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, April 25, 2017

Don't Fear the Beard. Flunk the Fraud!
How to officiate James “Fake News” Harden


Back in the 1960s, Jim "Bad News" Barnes was a star center/forward for Texas Western, a 1964 Olympic gold medalist and the first player taken in that year's NBA draft, seven spots ahead of fellow Knicks rookie Willis Reed. An achilles injury cut short his hoops career, after which he became an all-star all-around citizen in Washington, D.C. and the brains behind the popular "Bad News Barbecue Sauce." He is not to be confused with James "Fake News" Harden.

A popular method of cheating in baseball is the use of PEDs, as performance-enhancing drugs are known. NBA cheaters, on the other hand, are more likely to opt for EED — efficiency-enhancing deceit — especially in analytics-oriented Houston. Few things enhance efficiency quite like Fake News’s specialty: getting the dumbest people on the planet to award three free throws for committing an offensive foul as a teammate sets a (frequently illegal) screen. Harden is an .847 percent free-throw shooter, so he averages 2.5 points on three freebies, which is the equivalent of 2.5 Showtime Laker possessions that end in the most dependable shot in NBA history, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s skyhook (which he made roughly half the time). That is as preposterous as it is revolting.

Incidentally, Harden's average ill-gotten gain would be a more palatable 1.7 points if the NBA hadn't, in 1994, provided a big fat incentive for leg-kicking fool-the-ref fanatic Reggie Miller and his ilk by foolishly increasing the penalty for a foul on an errant trey from two free throws to three.

The dummies in question aren’t merely the trio dressed as refs, but NBA commissioner Adam Silver and the three league executives responsible for maintaining an honest game — Kiki Vandeweghe, Mike Bantom and Joe Borgia. In this technologically sophisticated age it has never been easier to detect and prosecute fraud, thus ensuring that games and MVP awards are decided on their merits. What is missing is the will, a sense of urgency, a commitment to fairness and the minimal amount of intelligence required to figure out what Harden — the most successful and blatant “volume cheater” in NBA history — is doing.

How UMPs by VIPs set Harden’s stage
If I may introduce two of my acronyms, Harden’s pet play often begins with an UMP (uncalled moving pick) by a VIP (volume illegal picker). The play is just as sordid if it’s a legal pick, but being sensitized to and blowing the whistle on illegal screens would end the play before the Harden portion begins. The root cause for the proliferation of UMPs was the NBA's gradual adoption of the disastrous philosophy known as “reffing the defense,” championed by the late ref supervisor Darell Garretson. Staring at the defender, tunnel-vision style, ushered in an era not only of UMPs, but traveling and palming, as I explained in 2011.

It also explains the modern ref’s susceptibility to Harden. Zooming in on the defender, the ref sees the defender’s arm in the way when Harden’s rising left arm collides with it. Easy whistle for the visually tunneled. But here’s what a pre-Garretson big-picture ref would see: a lefty pretending to shoot without the ball.

What if pre-Garretson refs committed to fair play and ensuring that crime doesn't pay were active this decade and had access to modern video technology? They likely would have made and widely shared with colleagues and league execs a Harden-trickery video, with lots of slow-motion clips from various angles, demonstrating his many methods for getting undeserved free throws. Fake News would have been put on notice by 2012 or so — before he could get fouled shooting a trey 27 times in 2014-15, a record-setting 46 times in 2015-16 (with lots of unseen-by-the-ref lateral leg kicks contributing in those two seasons), and a record-shattering 149 times this past regular season. (The first two stats are courtesy of Chris Herring [see below], the last from Mike Breen on April 23, citing the Elias Sports Bureau).

Here is what happened on many of these 149 occasions:

As Harden dribbles to his right with his right hand, the defender is squeezed by the screener, putting him in contact or nearly so with Harden. Harden will lift his ball-less left arm abruptly, making contact with the defender’s exposed right arm. Harden will then lift the ball with his right hand and attempt a mid-air transfer of the ball to his left hand as he pantomimes a shot with the left. Quite often, the ball will pop up in the air and come down in that same vicinity; rarely will it get anywhere near the basket. (Harden's righthanded teammate, Lou Williams, pulls the same stunt with his right arm while dribbling to his left with his left hand.)

Taking an actual shot in this situation — which itself would be bizarre, because who shoots while dribbling laterally from 28 feet when closely guarded and no ticking-clock situation? — would take longer than an out-of-sequence, ball-less lightning lift. On an actual shot the defender would be alerted that one is coming by virtue of Harden moving his left hand downward to the right to get it on the ball so he can then lift it with two hands into shooting position. Such a normal, natural movement would, in most cases, give the defender enough time to get his hand and arm out of harm’s way, allowing idiot Harden to fire up a 10-percent shot with 17 seconds on the shot clock.

