn and clueless lot.

There are ways to get rid of the foul-out rule without turning the NBA game into a street fight. The sooner we start putting these proposals into practice, the sooner we'll get through the trial-and-error phase and reach a solution that works for the long haul.

Here are three essays of mine on this matter:

Na-Na-Na-Na, Hey, Hey, Hey, Goodbye: Basketball’s Foul-Out Rule Should Be Benched (June 14, 2001)

How to fix the cruel foul-out rule (May 25, 2003)

Starting centers merit more minutes (Jan. 17, 2006)

Anonymous said...

I think they NBA should lower the foul limit to 3 or 4 before fouling out. It would make the game much more free flowing as you wouldn't see tight defense any more expect perhaps at the end of a game. Offense is what people pay to see.

Jack Wang said...

Thanks for the links to your columns on the same topic. You had some interesting suggestions for rules to enact if the foul limit were eliminated. I especially liked the "shirted player" rule. First column in 2001 - you were way ahead of the curve on this one.

Dennis Hans said...

Thanks, Jack.
Games are so much more enjoyable for all concerned when foul trouble is no factor. Thus, the Spurs earned a legit, impressive Game 6 victory. Everyone got their full playing time and the better team on that night won. Too bad the series itself won't forever be tainted by Stern and Jackson's strict adherence to the letter of a poorly written rule.

Dennis Hans said...

Oops. I meant:

Too bad the series itself WILL forever be tainted by Stern and Jackson's strict adherence to the letter of a poorly written rule.