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Fast Break Fouls: Wade vs. Ariza

I never really got into the huge internet hissy fit over Trevor Ariza's block-from-behind foul on Rudy Fernandez in the regular season, mainly because I wasn't a Lakers blogger at the time. But now I am, and what do you know? It has come up again.

Last night, Dwyane Wade did essentially the same thing to Maurice Evans that Ariza did to Fernandez. But — surprise, surprise — he's not getting the third degree, the way Ariza did.

Wade's foul on Evans is below. Much more after the jump...


My Thoughts At The Time

If you're wondering what my take was at the time, here's a brief summary. Those who said it was a dirty play were just plain ridiculous. This photo (shown below) shows two things: (1) Ariza's hand on the ball plainly shows what he was attempting to do, which was block the ball, and (2) Ariza's eyes aren't bearing down on Rudy's head, they're looking up at the ball.

Those who said Ariza had any intention of hurting Rudy are outright fools, or homers who can't see past their team colors. It's such an absurd notion that I'm not even going to spend any more time on it.

Was it a dangerous play? Yeah, it probably was. After all, it resulted in injury. Does Fernandez deserve to be called a wuss (and worse) by Laker fans? No, and those of you who do so are also outright fools. Should Ariza have simply extended his hand upwards, instead of swiping at the ball (and, incidentally, Rudy's arms and head)? Yes.

That said, Ariza was simply doing what virtually any player in his position would do: Not giving up on the play, going for a block, and trying to make an emphatic, energizing play while he was at it. Players do the same every day in the league. Unfortunately, it ended poorly for Fernandez.

My final thought on the matter was this: If the league wants to make a ruling that such plays are illegal, and punishable with flagrant fouls, ejections, suspensions, etc., then that is their prerogative. I'm sure many people would applaud that. But they haven't done that yet, and until they do, a play like the one Ariza attempted is a widely accepted and practiced play, and it's going to continue to happen. Hopefully, it won't always result in injury, but the job of the referees and the league in such a scenario is to assess the play based on the play itself, not based on an injury that mar result from it.

Had I been doing this when it happened, I may have said more, but in a nutshell, that was my take at the time.

Enter Dwyane Wade

The danger in overreacting to one specific play, on the part of one specific player, is that sooner or later, another player is going to do something very similar. When that happens, those who remember the original play will expect consistency, and if it is not there, then questions arise about the motives of those who cried foul over the former incident, but no over the latter.

The Ariza foul re-enters the discussion at this point because of a Dwyane Wade foul, committed last night against the Hawks' Mo Evans, which can be seen in this YouTube video (it's the same video from higher up in this post, but I highly recommend going to YouTube and clicking the HQ button to watch it in high quality).

As you can probably guess, this play hasn't raised the kind of stink that the very similar Ariza play did. And that's why I'm here today.

Over at ESPN's TrueHoop blog, Henry Abbott was one of those leading the charge in crying foul over the Ariza play. Though there was much to be said about it, especially by Abbott's fellow Blazers fans, he addressed the issue with remarkable thoroughness and sensibility, even if I disagreed with his final conclusion and wondered why this was an issue only now, when similar plays occurred all the time.

As is to be expected, he's been getting emails wondering what his take is on the Wade foul, testing him, no doubt, to see if he will judge the two events with consistency. You can read his entire response in his Thursday Bullets, but here is the important excerpt:

So, getting to Wade ... yes he contacted a guy and messed with his ability to land. But this was somewhat mitigated by the fact that it was a wholly credible play on the ball! Ariza had no shot at the ball, and got Fernandez in the head and arms. But for the tiniest of miscalculations, Wade had both a block and a play where Evans and Wade land cleanly. In fact, it's possible that grabbing the rim is the main thing that messed with Evans' landing here -- very hard for me to tell from the video what kind of contact they had.

I was disappointed by this, for two reasons. First, the video is actually a high quality video, and it's quite clear what happened. And second, what Abbott described as happening in the Wade play wasn't the case at all. What follows are several points that I sent him in an email, which I've edited a bit to make a part of this post.

