The James Harden triple-step travel and other adventures in NBA counting
I wrote much of the following during the 2012 playoffs, but never posted or published it. After watching Steve Smith of NBA TV's "Smitty's Top 5 Plays Under the Rim" the other day, when two of the plays, by Kevin Durant (the first of KD's two highlights) and volume-palmer Raymond Felton, were right-handed versions of the Harden move described below, I thought I'd better share this with the world. As is often the case when such plays occur or are later celebrated, no one at the mic or on the set questioned their legality.
At 2:54 of the second quarter of Game 5 (L.A. at Oklahoma City), Thunder lefty James Harden executed his pet driving move by making his last dribble with his right hand opposite his left foot, which as a righty embarking on a running one-hander would entitle him to two more steps: a right and then a left, elevating off that left foot as righthanders do countless times in layup lines throughout the world. But in the bizarre world of David Stern's NBA, Harden, as a reward for having learned how to dribble with his opposite hand (and often in a manner that used to be a palming violation), is granted an extra step by Stu Jackson and Ronnie Nunn's refs. This enables Harden — after completing his dribble — to cover an immense amount of the court with maximum maneuverability (he becomes a running back for those three steps) and to finish with his preferred left hand off his preferred right foot.
Righties do this, too, getting the bonus step by taking their last dribble with their left hand. I've seen Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Felton and Durant do it quite a few times. No doubt Ronnie Nunn can come up with some explanation revolving around the precise moment that any of these players picked up the ball to prove that this is not traveling (though that alibi is not available on many if not most of these plays). My response to that is this: Who cares what Ronnie Nunn thinks? Or Bernie Fryer. Or Stu Jackson. Or General Ron Johnson. It's long past time to tune these clowns out.
Having watched Nunn on NBA TV for a few years, I've concluded he's either certifiably insane or a smooth-talking public-relations hack. If it's the latter, it's possible that he thinks his explanations are as laughable as I do, but lacks the courage to be an ex-whistle blower turned "whistleblower" — that is, an ex-ref willing to risk his job by saying what he really thinks.
On a show during the 2011-12 season, while justifying a non-travel call on a Manu Ginobili buzzer-beating game-winning jumpshot from about 18 feet, Nunn introduced the novel concept that jumping off of one foot and landing on two constitutes neither a single jump nor two airborne steps (itself and oxymoron, given that one doesn't leave one's feet when taking a "step"), but simply one step. Needless to say, Ginobili's shot would have been much more difficult if his final effort with his feet had been limited to what the entire non-Nunn world considers "one step."
From near midcourt, Ginobili drove to his left while dribbling with his left hand, picked up the ball opposite his right foot (what's known as the "gather" step), took a step with his left foot, then jumped a considerable distance sideways, landing far from his defender and in balance as his right foot hit the floor a split second before his left. This should be counted as three steps — and thus a travel — whether his feet land simultaneously or not: following the gather step with his right foot, we had either a left-right-left sequence, or a left and simultaneous right-left sequence. Either sequence adds up to three.
What if Ginobili had been limited to two actual steps? He would have had to:
(1) shoot a difficult running one-hander off his right foot (his legal second step);
(2) forego his second step and shoot a pull-up jumper with his left foot being his first and final step after the gather (as Jerry West and Oscar Robertson did thousands of times, though with the steps opposite, as they are righties);
(3) take two legal steps that would hit the floor nearly simultaneously and fire a jumper with the defender much closer to him than on his actual game-winner (the common "jumpstop," though I think the NBA needs to go back to disallowing active jumping after the dribble but before the shot or pass [see LeBron, Shaq, Dwight and many others], and instead just allow what might be termed "two together-steps," which would be counted as two and would leave the player without an active pivot foot); or
(4) take his last two (left, then right) steps in normal stepping sequence, which I believe would leave him with a legal left pivot foot (the second and last step, the right, can't be the pivot foot, because that would give him the option of a third step — an illegal left-right-left sequence a la Harden and Durant). This would have allowed Ginobili other options, such as pivoting counterclockwise on the left foot and firing a tough fadeaway.