All that refs and their clueless bosses need do is watch Harden’s left hand and arm on shots he is trying to make, such as catch-and-shoot treys, 18-footers off the dribble and free throws. Is his initial move to lerch his ball-less left arm skyward? No. It’s to get his left hand on the ball before he lifts it, from below his waist.

What a normal shot on the run looks like
Like Harden, I’m lefthanded. I’ve won many games of HORSE shooting running lefty bank shots as I dribble with my right hand to my right and shoot off my left leg. As my intention is to make the shot, my first move as I complete the dribble is to move my left hand down and to the right to get it on the ball. I then lift with both hands and shoot. As I know from experimentation, abruptly lifting a ball-less left hand, then attempting a split-second above-the-head transfer of the ball to my left hand, transforms an easy shot into a low-percentage prayer. And that's without a defender in the picture!

An article by Harden admirer Chris Herring of the analytics site fivethirtyeight.com includes video clips of this fraudulent play, and though Herring takes no notice of the UMPs, several gents in the Comments section do. In the clip vs. the Cavs note how Nene moves on the screen then shoves LeBron, giving the ref two invitations to call an illegal screen prior to Harden going into his act. In the Pistons clip you can clearly see him lifting his shooting arm without the ball as the defender tries to get around Clint Capela's moving pick. He's not in the act of shooting. He's in the act of pantomiming and grabbing, with the objective of stealing from the refs three free throws.

Jeff Hornacek (as quoted in Herring’s essay) called attention to this travesty back on Dec. 31, after his Knicks were called for fouling Harden on a trey four times. “He grabs with his left arm, has the ball in the right hand and wraps his left arm with your hand,” he said. “To me, that’s an offensive foul.” Indeed it is. Additionally, it’s not a basketball play. It’s something that would never happen in a game without refs, because no one would cater to this nonsense. Instead of three freebies he’d get a punch in the face and a demand he take his pathetic act elsewhere.

Two ways to deter deceit
Since Harden and coach Mike D’Antoni insist that the ball-less lift is his natural shooting motion, my preferred solution is to require Harden to shoot all his shots this way. If a Harden field goal or free throw doesn’t begin with that abrupt, ball-less lefty lift and head-high or above transfer of the ball from his right hand to the left, the points don’t count. That approach would work for practitioners of the lame rip-through gimmick, too. Commissioner Silver could say to Kevin Durant, Chris Paul or Kawhi Leonard, "So that's how you initiate your stroke — violently swinging your arms laterally and upward — frequently in an absurd-for-righties right-to-left direction? Great! You have to use that motion exclusively and indefinitely on all of your shots. Good luck!"

Or Silver could do what I first advocated in 2000 with respect to another form of hoop deceit, flopping: apply the “Unsportsmanlike” clause, which in the updated 2013-14 Rule Book is Basic Principle B on page 58:

To be unsportsmanlike is to act in a manner unbecoming to the image of professional basketball. It consists of acts of deceit, disrespect of officials and profanity. The penalty for such action is a technical foul. Repeated acts shall result in expulsion from the game and a minimum fine of $2,000.

In 2012 David Stern finally pulled his head out of the sand and, in his 28th year as commissioner, spoke up for the integrity of the game. He said the term “‘Flopping’ almost doesn't do it justice. Trickery. Deceit. Designed to cause the game to be decided other than on its merits.” Stern called for “the elimination of tricks . . . designed to fool the ref,” which “shouldn’t have a place in our game.”

After quoting Stern, ESPN’s Henry Abbott pointed out the NBA already had a rule (the one I cited in 2000) it could apply. “‘Deceit’ is the issue in flopping," Abbott wrote, "and the very first example in this list of unsportsmanlike conduct. The penalty is a technical. That's a start."

Fool-the-ref deceit is what Harden's pantomime act is all about. Don’t confuse it with beautiful and quite legit fool-the-foe deception, such as looking left and passing right, loping along to lull the defender before turning on the jets, or playing possum and then snatching a lazy inbound pass. I made this critical distinction in the 2000 essay cited above. If Harden picks up a technical every time newly sensitized refs catch him trying to deceive them — perhaps leading to a few playoff ejections before halftime — he just might clean up his act.

If the refs can't catch this in real time, they need to say so and publicly ask the league for help. He's been doing the ball-less lift trick for years, both within and beyond the arc, and if there needs to be a rule that proven hucksters (Harden's the worst, but he's not alone) are subject to in-game, slow-motion video review, let's adopt it now. It may be too late to re-do the MVP vote, but we can minimize the role deceit plays in determining which teams advance. It’s not acceptable to allow cheating to happen just because refs are too proud to ask for the help they've needed for years.

p.s. Back in 2007 I penned a tour de force on NBA cheating for hoopshype, but the links to all my hoopshype essays prior to 2010 were wiped out thanks to a miscue by that site's techies. Fortunately, that essay lives on here: The NBA’s real integrity problem: Thirty years ago, Red Auerbach called out players and coaches who cheat. The league has yet to act.