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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Flopping is Cheating

Bob Ryan's 2014 memoir Scribe: My Life in Sports recounts a story that happened in 1976 but is very relevant to today's NBA game. Boston center Dave Cowens, former MVP and future Hall of Famer/Top 50 player, became incensed when scrappy Houston guard Mike Newlin was twice rewarded by the referees for flopping after Cowens made minimal to no contact with Newlin. Cowens responded by knocking Newlin over and then screaming to the nearest referee, "Now that's a foul." 

At the time, Ryan did not care for Cowens' vigilante justice, and Ryan expressed his disapproval in his Boston Globe Sunday notes column. Cowens then sent a letter to Ryan, John Nucatola (the NBA's officiating supervisor), Larry Fleischer (executive director of the Players' Association), and Newlin. Cowens requested that his letter be published in the Boston Globe as a rebuttal to Ryan's piece, and the newspaper published the letter on March 14, 1976. Here is Cowens' letter, as reprinted in Scribe:

THE PURPOSE--To once and for all impress upon the referees, coaches, players and fans that fraudulent, deceiving and flagrant acts of pretending to be fouled when little or no contact is made, is just as outrageously unsportsmanlike as knocking a player to the floor. I would not and never have taught youngsters to play other than by the rules, morals, ethics and character of the game. 

The following list are the reasons why I disagree with the acting that is going on in high school, college and professional basketball.

1. Pretending makes players think they can achieve their goal without putting in the work or effort that it takes to develop any skill or talent.

2. Hostilities arise among the players who are obviously being victimized by the actor's ability to make officials react instinctively to any flagrant, out-of-place action.

3. It distracts anyone who attends the game to study fundamental basketball skills and traits of the game, i.e. scouts, coaches, players, etc.

4. It arouses the ignorant fans who react vehemently to violent gestures or seemingly unsportsmanlike conduct (almost always on the home court of the actor) and can lead to minor uprisings, thrown articles on the court, etc.

5. If this practice continues unrestrained or the actor is allowed to utilize this fraudulent exercise successfully, it will gradually become an accepted strategy and will be taught to kids more enthusiastically by their coaches. After all, everyone wants to win and will take advantage of any ploy to do so. This way, a weak defensive player will have another method of getting by without having to learn how to learn how to play defense properly.  

You may think I am exaggerating this point and I am sure the public is tired of hearing about this technicality, but I have noticed that the number of pretenders has risen over the past three or four years resulting in numerous invisible contact fouls being assessed. This happens especially when the fundamentally sound strategy of creating mismatches close to the basket, with the smaller player taking a dive because of the high percentage that the big man will score. Nowadays, some average defensive big men are taking to falling down unnecessarily to get the more skilled big men in foul trouble, leaving the better player at a disadvantage. This, in plain words, is "cheating."

As an articulate, knowledgeable and enthusiastic sports journalist, your comments on my being a terrific basketball player reinforced your expertise on the game (just kidding), but your observation that I must learn to act better is not in my repertoire.

I would appreciate receiving equal time on this matter and request that this letter be printed unedited in the Boston Globe. As I once told you, I believe it is your responsibility to report the facts and your opinions are note-worthy, but this is an issue of principle and whether or not you agree with me has little to do with the respect that I have for you and the contributions you have made to the Boston sports scene.

The NBA needs more players who play--and think--like Dave Cowens. He is correct that flopping is cheating, and that is one reason why I am much less impressed by James Harden than other people are; from my perspective, the many free throws that he has received for tricking NBA referees are not proof of his skill, but proof that the league rewards cheating and shortcuts over fundamentals and hard work. That is not to say that Harden has no fundamental skills or that he has not worked hard on some aspects of his game, but I would be much more entertained by Cowens flattening a flopping Harden then I would be by seeing Harden add two (and often three) unearned points to his scoring totals.

Harden is far from the only flopper--unfortunately--but I can think of no player who has benefited as much from flopping as he has.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:51 PM



At Tuesday, May 18, 2021 7:52:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Harden's atrocious, but he's far from the only one.

How many rings does Tim Duncan have in a world without the flopping of Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and others? 3? 2?

Those thespians were not on the team in 1999 and were not especially crucial contributors in 2003, and neither run featured the Spurs in an elimination game, but do the 2005 Spurs survive seven games against Detroit without them? Do the 2007 Spurs still survive Phoenix in the suspension game? Do the 2014 Spurs still manage to hold off Oklahoma?

How many rings does Kobe Bryant have in a world without the flopping of Derek Fisher? 1? 2?

Certainly the absence of Fisher's flailing was not enough to cost them three games in 2001. But it might have mattered against Portland or Indiana in 2000 (though of course Indiana might give a few flops back if Reggie were similarly restrained) and it almost certainly would have cost them the series against Sacramento in 2002 (though here again perhaps Vlade would even the ledger). 2009 is likely safe-- the Rockets series went 7, but the wins were all blowouts-- but the 2010 team had closer-than-they-seemed six game series against both Oklahoma and Phoenix, and that nail-biter Game 7 win against the Celtics (certainly a game close enough to be swung by a few extra Boston possessions).

There are certainly many other examples of titles featuring floppers, but as Charles Barkley once said when asked who the worst floppers were "#1 is Ginobili, #2's Derek Fisher, and #3's Ginobili," so they seemed apt to spotlight, especially given they have nine rings between them.

How different are the championship resumes and legacies of Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant in a world where flopping is consistently enforced? On the flip side of that coin, how many other great players have their legacies enhanced in a no-flop timeline? Does Scottie Pippen win a title without Jordan? Does Steve Nash avoid becoming the first MVP without a Finals appearance? Does Kevin Durant win the 2014 title against a flagging Miami team, and if he does, what does that mean for the future of Golden State?

If flopping is cheating, how many titles need an asterisk?

Flopping is certainly cheating, but it's a sort of cheating that's sadly become inextricable from the modern game, and from the mythology of two of the most dominant franchises of the last twenty-five years.

At Tuesday, May 18, 2021 9:33:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I never said that Harden is the only one. In fact, I specifically mentioned that it is unfortunate that he is far from the only one.

I will go out on a limb and say that Duncan would still have five rings even if Ginobili and Parker had never flopped. I deplore any flopping that they did, but their flopping was not a primary driver of the Spurs' success. In contrast, much of Harden's game is built around flopping: he is given a ton of free throws per game that he did not earn (which not only pads his personal stats but also puts his team in the bonus), and defenders are so terrified that they will be called for fouls that they often play against him with their hands behind their backs.

Do you seriously believe that three or four of Kobe's rings are due to Fisher's flopping? You write like someone who has not watched an NBA game. Fisher's primary role on offense was to shoot spot up three pointers. If he flopped, he did so when trying to draw charges--and he drew many legitimate charges (i.e., he was not just a flopper, but rather someone who was willing to take physical punishment to stop the other team from scoring).

Nash had many chances to reach the Finals with stacked teams and those teams failed every time. I struggle to think of any game, let alone series, that would have ended differently for Nash because of flopping by Ginobili or Fisher (and Nash was known to flop when taking charges, much like Fisher).

The game would be better if no one flopped, but to assert that Bryant and Duncan are the primary beneficiaries of flopping is ludicrous, particularly since the teams that they beat had players who flopped at least as much--if not more--than their teams did.

What makes Harden the worst is that he does it more often than any star player I can recall, and he is given so much license that it distorts the way the game is played. It is interesting to note that flopping is not tolerated as much in the playoffs (yet another reason that your contentions about Bryant and Duncan are absurd) and it is not coincidental that Harden is much less effective in the playoffs than he is during the regular season.


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