No Shot at the Ball?

As you read above, Henry states in no uncertain terms that Ariza was not making a play on the ball. In fact, he claims he had "no shot at the ball." To me, that's a bizarre claim, as the photo below (which I linked to at the top of this post) clearly shows that Ariza has his full hand on the ball.


True, Rudy's hand is in between Ariza's hand and the ball — but then, many would say that this is a classic case of the hand being part of the ball. In any case, it's clear by the immediate proximity of Ariza's hand to the ball that he absolutely did have a play on the ball, and a very good one.

Furthermore, the up-close, slow-motion replay of Dwyane Wade's block attempt actually shows that he has less of a play on the ball than Ariza did. He never touched the ball, and this was the closest he got:


At all times, Wade's hand was behind and/or below the ball; never did he get close enough to touch it. So you tell me, which one had a better "shot at the ball"?

Body Contact

One of the things that Abbott, and everyone else who cried foul, made a big stink about was the contact that Ariza's arm made with the back of Fernandez' head. Again, those who claimed Ariza was actually swinging for Rudy's head are simply so far off base that we're not even going to bother with them here.

The photo above clearly shows Ariza making a play on the ball. But it also shows his arm making incidental — but very real — contact with Rudy's head. That is obvious by the unnatural tilt of Rudy's head, and was pretty clear in the video replays.

What hasn't been pointed out yet, at least that I have seen, is that Wade made very similar contact with Evans' head. Replay the YouTube video above in HQ mode, and you'll see in the up-close, slow-mo replay that Wade's upper arm also makes incidental contact with Evans' head. The hit doesn't look to be as hard as it was in the Ariza foul, but the contact to the head is there, nonetheless.

On top of that, Wade makes contact with Evans on this play in ways that Ariza did not. Back it up to the zoomed out, real time footage of the play, and you'll see that Wade's entire body collides with Evans' body from behind. More on this later, but for now, suffice it to say that this contact happens before the block attempt.

Both players were attempting to make a play on the ball, and both made incidental contact with another player in the air which had the potential to be very harmful. So far, these plays seem remarkably similar.

Rough Landings

In both cases, the offensive players made what could be described as awkward landings, at best — at worst, dangerous ones with potential for injury. In Rudy's case, it seemed that Ariza's swipe at the ball (and his hands) caused him to rotate in mid-air, coming down on his hip and back in a twisted form.

In Evans' case, Abbott isn't sure what the cause of his fall was. He surmises that he may have fallen the way he did because he hung onto the rim — which would make his fall nobody's fault but his own. But watch the video again, paying particular attention to the slow-mo replay. Watch Evans' hands, and it's obvious that he never really gets ahold of the rim. You have to be able to grab hold of the rim before you can swing on it, and that didn't happen here. His fingers immediately let go of the rim, yet somehow his lower body swings dangerously out from underneath him, and he falls on his back. What caused it?

Remember that above, we noted that Wade collided with Evans from behind before the block. That means it was also before the dunk. That collision propels him forward in an unexpected and unnatural way, and meanwhile, Wade's body — which is lower than Evan's — continues to move through Evans'. The effect is that the moment Evans' hands even touch the rim and backboard, his lower body flies out from under him.

In fact, if you step the video forward frame-by-frame (you'll probably have to download it to do that, as I did), you'll see that it wasn't when his hands hit the rim that Evans' legs started to fly out from under him — it was when his hand hit the backboard. This caused his arm (and therefore his upper body) to stay put, while his legs continued to move forward.

This wasn't the result of Evans' grabbing the rim. It was simply the result of his hands being in the air — which is where they are supposed to be. This was clearly Wade's fault; his mid-air collision with Evans from behind is what propelled Evans past the backboard and caused him to flip over.

