In the NBA, dirty play wins

As a former nemesis of Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, and many others, Bruce Bowen was long one of the NBA’s nastiest defenders. Years after retirement, his most dangerous plays still draw traffic on YouTube.

And even Bowen thought Dahntay Jones crossed a line, endangering Bryant, on the decisive play of the Lakers’ key road loss to the Hawks on Wednesday night.

"Replay shows he kind of walked up under him a little bit there," said Bowen on ESPN. "You're wondering why is he continuing to walk toward Kobe at that particular moment."

Bryant (who has been upset by Jones fouls in the past) was livid postgame, telling reporters and his Twitter followers that the league needs to do more to protect shooters.

"As defensive players, you can contest shots, but you can't walk underneath players," Bryant said. "That's dangerous for the shooter."

Jones was on Twitter later, saying he'd never try to hurt Bryant, and suggesting Bryant's ankle was injured hitting the floor -- not by landing on Jones' foot -- and that Bryant might have been called for an offensive foul for kicking out his leg.

Jones, by rule, must give the airborne man room to land. He did not. And why are the rules so clear on that point? Because if defenders are allowed to move under shooters, that's a way to alter a scorer's shot and mental approach to the shot without actually playing defense. At a minimum, that's a foul. Period.

Furthermore, this is a brand of dirty play with a history of causing injury – not only did Bowen face accusations during his career, but Jalen Rose recently admitted intentionally injuring Bryant with this trick in the 2000 NBA Finals, and talked about it again on ESPN last night. Rose pointed out he was just doing whatever it took to win.

The NBA must consider stronger medicine, to rearrange how players like Jones think about safety.

Bryant is out indefinitely with an ankle sprain, while the Lakers are fighting for their playoff lives.

"Kobe has every right to feel the way he does," concludes Bowen. "This is his career."

The real problem: This play was not a one-off. It’s part of every NBA game.

It’s a form of cheating so diabolical and so wrapped up in the culture of the sport that it’s hard to even see it. The ref missed it, and it took replays to reveal why Bryant was writhing on the floor in pain after the play.

So why would NBA coaches be OK with this behavior?

NBA coaches know that the game's most talented players, the superstars, the take-you-off-the-dribble scorers, can be unstoppable when guarded cleanly. It's not hard for a player like LeBron James to beat his man on the perimeter.

What to do about that? Many NBA coaches have found ways to make sure those scorers see multiple defenders on their path, and that helps. But in addition, defenders know what most coaches expect -- no layups, no buckets. As every fan knows, this is the no-layup rule.

When Jones got under Bryant, he was merely applying a variation of the same rule.

Is it cheating? Yes and no.

The problem is, NBA rules provide such weak penalties that this is essentially like the speed limit on the highway -- something most drivers ignore.

But it is cheating according to the spirit of the rules. Bryant was playing basketball, while Jones was trying to stop basketball from being played.

Yet it’s what the NBA rules essentially encourage -- every night, teams foul intentionally and often, and it works.

When a superstar beats his man off the dribble, look out.

For a recent Working Bodies project on concussions, we reviewed thousands of plays where players got hurt, or could have been badly injured. A big, stark trend emerges: A ton of those fouls are intentional.

When superstars get close to scoring, their likelihood of getting intentionally fouled -- by strategy -- goes off the charts. The video evidence is plentiful.

About the same time Bryant was getting hurt in Atlanta, in the visiting locker room in Philadelphia, LeBron and Dwyane Wade acknowledged they expect to get beat up as they approach the rim. On a first-half dunk, Sixers center Spencer Hawes, never regarded as one of the league's big enforcers, hit James so hard in the head that James’ head was still rattling from side to side.

Wade says Hawes got him too: “One of the first plays of the game, Spencer Hawes hit me. I thought I lost my teeth. Once my mouth went from being numb, I was good to go.”

Neither play merited special comment in any of the game coverage, and for one big reason: This is every night for the league’s best scorers. Endangering superstars with dirty play is on almost every team’s agenda, whether they’ll ever talk about it publicly or not.

Now a transcendent star, Kobe Bryant, in the middle of an amazing, late-season charge by one of the NBA’s marquee teams, the Lakers, is out indefinitely, with a playoff berth at stake, because the rules protect a role player with a rep for questionable plays -- and yet Jones didn’t even have a foul called against him.

Who’s next? James Harden sure beats his man off the dribble a lot. How will his playoff opponents handle that? The no-layup rule? That’s a license to kill, figuratively speaking. Derrick Rose knows that upon his return he'll be facing far more than shot-blockers when he gets into the paint.

Kobe, D-Rose, Kevin Durant, D-Wade, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Ty Lawson, Stephen Curry, LeBron and many more of our greatest players -- these are the players the fans want to see.

Yet they are not only the NBA’s most precious commodities, the stars who drive the ratings and traffic and revenues and fun, but also the players who are most commonly facing dirty opponents with the potential to end their seasons.

Everyone understands that basketball is tough and physical -- a contact sport. Everyone accepts that. That’s not the problem Kobe is addressing.

Bryant did a rare thing in declaring he, as a scorer, could use more protection from the league. Asked about the league doing more, Wade said, "I love contact." James said he has a "football mentality," and will never let injury concerns deter him from attacking. In other words, the stars usually read from the script, never letting anyone know that they are afraid of anything.

Meanwhile, despite such pronouncements, there's evidence Bryant speaks for other stars as well. Recent research from Microsoft's Justin Rao and U.C. San Diego's Matt Goldman suggests that with their teams trailing late in games, stars drive hard to the hole. With a small lead, however, and the game still just as much in the balance, their offense is far more timid. The undeniable conclusion: Drive only when absolutely necessary.

The pressing problem the NBA needs to fix is that intentional, brutal fouls are good strategy.

There are many benefits to fouling hard: missed shots, hobbled opponents and superstars who have to stay on the perimeter because they know the rules won’t protect them.

Sure, some fouls draw free throws -- and some don’t, as Kobe found out last night.

And so what? As coaches have long known, those free throws are not as valuable to a team as a superstar getting to the rim -- we can determine this from the optical tracking data provided by SportVu.

So the guys doing the fouling aren’t renegades, maniacs and jerks. They're not "out of control." This is not about Metta World Peace losing his cool. It’s not about players being overeager. These are not accidental injuries.

It’s about doing what the coaches want defensive players to do -- clobber the other team to gain an advantage.

It’s just good strategy -- a good way to win games. Dahntay Jones knew what he was doing.

Lost in the conversation of last night is that Jones’ dirty play was a game winner. This stuff works.