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Block/charge interpretation is ruining the NBA
by Dennis Hans / April 21, 2003

Most every game, the refs confidently call charging on one or more high-flying or long-striding drivers. Invariably, the TV director will show a replay and the color commentator will say, “That was a good call, because the defender’s feet were outside the restricted zone.”

That “restricted zone,” the solid-line semicircle that extends out a few feet from the basket, was intended to promote freedom of movement and driving to the basket, two facets of basketball that, once upon a time, made the NBA a joy to watch. Alas, it has had the opposite effect: It has never been easier for a help defender to draw a charge or harder for a driver to drive. Slow, glued-to-the-ground Jason Collins is nearly as effective defensively as mobile, electrifying shot-swatters Theo Ratliff and Keon Clark. Players with the ability to penetrate do so less frequently and more timidly. The timidity is a double whammy, as it gives an extra split-second to the bowling-pin impersonator to plant himself in the driver’s path.

Thanks to the restricted zone, the misguided block/charge interpretation, and the legalization of zone defenses, there is less freedom of moment in the NBA today than at any time in the last fifty years. All contribute to slowing down halfcourt offense to a snail’s pace.

Back in 1961-62, teams averaged 119 points and 106 field goal attempts per game. Today, they average 94 points and 80 or so FGAs. The Sixties era track meet has degenerated into a yawn-inducing bump-and-grind.
Today’s players are faster than ever, but the great NBA game has been hijacked by control-freak coaches and a rules committee that rewards non-athleticism.

In theory, the restricted zone provides a “safe landing area” for drivers, an area where help defenders can swat the shot or strip the ball, but cannot occupy space for the purpose of attempting to draw a charge. The problem is that the refs have become obsessed with that line. They have one of the world’s toughest jobs, and they’ve
simplified one aspect by basing their airborne-driver block/charge decisions on two factors only: Are the defender’s feet outside the restricted zone at the moment of collision, and are they set? If the answers are yes, it’s a charge.

A ref who is focused on the defender’s feet will be clueless on the most important consideration: the precise position of the defender when the driver reaches the point of no return — that is, the point at which the
driver cannot change his directional path even if he wants to. Not only is that point well before the moment of collision, it is well before the driver ascends.

THE POINT OF NO RETURN

A driver who intends to jump off of one leg reaches the point of no return PRIOR to his second-to-last step. That foot sets the course. If you need to accelerate or change direction, you do that by altering how and where you place that second-to-last foot. First, your brain tells you “Explode” or “Veer right.” Then you relay the information to your feet, and you plant that second-to-last step accordingly. I defy anyone filling a lane on the break or driving in a halfcourt setting to change directions AFTER planting the second-to-last foot. Yet this is what the current block/charge interpretation requires the driver to do.

Put yourself in the driver’s feet: You think you can beat your man off the dribble, and you spot an opening that can get you into the lane for a five-foot runner or maybe all the way to the rim. You seize the moment and blow by your defender. As you do, you spot a helping defender moving into your general path. Time for some quick
calculations. You can pull up, either for a shot or pass. You can put the peddle to the metal and try to reach your destination before he establishes position. Or you can guess where the defender is likely to plant his feet and take evasive action by jumping to his left or right (hoping that the ref realizes that a charge requires the defender to be stationary and take the hit squarely; grazing the outside shoulder or colliding with a widely set leg does not a charge make).

Unless you are walking, you can’t wait till you’ve planted your take-off foot to alter your direction. If you are walking, you’ve got no chance of beating anyone off the dribble.

Focusing on the restricted-zone line and the defender’s feet enables today’s refs to be consistent, but the result is countless unfair calls, foul trouble for exciting players and too many decisions by the likes of Steve Nash, Paul Pierce and Baron Davis not to penetrate when they spot a momentary crease in the defense. The fans lose and the players worth watching lose. Rest assured, playoff games will turn when key players hit the pines with foul trouble caused by bad charge calls.

SUMMER ASSIGNMENT FOR REFS

The first offseason order of business for the NBA is to convene all the refs in a gym. They need to experience what it’s like to drive to the basket or across the lane and attempt to avoid a helping defender. They need to execute as drivers and defenders in a variety of situations so they can establish in their own minds the point of no return. They also need to see how easy it is for a defender whose feet are set to slide his upper body a foot in either direction once he sees the driver’s flight path. A slight upper-body slide is all it takes to convert a glancing blow to a direct hit.

THE ANSWER

My solution starts with extending the restricted zone out another 18 inches, while rendering the actual line invisible. In other words, the line would be in the back of the refs’ mind, as it used to be, but not painted on the court. This will free up the refs’ eyes to look outward at the unfolding play rather than downward at the defender’s feet. The ref — either a trailer or an under-the-basket ref — should take “the long view,” keeping both the driver and the help defender in the line of sight, even though the two players initially may be far apart. Refs also need to develop a feel for the “right-left” or “left-right” rhythm of a driver’s steps. A righthander generally leaps off his left foot, so refs should be ready to look at the relationship between the driver and the help defender as the driver gets ready to plant his right foot — the step before his take-off step. (The amazing Nash will be a challenge for refs, as he will elevate off either leg whether finishing with his right hand or left.)

If the defender is not set and directly in the path prior to the planting of the second-to-last-step, it’s a block. The benefit of any doubt should go to the athlete doing exciting things, not the flat-foot floogie clogging the lane.

Such an interpretation is fair to drivers and good for the game. Granted, it will make it considerably more difficult for a help defender to draw a charge. So what? Who cares? Help defenders with athleticism can help in other ways. They can strip the ball, block the shot or get a hand in the shooter’s face. As for help defenders without
athleticism, they can find another line of work. Trust me, no one will miss them.

Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball — including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting — have appeared online at the Sporting News and Slate. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets.

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