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How will the NBA fix the intentional foul problem?

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Adam Silver has had a change of heart regarding whether the NBA needs a rule change to curtail intentional fouling. It seems certain at this point that the NBA will act, but what will they do?

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

In an embarrassing reversal of his position of just six months earlier, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is now saying that the rules regarding intentional fouls off the ball need to be changed. I suppose it's to his credit that he is willing to recognize his mistake and backtrack so quickly, but I'm not going to let him off the hook for his shortsighted and ludicrous original position quite so easily.

It's his own fault for using such blatantly silly reasoning in the first place. To characterize the problem last June as only affecting two teams was completely indefensible given that Andre Drummond was emerging as a force in Detroit even while missing free throws at historically high rates. Just because Detroit didn't play many games that mattered enough to compel coaches to send Drummond to the line didn't mean that the problem was confined to DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard, as we now know. In fact, each of Silver's rationalizations for maintaining the status quo were equally banal. If he'd simply said "We're not changing the rule because we don't like to change the rules" it would have been one thing: to try to justify it in the manner he did was unbecoming.

A tip of the hat to NBA coaches for forcing Silver into his change of heart. Thanks to J.B. Bickerstaff for having K.J. McDaniel foul Drummond five times in nine seconds. Thanks to Gregg Popovich for employing the foul the inbounder out of bounds (a foul so strange that NBA referees got the rule wrong forcing a clarification from the league). Thanks to our own Doc Rivers for popularizing the made-free-throw-piggy-back-loose-ball-foul (which in fact he's been doing since at least last season's playoffs, not only since it helped the Clippers beat Detroit earlier this year).

And while we're on the subject of coaches, can someone please explain to me why the FUCK Brett Brown would have his young 76ers intentionally foul? The ONLY justification for this obviously unsportsmanlike practice is to try to win basketball games, and Philadelphia does not benefit in the least from winning. If the plan in Philly is to develop young talent, then obviously Brown should be encouraging his team to dig in and get defensive stops, rather than to intentionally foul to protect a lead. Pop fouling in the midst of a playoff race or playoff series is one thing -- I hate the practice, but you could argue that the end justifies the means. A last place team fouling is simply ridiculous (and I'm happy that it backfired on Brown.)

But I'm not here today to complain about the practice (I do that plenty). In fact I'm here to envision what might be coming by way of rule changes.

Popovich has rightly raised the specter of unintended consequences as a reason not to change the rule, and I agree that is the biggest problem. Which is why I am such an avid proponent of what I consider to be the simplest solution -- allow the team being fouled to choose between two free throws and the ball out of bounds.

In a very real sense, this would not be a change at all, since both of those scenarios exist in the game already. We can reasonably assume that having the team take the ball out of bounds on a non-shooting foul would not open a can of worms, since that's already what happens in the majority of cases, including the first foul of the final two minutes of a quarter for a team not yet over the limit.

Any other solution -- one free throw and the ball, two free throws and the ball, three to make two, free throws for a player the aggrieved team chooses, etc. -- introduces an element into the game that does not currently exist. The first time that a game is decided by an off the ball foul resulting in more points than it would have under the old rule, there will be much consternation among the purists who favored the status quo. You can remove the incentive to foul off the ball without increasing the penalty, which seems to me to be the obvious path of least resistance.

Is that what the NBA will do? Based on the league's track record of implementing changes, almost certainly not.

When it became obvious that the prohibition against zone (aka illegal) defenses was untenable primarily because the rules were convoluted and capriciously applied, the league decided to allow them -- but added a defensive three second rule that is convoluted and capriciously applied.

When the league succumbed to the necessity for instant replay, they delineated certain circumscribed cases in which to invoke its use, creating an endless series of clearly incorrect calls that were allowed to stand  even after review because they were not reviewable, followed by a revision to the list, a process that continues to this day (for instance as Dwight Howard's obvious basket interference went uncalled while the referees reviewed an out of bounds call immediately afterwards).

So the odds that the league will get this right the first time don't seem favorable.

There are legitimate questions about implementation, to be sure. Should the choice of taking the ball out of bounds or shooting free throws apply to all common fouls, or just those committed off the ball? If the rule is different for fouls on and off the ball, it still allows for some hanky panky on the part of coaches. For instance the piggyback is not an off the ball foul and a few teams have gotten pretty good at fouling a bad free throw shooter in pick and roll, when even though he does not have the ball, he's part of the play and not technically "off" the ball. Clearly those situations will become even more important, and defining a rule and then applying it consistently will be crucial.

There's also the matter of the final two minutes. The biggest problem with the NBA's position that the rule didn't need to be changed was always the simple fact that the rule had already been changed. Why there is one rule for 46 minutes and a different rule for two was always bizarre. If the league plans to put in a rule to curtail the practice, will it be the one already used? If not, why not? If a new rule is implemented to govern the rest of the game, will that rule also be applied in the final two minutes? If not, why not?

Sadly we have a couple more months followed by the playoffs (at least) with the current mess. After that, hopefully the league will finally have the common sense to implement rules to eliminate this practice, and hopefully they won't screw up the fix.