The NBA’s got a problem, a shade of gray that stretches from Houston on one end to Oakland on the other.
Somebody’s got to stop it before it spreads further and ruins the game.
No one wants to see pro basketball become … soccer.
But it’s headed that way. It’s becoming a sweaty theatrical presentation, an act, an episode of “As the Ball Turns,” starring James Harden, a game of deception and a whine-fest. It is an endeavor ever more like figure skating, gymnastics, synchronized swimming and diving. Winners in those sports are designated as such by evaluations from judges who assign numerical values to their performances, values that carom through those judges’ prisms and spill out onto a scorecard.
And the rest of us are supposed to trust those judges to make the right call.
NBA games, as governed by the league’s current rules and officiated by refs who interpret those rules, have always been susceptible to that sorry condition, but now are being shoved and cursed by it — victory and defeat by judgment, by judges with whistles around their necks.
It was John Stockton who said many seasons ago that a single ref can change the outcome of almost any game by way of a few calls. So the perception of this problem — and the problem itself — has existed for many years.
But it’s getting worse, thanks to players such as Harden, who determined somewhere along his way that it would be to his benefit to add tremendous thespian skills to his enormous on-court talents. He’s hard enough for opponents to cover on account of the latter. Mix in the former, and he’s darn near impossible to stop. If the defense doesn’t get up into him, he scores. If the defense gets up into him, he flails his arms and legs into the resistance, creating contact, necessitating a call or non-call from the referees.
If those refs blow the whistle, Harden and the Rockets are happy. If they don’t, Harden and the Rockets are unhappy.
Other players and teams do this, too. They just don’t do it with the same proficiency as Harden. He has mastered the craft. He is the Daniel Day Lewis of the NBA. He immerses himself in his role, and plays it all the day and night long, all the season and postseason long.
It’s aggravating to opponents, who so often have to play their game within the confines that Harden’s act creates and thereby requires. The Jazz know this, having suffered from it, enduring possessions where the guard isn’t so much looking to score as much as he is seeking to draw a foul.
In Game 1 of the Warriors-Rockets playoff series, the Rockets went berserk when Harden repeatedly fell to the court after shooting, ever turning to the refs for the call, and not getting it.
Suddenly, it was Harden and his teammates and coaches, not their opponents, who were crying for justice. Supporters said, if the officials were going to make those calls in Harden’s favor during the regular season, and in the playoffs against the Jazz, they should make those same calls against the Warriors.
Others thought if Harden was going to construct his game around living by the whistle, he could die by it, too.
Call it floppers’ justice.
“In the modern game, players have gotten really good at deception, creating contact,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “… The game has so much deception as a part of it.”
That deception did not go Harden’s way in Game 1.
The judges, in effect, gave him a lesser score for what they judged to be a substandard skate, a sloppy flying Salchow, an unbalanced flip, a clumsy landing, a lousy double gainer. And, after throwing out the high and the low marks, the Rockets lost.
Said Kerr: “The reality is you get some, you lose some.”
Now, the Rockets have issued the results of a play-by-play officiating report that supposedly reveals that the Rockets were screwed over by bad calls during their playoff series a year ago and that those missed calls cost them not just a championship, but the spoils that come with it.
They issued that info not solely to complain about what happened last time around and in Game 1, but more directly to affect the way their series now is officiated moving forward. It is another game within a game.
Another episode to be acted out.
Harden has been called the superstar who cried wolf, the would-be victim whose falls and flops — and protestations — have grown tiresome in the eyes of some officials. Too often, he takes a jumper and drops to the floor, regardless of whether he was actually bumped with any force or not. Sometimes, he fires a shot and falls forward, into the defender, making it seem as though the defender did not give him the landing room required, according to the rules.
If a shooter falls into the defender, or a defender has his arms in a fixed upward position and a shooter waves his hands and arms on the shot into those fixed positions, is that a foul?
Harden thinks it is … because he’s been rewarded for it, being sent to the free-throw line more than 10 times a game for as many years as anyone can remember, anyone cares to remember. He leads the league in acting, in flopping, in landing on his butt, in getting to the foul line. He did this season, he did last season, he does almost every season.
He’s the current possessor of the Maurice Podoloff Trophy, the hardware awarded to the league’s MVP. He also should have landed an Oscar by now.
It’s not that’s he’s not a great player. He is. He’s a fantastic player, one of the best offensive forces in the NBA, one of the best offensive forces in the history of the league. And there are times when he is fouled, when defenders reach into him on a shot or slide under him as he returns to the court after a shot.
But the acting, from which he has so often profited, is wearing thin. He’s bastardizing the game, turning it into something it wasn’t intended to be — at least not so comprehensively. Reliance on judgement should only come out of occasional need. And Harden blew past that long ago. He forces that reliance, that judgement now on nearly every trip.
That vulnerability wasn’t supposed to burn under a glaring hot spotlight like this, where it draws so much attention to the referees’ flawed human condition. They do not have lasers for eyes, after all. The theatrics only blur the picture more.
One thing is for certain: If Harden’s going to get gains by playing the game the way Jim Carrey acts — overacts — in his film roles, he should also handle the losses in all the stirred shades of gray. That’s part of the game, too.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.