Centers' Little Helper

Dennis Hans, unrenowned former adjunct professor of mass comm and American foreign policy, relentlessly exposed the Bush administration’s “techniques of deceit” BEFORE the Iraq war, when it could have made a difference (see links). For decades he has fought baseball’s discrimination against lefthanded infielders and promoted his ingenious clockwise solution. A lifelong advocate for a flowing, non-brutal, flop-free NBA, he now champions the cause of its second-class citizens: the centers.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Incompetent Officiating, Part I:
Self-blinded refs have Dwight’s UMP back

In one respect, Orlando’s 90-to-80 loss to Boston on TNT January 22 was like many Magic games this season: star center Dwight Howard “set” perhaps 15-to-20 UMPs.

An UMP is an uncalled moving pick. I place “set” in quotation marks because Howard — and many other modern screeners — operates under the assumption that one need not be set when setting a pick. Howard’s body language is that of an NFL H-back protecting his quarterback. His body is alive, ready to move left or right to block the onrushing foe.

On a standard Magic play Howard will come out near the three-point arc and wait for a teammate to activate the pick-and-roll by dribbling along a path slightly to Howard’s left or right. As the dribbler’s defender starts moving laterally, Howard will step, slide or extend a forearm into the defender’s path. Heck, sometimes he does all three on the same pick. That’s a TRUMP, or triple uncalled moving pick.

If Howard can obstruct the defender with a legal stationary screen, he’ll do so. But if he has to move left to prevent the defender from getting “over” the screen cleanly, he’ll do that. If he has to slide right to prevent the defender from going “under” the screen cleanly and picking up the dribbler on the other side, Howard often will roll to the basket before the defender has a chance to get past him. Those are obvious fouls, but we can forgive Howard for thinking that both tactics are perfectly legal given that he draws so few whistles — maybe one for every 40 moving picks.

Of course, two can play this game, so sometimes it’s a Magic player taking UMP lumps. On January 24, backup point guard Anthony Johnson was on the receiving end of a different kind of TRUMP, as Miami’s Jamaal Magloire clipped him with three consecutive single UMPs on the same possession, starting at 9:03 of the second quarter. On each occasion he made a late lateral move to obstruct AJ. The first freed Chris Quinn for a jumper, and when the Heat retrieved the miss and kicked it back to Quinn, Magloire executed two more UMPs, the second of which drew a whistle. On Johnson, who had the unmitigated gall to negate the effect of the illegal moving pick by grabbing Quinn.

A fascinating aspect of this epidemic of UMPing is that it takes place out in the open, at a leisurely pace, with one or more refs staring at the play. It’s impossible to miss — unless you’ve been trained to miss it.

Back when the NBA operated with two sighted refs rather than three blind ones, such blatant moving picks would draw whistles. Actually, they would rarely be attempted, because players would know from experience that Richie Powers, Mendy Rudolph, Earl Strom or Jake O’Donnell — and even the run-of-the-mill refs — would catch nearly all of the obvious moving picks and many of the subtle ones.

Modern refs suffer from a peculiar form of blindness: self-blindness. You see, the geniuses who run the NBA have decided that the best way to officiate is to watch only the defender. So while I’m observing Howard (or Kevin Garnett) moving four-feet laterally on a pick, Bob Delaney is zeroed in on the defender to see if he’s doing anything nefarious to the dribbler as he maneuvers around the moving pick that Delaney has been trained not to see.

This criticism is not aimed at Howard, nor at the refs, most of whom, maybe all, would do perfectly fine if properly trained. It’s aimed at the people at the top who are responsible for how the rules are interpreted and how the refs are taught to enforce them.

If David Stern, Stu Jackson and Ronnie Nunn ran security for banks and 7-Eleven stores, the security cameras would be aimed exclusively at the clerk behind the counter. Far better to record on tape his or her frightened reaction than such irrelevant information as the face, size, body movement and weapon of the robber.