Monday, April 20, 2009

April Foolishness: A Proposal for the NBA

It's that time again. March Madness has given way to April Foolishness. The NBA playoffs are underway.

Now, I know this because I saw glimpses of some of the meaningless games in the first round on the television in the kitchen at work the other day. Had coverage of the Stanley Cup been on it would have been my first glimpse of that, too, but fortunately--even if the Dallas Stars are in contention--we never have, erm, get to see the NHL on 'regular' TV. Really now, it would be hard for me to decide which is more boring, professional basketball or hockey. Of course neither is as boring as soccer, which, just beats out basketball for a time-wasting activity.

After all soccer is the game in which, though the players energetically run back and forth on the field non-stop, there if often no score after an entire hour of play and thus the game is forced to end on a exciting 'free' kick from about ten feet away from the goal. The only thing slightly more exciting than this is watching basketball players run up and down the court doing nothing but scoring for an entire hour resulting in a two-hundred point tie that is decided by a single missed free throw in the last second. Yawn.

I will not enter into a basketball versus baseball or football debate here, for it can be argued that every sport has its level of boredom and I have certainly slept my way through more than one game as a result. Nonetheless, I can't even be convinced to take a nap in front of a basketball game. Give me golf or a Law & Order re-run for that. But I do have a suggestion that might make professional basketball more interesting and, dare I say it, challenging for the players.

Right now, the most difficult action for an NBA player would have to be the free throw. While it is readily acknowledged that no one is dumb enough to risk their health playing defense in the NBA, most players practice on their fan-pleasing, tv-replay-getting slam dunk. This bit of show is almost always aided by a one or two step travel and the courteous behavior of the 'defense' whose job is to either get out of the way or tack on a gratuitous point by 'fouling' the offensive player with a slap at his wrist while he is going up for the basket.

And spite of the generosity of the defense, the offensive player often forgoes the extra point by missing the free throw. In fact, the average NBA player is no more likely to make a free throw than I am, and I haven't even practiced. Of course, neither have they, for there is no glamor in standing still and tossing a ball at a still target from twelve feet away. No, the real glory is in the three-point shot, whether it be in charging up through the paint or arcing down from the perimeter. Never mind that both of those are low-percentage shots that usually 'leave' points on the floor; the points left by poor free-throw shooting are almost invariably greater.

I have commented before about the ability of certain famous basketball players to make free throw shooting look hard, but for the first time I think I've come up with a remedy for this malaise.

A missed free throw should be a point for the other team.

As in a similarly relevant sport like ping-pong, where the other player can score from a mistake, there be a penalty in basketball for failing to make what should be the easiest shot of all. Missing it should cost you. In golf, a missed shot always costs you because you are playing against a standard, and the expectation is that no mistake should go unpunished. Even baseball has strikes and outs to measure this failure, but basketball is all reward and no punishment. Oh sure, there are 'fouls' but this is a false punishment since it merely gives the opponent a chance to score but does not actually punish the offender. Even worse, it requires the offended player to do nothing more than make a feeble attempt at a free throw. Oooo!

So, by changing the rules so that a missed free throw actually gives a point to the other team this way, the ever-popular-among-players grandstand-pleasing three point shot that results from a bucket in the paint plus a gratuitous foul might just turn into a measly meager one point shot instead. Oh that would cause some trouble and even cause players to re-think their shots. Missing the free throw would make it much harder to justify all the pounding and elbows required for the inside shot, and the fans would groan instead of cheer when the darting, cutting bullying player on the inside finishes it up not at all, showing instead how much touch he really has by weakly clanking the ball on the front of the rim like your sister in the driveway last Thanksgiving.

Now, lest someone complain that this interferes with the 'purity' of the game, I remind them that many artificial devices, like the shot-clock--for example--are placed into the game to make it more 'exciting'. To make it really exciting, though, I think that a change is needed. The modest change I'm suggesting would the game a real one, something a bit more interesting than an exhibition of high-flying self-centered and overpaid offensive 'superstars'.

Then, maybe, just maybe, some player would practice his free throws. And, maybe, that could actually be the guy on the team who scores the most because he makes the easiest shot of all with the consistency you'd expect from a guy making a million dollars a game. Enter defense and strategy and you might have a game worth watching.

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