Here's a question for old-timers such as West and Robertson: Did they have the option of using that first step after the gather as a pivot foot? It is just so common in vintage footage to see a righthanded player, when dribbling to the right, plant that left gather step, followed by a right step setting down near the left, then either rise for the jumper or use that left foot as the pivot for a pump fake or a step-through with the right foot (the left pivot foot remaining grounded until he rises for a shot or pass). I wonder if the old-timers operated on the assumption that, under those circumstances, their left-foot gather step was their only legal option as a pivot foot, or did they just use it because it was more natural for a righty.
Getting back to that Ginobili game-winner segment, it's fortunate for Nunn his Making the Call colleagues on NBA TV (host Matt Winer and ex-player Steve Smith) did not laugh him off the set. That's because Nunn can pull rank with these non-refs, who in any event are too nice to publicly ridicule their friendly colleague. But what if Nunn had to do that show with Jake O'Donnell, a no-nonsense former ref and an all-time great who officiated far more games in the Finals than Nunn?
Better yet, what if NBA TV developed a backbone and launched a series called Retro Ref, where highly regarded former refs critique past segments of Making the Call and discuss how officiating and the rules have changed over the decades? Which changes have been for the better? Which for the worse? Former players from different eras also could contribute to the discussion. The key to a worthwhile show is to select thoughtful former refs and players who don't work for the NBA in any capacity and thus are free to speak their mind.
The "jump stop equals one step" concept created a flurry of controversy early in the 2011-12 when Rob Mahoney featured a Dwyane Wade game-winner against Charlotte in his "Have Ball, Will Travel" video series. Mahoney was nice enough not to note Wade's left-hand palming violation prior to the alleged travel, which in Mahoney's view was the result of taking a step after coming to a two-footed jump-stop stop. The NBA responded that the no-call was correct because the jump stop (Wade hopped off his right foot and landed simultaneously on both) represented the first of his two allowed steps after picking up his dribble, so that the subsequent step was Wade's legal second step.
Rather than stand his ground, Mahoney accepted the league's correction. At the informative ESPN blog "True Hoop," Kevin Arnovitz congratulated all parties for the civil tone in which they discussed the issue. In my view this is the wrong approach. League bigwigs need to be told in no uncertain terms that their opinions aren't worth considering. When Nunn or some other NBA flunky says that jumping off one foot and landing on two is the equivalent of a single step, the proper response is to laugh in his face — or pat him on the head and give him a lollipop.
Several months ago a "Hardwood Classic" on NBA TV featured Portland vs. Seattle in the 1980 playoffs. O'Donnell whistled Ron Brewer for the same left-hand palm that Wade got away with, and on the replay commentator Bill Russell cackled after seeing how blatant the violation was and how far Brewer traveled while cupping the ball. Today, three-ref crews almost never make this call; 32 years ago, two refs had little trouble spotting the violation. Then again, the NBA now permits "dribbling" the side of the ball, and determining when the hand slips from being on the side of the ball to slightly underneath is a tricky proposition, which refs have solved by pretending not to notice even the obvious violations. (This cupping move, allowing for a stop-and-start motion, may have originated as an NBA gift to Michael Jordan several years into his career. It's something West and Robertson were not permitted — neither would have been crazy enough to attempt it, as the whistle would surely have blown — and it certainly made life easier for Jordan, who without it might have averaged 28.5 on .484 shooting rather than 30.1 on .496 shooting.)
It's quite remarkable that an NBA administration whose mantra is "respect for the game" has so little respect for such basics as what constitutes traveling, dribbling and palming, or the difference between a step and a jump, or the meaning of the words "one" and "two." Of course, what the Stern administration really means by "respect for the game" is "deference to authority" — deference to the refs on the court and the numbskull executives Stern has empowered to interpret and rewrite the rules.