Why prevent NBA teams from only playing four players?

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Chris Kaman seeing his psychiatrist.

Realistic rating: 9.5

Last night, Lakers center Robert Sacre invoked a little-known NBA rule when he fouled out of the Lakers-Cavs game. With the Lakers not having any players available on their bench at the time of Sacre’s sixth foul, they would have been down to only four players had Sacre been forced to leave the game, thus triggering Rule No. 3, Section I, which states:

“No team may be reduced to less than five players. If a player in the game receives his sixth personal foul and all substitutes have already been disqualified, said player shall remain in the game and shall be charged with a personal and team foul. A technical foul also shall be assessed against his team. All subsequent personal fouls, including offensive fouls, shall be treated similarly. All players who have six or more personal fouls and remain in the game shall be treated similarly.”

First off, let me say that as a huge proponent of instituting “power play”-type situations in many sports other than hockey (I’ll save that for a later post), I’m vehemently against this rule. Wacky things in sports like a shortstop having to pitch, a goalie having to take a shootout shot, or a quarterback having to punt are ALWAYS insanely entertaining—highlights fans talk about for years. Playing a basketball game with four players more than qualifies for that category. Why go out of your way to prevent such fun from occurring?

Possible exploitations

The other issue I have is that I don’t understand how referees can arbitrate when a team qualifies for this rule. The reason the Lakers triggered it was because they only dressed eight players that night, and that number shrank down to five due to a Nick Young knee injury, a Chris Kaman foul out, and a Jordan Farmar leg cramp all occurring prior to Sacre’s sixth foul. But how could the refs know if Farmar’s cramp was really a “cramp”?*

The reason I bring this up is because teams could theoretically lie about the health of their players if it would keep a star player with six fouls in the game. A prominent example of a situation in which a team could benefit from exploiting this rule would be Game 4 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals between the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics. When LeBron James fouled out with 1:51 left in the first overtime, the Heat fell apart without the league MVP, eventually losing in a second overtime to notch the series at 2-2. Since LeBron was such a valuable asset to have on the floor, it’s almost certainly  worth the tradeoff of having any potential fouls he commits be technicals, so the Heat would surely prefer to have him on the court, even with that corollary in place.

The issue, though, is that according to the wording of the rule, it seems that since the Heat had available players on their bench, LeBron could not remain on the floor. This is wherein my question lies: What would have prevented Heat bench players like Norris Cole and Mike Miller from suddenly “””””“cramping up”””””” (add like seven more quotation marks) and reducing the number of available Heat players to just five, thus forcing LeBron to stay in the game? (Even if the Heat couldn’t sub out for the rest of the game, retaining a player of LeBron’s caliber would still likely make such a ploy more than worthwhile.)

*It should also be noted that the Lakers were on the verge of putting Steve Nash—who was resting that night—in the game, but decided against it. Wouldn’t that technically have made him “available,” thus negating the Sacre situation?

Miscellaneous issues

1. Another issue about this rule is that it—admittedly, very marginally—changes the strategy of the game before a player fouls out. Whenever a player has five fouls, it gives a strategic edge to his opponents, because the player theoretically doesn’t want to foul out, so he may be a bit more tentative on defense, allowing teams to deliberately go at him when they have the ball. Without that fear, a five-foul player may continue to play at his normal defensive standard.

2. If the six-foul player accrues a tech every time he fouls, what happens if he draws two of these? Does he simply not have a technical foul limit anymore?

3. Can other players who had previously fouled out now come back in the game with the technical corollary in effect? So many questions.

4. What if Sacre suffered a truly debilitating injury. Would his writhing body have to lay in the corner of the court while his teammates played? Or would the Lakers have had to forfeit, even though they had a double-digit lead?

It’s worth noting that the Golden State Warriors encountered a similar situation in 2010, but when Devean George fouled out, the referees forced Don Nelson to play a clearly hobbled Chris Hunter.** This seems like a clear double standard compared to the one the referees employed for the Lakers last night.

**Nellie had to swap in three injured players, instructing each of them to throw a quick intentional foul, so that he could eventually put George back in the game. Here’s a video of some of that genius strategy:

Solution

Well, the obvious solution to me, as referenced above, is to simply remove this rule and force teams to play with four players.

If the league *must* have some form of this rule, then I’d simply suggest a steeper penalty than just a technical foul whenever the six-foul player draws a whistle to prevent any of the aforementioned chicanery. Perhaps something like a flagrant foul—where the team gets two free throws and the ball—would do the trick.

Bottom line: Teams playing four players would almost never come into play, so changing this rule really isn’t that intrusive. (According to SportsCenter, it’s only happened twice in the last 10 years.) If a team screws up this badly, let the opposing team (and fans) reap the benefits.

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