Playoff Diary: Foul trouble is killing NBA bigs
Among the many serious structural problems with the NBA game under David Stern’s disastrous commissionership is the constant foul trouble — and missed court time — of quality big men. I outlined several of the causes a few months ago in the essay Starting centers merit more minutes.
While great backcourt players are putting in 40 to 48 full-bore, free-and-easy minutes — as they should —Shaquille and Jermaine O’Neal and others have been forced to sit for long stretches and tippy-toe when they are on the court.
Part of the problem facing the O’Neal brothers is that for the past several years they’ve been permitted to dislodge their defenders, leading them (and a number of copycat dislodgers, including Dwight Howard, Yao Ming, Zydrunas and more) to logically conclude that dislodging is a legit power move. But this season many refs are calling dislodging a foul — not all the time, but enough to confuse the O’Neals, who have no idea how their pet “move” will be called from game to game or even quarter to quarter. Also, the league has forced defenders to resort to blatant flops or no-resistance semi-flops (the latter is light on the histrionics, and it usually involves the defender offering resistance to the first bump by the dislodger and no resistance to the second bump) as the only way to neutralize brute strength.
Wilt never picked up dislodging fouls because he played in an era where you weren’t allowed to butt-whack your way to the hoop. Heck, it never occurred to him to even try. (For his career, Wilt averaged a foul every 23 minutes, and most every one he committed came on defense.) Low-scoring Wes Unseld could have averaged 40 points a game if he had been allowed to pulverize opponents in the low post. But he played when such antics would have gotten him 6 fouls in the first 6 minutes.
Phil Jackson is a genius, but part of that is of the "evil genius" variety. It was under Phil in L.A. that the “double dislodge from the left block” (as I have dubbed it) became Shaq's patented — and somehow legit — go-to move. That legitimation is one of several "turns for the worse" under Stern’s tenure. I give the commish high marks for creating a level playing field where small-market teams can compete with the big cities, but as for the game on the court, Stern inherited a flowing, fast-paced game in 1984 and mostly sat on his hands as the game grew rougher, slower and uglier.
Shaq and Jermaine have plenty of legit moves, and if they had been denied dislodging rights years ago they would have adjusted and added and/or polished other elements of their low-post game. So the Lakers might still have gotten their three-peat, or at least a two-peat, but they wouldn’t have changed the game for the worse in the process.
I first wrote about the legitimation of Shaq’s dislodging in a 2002 essay on how to officiate Shaq, both for the good of the game and for Shaq himself. Now more than ever, the NBA needs to heed my advice.