HoopIdea: the Incurable Abyss of Gamesmanship

One of the many tiny, awesome moments in this NBA season came when a team was making intentional off-the-ball fouls on DeAndre Jordan. It was one of those all too familiar "Hack-A-Shaq" moments where everyone stopped and shrugged their shoulders. The announcers slyly analyzed the strategy and talked about the free throw shooter's form and psychology. The audience grimaced at the spectacle. But -- meeting a dismal wall with a force of light -- Chris Paul used this moment to out-think the universe. See, just as the intentional foul on Jordan occurred, Chris Paul (manning the point and far beyond the top of the key) shot an insane, improbable 40-footer. Do I even need to specify? It was good.

I love that. I mean, I've watched a lot of basketball and I'd never seen that, at least when the foul was so blatantly intentional. In one stroke CP3, a preternaturally cerebral and gifted player, used his fantastic shooting ability to more than neutralize -- to actively punish -- the absurdity of Hack-A-Shaq with an equally absurd rejoinder. Unfortunately, the officials -- probably with the same puzzlement as everyone else -- didn't give Paul the benefit of a four-point play for his teammate to finish and Jordan simply went to the line. I'm pretty sure the sheer novelty of Paul's actions were the only reason they didn't get an and-one. In any case, every off-ball foul I've ever seen that was called during a made basket has led to an and-one. This one didn't. But the silent rebellion of a superstar against the most commonly dismal strategic ploy in the book remained.

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Paul had taken advantage of his great knowledge of the game and had applied it in an unfamiliar, almost completely unprecedented setting. It was so clever that to me it evoked other masterstrokes of strategy such as Paul Westphal's intentional technical, Ricky Rubio's inbounds delay, the creative invention of the dribble, the Eurostep, the cross-over dribbles and variations, small ball, and so many other great facets of our great game.

Of course, on the other hand, you could also frame Paul's move as the kind of bend-not-break mentality that has also led to unsavory outcomes like flopping (himself a great practitioner of the dark arts), working over the refs (again, one of Paul's favorite domain), and the Hack-A-Shaq strategy Paul was responding to in the first place. Much of what we dislike about NBA basketball (say, absurd free throw attempts, superstar calls, inconsistent officiating, make-up calls, rip-through fouls until recently) is partially explained by the rational approach of innovators to rules with perverse incentives, even if the rules themselves are the structure needed to create the innovative improvisation that makes basketball great in the first place.

Gamesmanship is a double-edged sword, and nowhere is this illustrated better than in basketball. Since the HoopIdea project has focused on flopping and tanking above all else, I thought it would be well to talk about flopping in the general language of gamesmanship that produces it, to see if we can't get some meaningful insights.

  • I've seen some talk about the worst and most egregious floppers being fined and otherwise developing a reputation as such as an incentive against flopping (never mind for a moment that such reputations [like, say, Kobe Bryant's brilliant, First-Team defensive acumen] are often false and misleading, especially late in a player's career). But I'd challenge that. If a player doesn't flop all season and then flops 5 times at crucial moments in Game 7 of a playoff series, well... their flops are probably more important to their season and career than all of those of a notorious flopper put together.

  • Leverage is something that every fan of the game intuitively understands and the players with great gamesmanship such as Chris Paul (and Shane Battier) have perfected. As Truehoop has pointed out (and as Paul certainly understands), the relative importance of crunch-time performance extends to all aspects of crunch-time play, including steals, assists, and getting to the line. And yes, including flopping for an extra possession or free throw trip. The number of flops matters far less than the accumulated leverage that a player exerts in making all of his flops.

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