With the playoffs just around the corner, it’s a good time for the NBA to clarify some of the finer points of officiating. On Monday afternoon, the league publicly released a memo it had issued to NBA owners, general managers, coaches and officials concerning one of the stickier calls — the block/charge, and more specifically, the rule of verticality.
We have noticed that defenders have been turning sideways when jumping to defend an oncoming offensive player on drives to the basket. This is illegal and referees are being instructed to call this a blocking foul. While we commonly discuss verticality in the context of secondary defenders inside the restricted area (see restricted area and verticality reminder further below), this change will apply to defenders turning sideways while in the air whether inside or outside the restricted area on drives.
Releasing the memo to the general public is in line with commissioner Adam Silver’s commitment to transparency, which is nice. But this particular point of emphasis could make a substantial impact on this year’s postseason.
In its relatively short existence, the interpretation of verticality has become something of an issue. The act of staying vertical to defend the rim has been popularized by Indiana’s Roy Hibbert, who earlier in his career tried to draw charges at the rim before coach Frank Vogel informed him that you’re allowed to jump straight up in an effort to block a shot and absorb contact from the offensive player without being whistled for a foul.
As Hibbert’s reputation for verticality grew, he seemed to get the benefit of the doubt more and more often. So say teams like the Miami Heat, anyway; back in December, LeBron James said that the league “allow[s] him to use his verticality more than any other player in the league.” The message was clear — officials needed to make sure that when Hibbert was defending the rim, he was in fact maintaining his verticality.
A defender’s geometric plane wasn’t the only problem with the verticality call. Some interpretations of the rule stretch the definition of “jumping,” with defenders nearly — and sometimes actually — on the ground, hands straight up, hoping for a no-call based on a referee’s split-second view of whether or not said player left the floor. Here, too, Hibbert crafted an ability to operate in the gray area, from time to time leaving his feet only after the offensive player had made contact and putting the onus on the official to blow the whistle. This, too, was mentioned in the memo:
To be considered vertical, a defender must:
1. Be in the air to defend the shot when contact occurs. If the player is on the ground inside the restricted area, with his arms “vertical” when contact occurs, he will be assessed a blocking foul.
It might be unfair to pick on Hibbert when it comes to emphasizing verticality. While he’s the foremost practitioner of the vertical horizon, he’s far from the only player to take advantage of the rule. But how referees will interpret this call with regard to Hibbert is another facet of a potential Eastern Conference finals matchup between the Pacers and Heat. Last year, Hibbert’s ability to relentlessly leap at just the right moment to stifle attempts at the rim put Miami in a hole. LeBron James and company were hesitant to drive, knowing that Hibbert’s massive presence was in the way. It wasn’t until the series was on the line that James put his head down and went hard into the paint in earnest; until his back was against the wall, he tried every other possible strategy but challenging Hibbert’s verticality.
Though Indiana has struggled since the All-Star break, with their record-breaking defense coming back to Earth, that leviathan force in the middle loomed over the Heat. The Pacers might not break 80 points, but they’re well-versed in holding Miami in check. Paul George and the rest of Indiana’s perimeter defenders deserve credit for that, but such success depends mightily on Hibbert’s intimidation. When LeBron has verticality on his mind, he limits himself and his options, in search of any answer that doesn’t involve smacking his locomotive frame into a deeply embedded bunker.
Now, though, the mental aspect of verticality might cut both ways. Hibbert knows that the officials will be watching him, and that extra half-second of concentration he takes to ensure he’s going straight up might be enough to let a drive to the rim sneak past. He’ll likely draw an extra blocking foul here or there, which would further limit his effectiveness by sending him to the bench with foul trouble.
Perhaps Hibbert (and those who’ve copied his technique) will adapt in time to render such concerns obsolete. But for the Pacers, it’s one more wrinkle to iron out before the playoffs.