Gimmicky fouls: fundamentally flawed

ByJ.A. Adande via ESPN logo
Thursday, May 7, 2015

Whenever people try to defend the gimmicky, game-flow-wrecking tactic of fouling away from the ball by saying free throws are a fundamental part of the game, I always respond by saying playing defense without fouling is a fundamental too. That actually isn't accurate. Playing defense without fouling is more fundamental, dating back to the origins of the game.

When Dr. James Naismith wrote the 13 original rules of basketball in 1891 he did not include free throws. There were three rules defining fouls and their penalties -- the foul guidelines are even listed before the quintessential rule, that a goal is scored when the ball goes in the basket -- but free throws were nonexistent.

The original penalties for fouling included sitting out until the next made basket or awarding the opponent a field goal after three consecutive fouls. The free throw was added to the game in 1894. It was a 20-foot shot and counted the same as a field goal: one point. Eventually the rules were revised to make field goals two points and free throws one point -- from a spot 15 feet from the basket.

Some people complained that outcomes were decided by unguarded free throws, an element that doesn't reflect the totality of the game. It was similar to the complaints from soccer fans who don't like matches decided by penalty kicks.

As Ryan Wood noted in his article "The History of the Free Throw" on the USA Basketball website, Naismith responded to that in his book "Basketball: Its Origin and Development" by writing: "I have often overheard some spectators express the opinion that a game was won by free throws. I have always taken the attitude that the game was lost by fouls. Personally, I believe that any tendency toward lessening the penalty of a foul would be a serious mistake."

Note the philosophical approach by the game's founder. Fouls were always intended to be a punishment, not a tactical advantage. Free throws are supposed to be an ancillary part of the game, not the sole determinant of its outcome. Fouling players who aren't even actively involved in a play in an attempt to work the percentages warps the essence of the sport, in addition to diminishing the entertainment value of the product.

It's not that free throws should not be an element of the game; it's that they shouldn't outweigh everything else. We should not only require good defense, we should value and appreciate it. Fouling immediately after an inbounds pass is a cop-out, signaling a coach doesn't trust his defense to get a stop. And when coaches have to remove outstanding defenders such as Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan because they are liabilities at the free throw line the game's priorities have shifted out of whack. It's as if the Houston Texans had to bench J.J. Watt because he couldn't kick extra points.

If people want to celebrate foul shooting, then add a free throw contest to All-Star Weekend. And if that doesn't sound like riveting television, then ask yourself why the NBA continues to allows free throw contests to break out in the middle of the playoffs.

There's still a place and a reward for making free throws; James Harden built an MVP candidacy by getting to the free throw line. But grinding games to a halt by fouling players without the ball while they are 85 feet from the basket just to hone in on a player's weakest attribute shouldn't be the main focus of basketball.

The deterrent to this aberration is already in place; simply apply the two-free-throws-plus-possession penalty for away-from-the-ball fouls that governs the final two minutes to the entire game.

Or the league could go back to the old rule for free throws from the 19th century: The fouled team gets to choose the shooter.

But don't cry about catering to a lack of fundamentals. If you know the history of the game, penalizing fouling and minimizing free throws makes basketball more pure, not less.