Basketball is a great sport. It’s fast, physical, graceful and beautiful. Many have compared a well-played game to jazz – the participants engaging in free-form improvisation while adhering to common, recurring themes and practiced set pieces.
There is a growing problem with the music though – a few false notes sprinkled occasionally throughout the music. These bad notes are so artificial, so incongruous with the overriding themes of grace and aggression, they threaten to ruin the whole performance.
Those bad notes are charges. More specifically, they are defensive players positioning themselves to draw contact and then flopping to the floor like victims of a shotgun blast. Bodies hitting the floor instead of flying through the air. Players acting instead of competing.
This has to stop. True sporting competition has no place for acting. There is no honor in pretending to have been knocked over, falling back on your butt screaming, all the while keeping an eye on the referee, hoping he has fallen for your act. Nothing is as ridiculous as seeing some 265 pound chiseled power forward falling like a load of bricks after the 160 pound point guard grazes him on the way to the basket.
One of the great things about watching basketball is the fluidity of movement of both the offense and the defense. When played properly, players move all over the floor, keeping their feet active, and playing or defending the ball with their hands. When a defensive player is trying to draw a charge however, he keeps his feet wide and planted, usually with his arms at his side. There’s nothing wrong with impeding the path of the ballhandler, but standing still and not even raising your hands is not what basketball should be about. There’s nothing more exciting than a great blocked shot – just listen to the sounds of the crowd when one gets swatted – it’s a mixture of ooohs, cheers and laughter. The only single play that is as fun for the crowd is a good dunk. It’s hard to block a shot with your hands at your side though.
Do you remember Shane Battier’s early career at Duke? He was a great shot blocker. He had that unique gift of timing his leaps just right and could get his hands on almost any player’s shot. But what is Battier best known for now? Drawing charges. Or, if you’re not a Duke fan, flopping. He was obviously quite talented at drawing charges and since that produces not only a turnover but a foul on the offensive player, that became Battier’s chief defensive tool, not blocking shots. Frankly, I’d much rather have seem him jumping to swat shots than sliding backwards on his butt with a grin on his face.
A great situation in basketball is the fastbreak, particularly when a defender is back, maybe a two on one break. You expect the players to be at full speed, the offensive player going up for a layup or dunk and the defender going as high as he can to block it. You rarely see that anymore. Now, players are taught to try to draw a charge if they find themselves in that defensive position. They’ll try to force the pass and then stand still in the lane, hoping either the passer or the receiver crashes into them. So a fastbreak that should have ended with a high-rising athletic play ends instead with bodies on the floor looking at the ref and waiting for the call.
Which brings us to one of the worst parts of the charge, the difficulty in determining what is and isn’t a charge. Rarely does a game go by where the comment isn’t made about how the charge/block is the hardest in the game. It’s a very subjective decision – a foul has clearly been committed, but it’s not obvious by whom. And the outcome is critical, as a charge not only is a turnover, but a foul on the offensive player. Those two potential outcomes, an offensive foul and a turnover, make the attempt a reasonable decision by the defender. All he has to lose is a foul, while the offensive player could get a foul AND a turnover. Not to mention that the collision is usually enough to prevent the shot from being made.
Think of all the times you’ve played pickup basketball. Has anyone in your games ever called a charge? If so, how was it handled? The very few times I’ve ever seen any one dare to try that call, they were harassed mercilessly. Nothing says sore loser like calling a charge in a pickup game. If it’s such a lame play in pickup games, why is a charge so accepted in refereed basketball? Shouldn’t the game we watch be nearly the same as the game we play, just at a much higher level? It’s not like drawing charges is something that pickup players can’t do. We just choose not to, because everyone understands that the call sucks.
So, what would the game be like without charges?
First, let me explain the ground rules. There would be no charges, but the blocking call would still exist. If an offensive player gets to a spot before a defender and the defender collides with the offensive player, that’s a foul. If the offensive player initiates the contact, it’s not a foul. While that may seem unfair to the defense, remember that the offense needs to maintain possession of the ball and try to score. It’s tough to maintain a dribble or hit a shot while slamming into a defender.
Pushoffs and hooks would still be offensive fouls. Using your off hand to hold or push the defender (think of Jordan hitting his famous last shot as a Bull) is still gaining an illegal advantage.
Since we’ve taken a key weapon away from the defense, referees would need to be better at allowing defenders to defend their spot. “The principal of verticality” that you often hear about doesn’t require defenders to stay on the ground. You should be able to jump all you want in your spot. If an offensive player runs into a defensive player who has established his position, then there’s no foul, even if the defender is in the air.
So what would this do for the game?
First of all, it would clean it up a bit. Defenders would have less incentive to just stand still to draw contact and they’d have no incentive to go falling backwards. Fewer bodies clogging the driving lanes and fewer bodies hitting the floor should result in a more fluid game. Defenders will still try to stay in front of their man, but they won’t fall like a load of bricks the second they get touched. The NBA made an attempt at this result by eliminating charges from right under the basket, but they didn’t go far enough.
It would make life much easier on the officials. No more momentum changing calls, where what often amounts to a guess makes the difference between a foul on the defender or a turnover and foul on the offensive player.
It would get rid of these embarrassing scenes where players flop around trying to influence the refs. I wasn’t a good enough player to play on a college team, but I can only assume that they devote some significant practice time to this skill. They must have drills where you learn to fall without hurting yourself while making it look like you were clobbered. Frankly, I think that time would be better spent on some more productive skill, one that adds the sport instead of exploiting a rules loophole.
So, what about Shaq? Wouldn’t he be able to dominate the lane with impunity, clobbering weaker players on his way to the rim every time? Well, what about it? He’s bigger, stronger and quicker than almost everyone who plays him. Why shouldn’t that be an advantage? I see no reason why a rule needs to level the playing field for those who are physically superior. Sport is not about equity; it’s about competition and using your advantages. Even so, with Shaq, there’s no reason a defender couldn’t stand up to him and absorb any contact. It’s not like his opponents aren’t pretty big and strong themselves. Maybe while he’s banging into his man, a guard could come down and take the ball that he’s probably not dribbling too well. There are many ways to skin a cat, but there’s no reason that a player, and Vlade Divac comes to mind, should be able to be effective by basically quitting and trying to trick the refs.
What then about the case where a guy, say a power forward, is coming down on a break and there’s one defender back. If that guy decides that he’s going to the rim at any cost, what can the defender do if there’s no chance for an offensive foul? First, I’d say that that this situation is relatively rare. There aren’t many players out there with the strength and skill to run over people while maintaining possession of the ball. So, it’s not a situation that you’d see a lot. I compare this to sports like soccer or lacrosse, where there is no such thing as a charge. In those sports though, you rarely ever see an offensive player just barrel through the defense, because they’d lose the ball. It’s not really an advantage. So, back to the guy on the break. If the defensive player doesn’t want to try to strip the ball or block the shot, he could set up in solid defensive position far enough away from the basket that the offensive player couldn’t just jump into him while shooting. If the guy crashes into him while dribbling, he’s going to lose the ball and his scoring opportunity. If the defender sets up too low, allowing the guy to get his shot off while making contact, then the defender has been beaten and doesn’t deserve the call. This is why the NBA created the no-charge line under the basket.
The charge is damaging the game of basketball. Taking the call out of the game does not give the offense an unfair advantage. Instead, it just removes an unfair advantage from the defense along with the ugliness of bodies constantly hitting the floor. No charges means freer lanes and no more acting.
So, let’s fix this. Let’s bring back the beautiful rhythm of the game. Let’s hear the jazz. Ban the charge!
Mark Cuban Agrees With Me