Basketball by rule is not a contact sport. The NBA rulebook states, “A player shall not hold, push, charge into, impede the progress of an opponent by extending a hand, forearm, leg or knee or by bending the body into a position that is not normal.”
When one player makes physical contact with another player, the guilty party is to be penalized with a personal foul (six fouls warrant an ejection) and the team fouled receives either the ball out of bounds or the opportunity to shoot free throws. In the spirit of the rules a foul is an accidental occurrence during a high speed game. The rulebook was not prepared for fouling to be a strategy.
Chuck Daly coaching the Detroit Pistons revolutionized professional basketball when he made fouling part of his game plan. His team did not have the skill set of Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers nor the athleticism of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. So his Pistons teams bullied their way to two championships by bruising and battering their opponents. Since only one foul could be called for each play Daly instructed his players that if they were going to foul to make the fouls count. If all your fouls are brutal, than the more casual fouls might go uncalled.
Pat Riley perfected this strategy when he coached the New York Knicks and later the Miami Heat. After watching his Lakers teams get clobbered by the Pistons, Riley realized the only way an inferior team can keep up with a more athletic and skilled opponent was by playing bullyball. His mantra was to make them earn it at the foul line. Rather than give the opponent two points for a lay-up you couldn’t legally defend, hit them hard and make them take two free throws to get those points. Maybe they make them both, but maybe they miss them, and even better maybe next time they’ll be too scared or too hobbled to drive in toward the basket.
The irony for Pat Riley is his career has gone full circle and he now runs the team with superior athleticism that has to put up with opponents that make fouling the central tenet of their game plan. Tom Thibodeau’s Chicago Bulls and Frank Vogel’s Indiana Pacers attended the same school of hard knocks. Their rosters are filled with interchangeable big bodies whose only purpose is to take advantage of the six fouls they are given to maim their opponent. Goons like Nazr Mohammed, Taj Gibson, David West and Tyler Hansbrough are able to slow the game down with their constant shoving and cheap shots that keep the games low scoring, giving their offensively challenged team a chance to keep it close and steal a victory at the end with a couple well timed baskets.
There are only three problems with this physical strategy. One, is it makes the game less exciting. Fans prefer to see a dynamic dunk over a violent collision.
Two, while the penchant to constantly foul can work in the regular season, the playoffs require a team to beat an opponent 4 times to advance. With the exception of the 1989-1990 Pistons the more skilled team always beats the more physical team in a playoff series.
Three, this strategy is a form of cheating. A foul is by definition an illegal play. To intentionally foul is to intentionally cheat.
But fortunately for Heat fans and fans of basketball in general in the last 20 years cheaters haven’t won in the NBA.