In June of 2015, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said that the rules committee would likely leave the rules that allow intentional fouls off the ball as they were, bolstering his status quo argument with statistics that supposedly indicated that the problem was limited to two teams. According to Silver, the vast majority of the intentional fouls were committed against the Los Angeles Clippers and the Houston Rockets, leaving 28 other teams free to play free-flowing basketball.
Friday night during a playoff game in Detroit, Andre Drummond, the NBA's leader in rebounding and double doubles, an All Star and almost certain All-NBA selection this year, played 93 seconds in the fourth quarter of the Piston's Game 3 loss to Cleveland.
Drummond was apparently not a problem when Silver and his minions were contemplating a rule change 10 months ago. Despite the fact that Drummond was the worst free throw shooter in the association in 2015, Silver justified inaction based in part on an argument that ignored the possibility that opponents might foul him. It was obvious (to me at least) that the reason "Bang the Drummond Slowly" was a little used strategy at the time was simply because the games the Pistons were playing were of no consequence: you didn't have to foul to win games against an opponent playing .390 ball. Still, Silver stood in front of reporters and said the NBA wasn't going to change a rule for a two team problem.
Now that the Pistons are playing games that matter, teams are intentionally fouling Drummond. To which I say, "Duh".
Will the NBA change the rule for a three team problem? A four team problem? What happens when someone finally starts fouling Andrew Bogut, reducing Stephen Curry to a spectator on offense? (Why no one does this is truly bizarre to me. Sure, Steve Kerr would take Bogut out, but even so, at least force his hand. I mean, I hate the strategy and am not advocating it, but the same teams that do it against the Clippers and Rockets and Pistons should certainly do it against the 12th best offense in the history of the league, it seems to me.)
There's also a fairly obvious flaw in the methodology Silver cited last year. By counting free throws, he was ignoring bad free throw shooters who are benched by their coach, an obvious goal of the strategy. Drummond only took two free throws in the fourth quarter on Friday. It does not mean that the game did not suffer because of a petty strategy employed by Tyronn Lue that is stupidly allowed under the current rules. Should NBA fans be allowed to see what impact an All Star Center might have on a close playoff game? Of course they should. But they were deprived of that in Game 3 of Cavs-Pistons.
The 2016 NBA Playoffs haven't been the most scintillating affair. Favorites have won 18 of 22 games so far (and one of the four underdog wins was only possible because of an injury to Curry). The Cavs-Pistons series has been perhaps the most competitive so far -- two of the three games have been in doubt in the fourth quarter, which qualifies as "close" this postseason.
But instead of watching the best players on each team compete at what I like to call "basketball", a bizarre loophole allowed the Cavs (the first seed in the Eastern Conference mind you, a team that is supposed to be winning this series straight up) to force an All Star to the bench in Game 3.
The argument that intentional fouls are within the rules entirely misses the point, as far as I'm concerned. Basketball is a team game, and it's obvious that different players on a team have different roles. It follows then that each will have strengths and weaknesses. Andre Drummond happens to be the best rebounder in the league and the worst free throw shooter. (DeAndre Jordan of course ranks second in each of those categories, so the comparison is obvious.) This "within the rules" strategy has the net effect of allowing a team to remove a player from the game based solely on one weakness. Imagine for a moment that the opposite were true -- that some strategy, outside the spirit of the game but within the rules, magically allowed you to force a player who was a great shooter but a terrible rebounder to rebound all the time. By himself, without help from his teammates, go and get a rebound.
Rebounding and shooting are both vital parts of team success in the NBA. But the rules as currently written allowed the Cavs to remove the league's best rebounder from a playoff game. I don't understand why anyone would be OK with this.
Silver has already hinted that the league will revisit the issue again this summer and presumably the discussions will have a different outcome. So that's good. But it does not excuse the painfully stupid decision to defer action last summer.
Three of eight playoff series this postseason have seen prolonged periods of intentional fouls. That's a problem that should have already been fixed.
Fans watching these NBA playoffs are paying a price for the commissioner's lack of foresight.