Every season the NBA announces some portion of the rule book that they're going to enforce more strictly, or interpret differently -- various and sundry points of emphasis that they communicate to the teams during pre-season and begin enforcing more strictly in exhibition games. In years past we've seen technical fouls for the slightest misconduct and flop warnings instituted in October before the real games. So far this year, three new emphases are noteworthy:
- Illegal screens -- This is an area of the game that the league has tried to clean up in the past, and which certainly needs to be tighter and more consistent. Of course, those earlier efforts have left us where we are now, still in dire need of consistency. We're definitely hearing more whistles for illegal screens in the pre-season, but I'm not the least bit convinced that the players or anyone else has much clue what the refs are looking for. Clippers head coach Doc Rivers doesn't sweat every call of every game, but so far in the pre-season he's regularly been more upset about illegal screen calls than anything else. Part of the problem here has always been that "hard" screens are not necessarily illegal screens, though the officials sometimes seem to think they are. I will also say that often when a screen is illegal, it's only partly the fault of the screener -- many times, it is the ball handler who is beginning his move too quickly, before the screen is set, making the foul inevitable. It's easy to get angry at DeAndre Jordan for setting illegal screens (and he certainly does set some) but the fouls called on him are not always his fault.
- Travelling -- For the 27th consecutive off-season, the NBA has vowed to clean up travelling violations and to begin to call travelling as it is described in the rule book. Yeah, right. In STAPLES Center Friday night during the Clippers-Blazers game, they twice called a travel that had been all but extinct in the modern NBA -- the sliding pivot foot. Basically, as long as you only move your pivot foot a couple inches at a time, you can move all around the arena without dribbling -- at least that has been the policy for many years. Two different Blazers, E.J. Singler and Victor Claver, were called for wiggling their pivot foot, calls that were absolutely correct according to the rule book and calls which I would wholeheartedly applaud if the league were truly committed to the cause. But calling it on a rookie free agent who has no chance of making the team like Singler in a pre-season game is one thing; let's see them call it on LeBron James in March -- never gonna happen. They're also cracking down on the upfake-two-step that players use to begin a drive to the basket after a shot fake -- that's a call we've seen off and on in the league in recent years, but is certainly one of the least consistent calls around. I'd love for them to call that tighter, but I have a feeling it will be back to business as usual when the season begins.
- Delay of game -- By far the most bizarre pre-season officiating crackdown is the delay of game call after a made basket. It seems like the league is solving a problem that didn't exist while at the same time proving the law of unintended consequences. The new rule forces the scoring team to leave the ball alone -- completely alone -- ostensibly to help promote transition basketball after a made basket. The rule was added to combat the situation where the scoring team would grab the ball and hold it after a made basket, or roll it away to the corner, giving themselves more time to get back on defense. That's a punk move and definitely deserves to be punished, but the league was apparently dissatisfied with the enforcement in recent years in which a player could avoid a warning by tossing the ball to the referee in a timely manner. As of this pre-season, teams are getting warnings if they so much as touch the ball with their hands, however briefly. The result Friday night was seven delay of game whistles resulting in five technical fouls between the Clippers and the Blazers -- paradoxically slowing the game to a crawl through the implementation of a rule that is ostensibly supposed to speed up the game. The problem is that if the ball comes through the net directly to a player, that player is instinctually going to grab the ball -- it's just a reflex. In fact, a DeAndre Jordan dunk that hit Darren Collison in the face raised the very valid question of whether Collison would have gotten a delay of game warning had he been quick enough to get his hands up to protect his head.
Unfortunately, I'm one of those guys who recalls these pre-season shenanigans from seasons past. The refs made a big show of handing out technicals like Halloween candy during pre-season a few years back, ostensibly to give the players a chance to acclimate to the new standards. In the end, it was the refs who adjusted, going back to calling T's more or less exactly the same as they had before by a month into the regular season.
Which begs the question of how serious the league is about any of these emphases. The tighter controls on illegal screens and walking are good goals, and if the league can apply a higher standard for each with some degree of consistency, I'm all for it. But I'll believe it when I see it. Calling walks against scrubs in pre-season is a very different matter than calling them against stars in games that count.
As for the delay of game rule, if the pre-season is viewed as a trial period, surely the NBA can conclude that it's been an abject failure. None of the seven infractions Friday night in STAPLES Center -- NONE OF THEM -- would have had any impact on the game had they been allowed. Maybe the league can train the players to leave a few more balls untouched out of the net -- but they can't punish reflexes out of athletes. If a player by chance comes into the same space as the ball, made basket or not, he's going to grab the ball, as he has been doing his entire life. The Clippers could be as good at running on made baskets as any team in the league -- yet I see no advantage to enforcing the rule as the officials have done so far in pre-season. It's dumb, dial it back, NBA.