Before another NBA season gets underway, and to prevent additional playoff games from being decided as much by the refs as the players, we need to establish clear guidelines for officiating the giant who’s as tough to ref as he is to guard.
Ref confusion and inconsistency was most apparent in last season’s Western Conference championship series between Los Angeles and Sacramento, when who was officiating a given game determined which team’s big man or men would get in foul trouble. A sequence in the first half of the May 24 game clearly demonstrated how not to officiate Shaquille O’Neal. A careful examination can point the way in how to get the calls right.
Shaq caught a pass in the left low post. Next he got low and used his massive hips and left shoulder to effortlessly knock Scot Pollard back a couple of feet. Pollard had anticipated the “move,” having borne its brunt on countless occasions. He absorbed the blow yet managed to stay on his feet. But he was momentarily off-balance and out of position, which gave Shaq the space and the split-second he needed for his patented baseline pivot that left him open for a two-foot bankshot. Sharpshooter that he is, he drained it.
Pollard did not resort to flopping theatrics. He made an effort to remain upright so, in the likely event no foul was called for dislodging, he would be able to continue trying to defend. During the ensuing timeout, Kings coach Rick Adelman bitterly complained to a ref that if Shaq is allowed to knock the defender backwards, then Shaq simply can’t be guarded.
Moments later, Shaq was guarded by Vlade Divac. Shaq received the ball on the right side of the lane. Rather than butt-whack Vlade under the basket, he moved laterally towards unoccupied space in the middle of the lane, from where he fired a jumper. Shaq didn’t dislodge anyone on his lateral move, and he jumped straight up on the shot. Divac, however, was either draped on Shaq or leaned in to create contact, then went reeling back as Shaq shot. Divac created the illusion of an offensive foul, and Shaq was unjustly whistled for a charge. Seconds later, the camera caught a devilish expression on Vlade’s face.
This isn’t poetic justice. It’s not two wrongs make a right. It’s two wrongs make two wrongs and a mockery of the game. First the refs reward brute force against an honest defender, then they reward a flop from a dishonest defender. In effect, the refs are saying, “Hey, defenders, we’ll only give you the call if you cheat.”
The message should be, “We’ll give you the call if you’re clearly dislodged and you play it straight. Dramatize a real dislodging or create the illusion of one and we’ll eject you for unsportsmanlike conduct. We simply won’t tolerate a defender who requires us to look into his soul before we decide a call.”
Refs who allow Shaq to dislodge also make it considerably easier for him to execute his legit low-post moves. On another play against the Kings later in the series, Shaq caught the ball on the low block and felt Pollard leaning hard against him, as if to say, “Try and dislodge me now!” Shaq didn’t try. Rather, he exploited Pollard’s awkward, off-balance stance by executing a quick baseline spin to set up a dunk. Assist to the refs.
Most of what Shaq does on offense is beautiful. The principal reason he’s a handful is his combination of dazzling, lightning-quick footwork, massive girth, and an ever-improving repertoire of jumpers, bankers and
To enable players to defend Shaq and refs to officiate him, we offer below some “Shaq Rules,” which are based on this premise:
Low-post defenders are entitled to the space they occupy, even if they lack the power to resist a 370-pound giant hellbent on seizing it. More importantly, defenders are entitled to that space while poised in a springy, athletic stance.
Defenders should not be required to distort their body position and sacrifice balance in a vain attempt to avoid dislodging. A league that appreciates its athletes should want them in a springy, athletic stance rather than in goal-line-stand mode -- or worse, flat-footed with both arms straight up in the air. The “statue pose” is fine for saluting the sun at Monday morning yoga, but it’s no stance for an athlete who needs to make a play.
During the 2001 Finals against Philly, Shaq asserted his low-post rights. “I’m allowed to pivot,” he said. “I’m allowed to play strong. I’m allowed to be powerful.” But in the process of exercising his own rights, Shaq cannot trample on the rights of others. So let’s clarify exactly what Shaq can and cannot do.
- Yes, you are “allowed to pivot.” But if the defender is overplaying you on your left side, as is often the case, you cannot pivot or plow to your left into the space he legally occupies, supplanting his body with yours. You may pivot to your right, into wide-open space, or you can step back and face the basket, thereby creating room for all manner of moves.
- When you request a second entry pass, if the defender is right behind you, the only way you are allowed to catch the ball closer to the basket than your present location is by peeling off the defender or wheeling around him. You cannot leap backward directly into space he presently occupies or take a series of backward mini-steps, using your bulk to “walk him” under the basket.
- You are entitled to move to the defender’s chest, but not through it. (Ref Danny Crawford got the call and explanation exactly right in one Game 7 play, much to Divac’s disgust.)
- You get the benefit of any doubt on contact where the defender is sliding up as you are backing down. If you begin a move with your left shoulder two feet from the defender’s chest, and you move a foot toward the basket while the defender simultaneously moves a foot closer to create contact, that is a defensive foul, even if the defender is knocked on his butt.
And let’s remind refs of the following:
- Shaq’s strength is an asset, not a weapon. If the post defender’s feet are in constant retreat, he’s likely being pushed around -- illegally. (Perhaps one ref needs to focus on the upper bodies of low-post combatants while a second ref zeroes in on the lower bodies and feet.)
- Honest defenders are more deserving than floppers of the benefit of any doubt.
- As leaning is not a basketball skill, low-post matchups must not be allowed to degenerate into leaning contests. Allow gifted athletes such as Kevin Garnett, Jermaine O’Neal, Kenyon Martin, Andrei Kirilenko, Keon Clark, Pau Gasol and Marcus Camby to function like Bill Russell or Hakeem Olajuwon, not Tony Siragusa or William “The Refrigerator” Perry.
A rules regime that penalizes steamrolling and flopping while promoting more shake-and-bake and less bump-and-grind will be great for fans and great for players who’ve got game, Shaq included.
Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball -- including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting -- have appeared online at the Sporting News, Slate and The Black World Today. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets.
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