The End Result

The biggest difference between these two plays is simply the result at the end. Both Wade and Ariza caused the offensive player to fall in an awkward, unnatural, and dangerous manner. But Rudy Fernandez got hurt, and Mo Evans walked away. Is this why the Ariza foul drew so much attention? There are other reasons, but the fact that Ariza's resulted in injury was certainly a big part of it. "No harm, no foul" isn't just a pithy saying, it applies in real life — fans are simply more likely to forget about a foul if there are no long term negative consequences. If it looks dangerous, it may scare us, but if their player bounces up unharmed, we think little more of it.

The Same, But Different

In fact, these two plays are remarkably similar, with only minor differences. To summarize, here are the ways in which these two fouls were alike:

  • Both Ariza and Wade were making a play on the ball, and both fouled the offensive player instead
  • Both Ariza and Wade made body contact with the offensive player while airborne
  • Both Ariza and Wade hit the offensive player in the head with their upper arm
  • Both Ariza and Wade caused the offensive player to take a potentially dangerous fall

And now, the differences:

  • Wade's who body collided with Evans' in the air; Ariza struck Rudy with his arm, but their bodies did not collide
  • Wade didn't touch the ball; Ariza did
  • Evans didn't get hurt; Rudy did

Of these three key differences between the two plays, two of them go against Wade. Ariza didn't make full body contact in the air, and he had a much better shot at the ball (unlike Wade, he actually touched it). If mid-air contact and ability to make a play on the ball are key factors — which they were in Abbott's analysis of the Ariza play — then Wade's foul was actually worse in those ways.

On the other hand, Ariza's foul ended worse.

And let me say this before we go any further: It was truly unfortunate that Fernandez was injured. No one wants to see that, and any Laker fan who took pleasure in Fernandez' injury should be included in the group of outright fools that I mentioned earlier in this post.

But with that said, it is imperative that a play be judged on the nature of the play itself, and not on the result. And the nature of both of these plays was the same. Both players were attempting to make a play on the ball, in a potentially dangerous situation, made contact with the player in mid-air, and caused them to take a dangerous fall. One resulted in injury, and the other did not, but the plays were nearly identical in nature. Judging one more harshly because it resulted in injury makes zero sense.

So What Gives?

If you're like me, you're wondering why so many people across the internet got so angry about the Ariza play, but not about the Wade play. Certainly, one possibility is that they see the two plays in the same way that Henry did — as being on two very different levels. And that's fair. But if you accept the above analysis of these two plays, that doesn't work for you, so the question becomes even more pertinent. I'm sure a few reasons for the differing reactions come to mind.

Let's make this clear: If you're thinking that Henry Abbott is a Laker hater, or that he was just overreacting because it was a Blazer that got injured, you're flat out wrong. I've talked to the guy, and I can tell you with certainty that that is not the case.

Is it possible that there are others out there who are reacting that way because the rest of the league loves to villify the Lakers? Certainly, and I'm sure that is true for many out there. Are there probably a lot of Blazer fans that overreacted to the Ariza play because they are Blazer fans? Yes, I'm sure that's the case, just like I'm sure there are Hawks fans out there taking a bigger interest in the Wade foul than they did in the Ariza foul.

But aside from that, the only other reason I can think of to explain the widespread reaction to one play, and the relative lack of any reaction to the other, is that many people are focusing more on the result than on the play itself.

For many of them, their reasoning would seem to belie that, as they tend to point primarily to the reckless, dangerous nature of the Ariza foul — that is, they are discussing the nature of the foul, not the result. Nonetheless, there seems to be some sort of disconnect here, between the response and the reasoning, because the same factors (reckless, dangerous) were at play in Wade's foul, with the only significant thing that made Ariza's worse being that it ended in injury.

What To Do?

When this blog was but three days old, a bunch of Blazers fans from Blazers Edge made their way over here and joined us in the comments of one post, where the topic of Ariza's foul on Rudy came up. I particularly enjoyed what one Portland fan, MiledAnimal, had to say:

The problem I had with the foul is that Ariza swung his arm to generate momentum at the ball ... The shortest path between two points is a straight line. All he had to do was extend his arm directly toward the ball and get any part of his hand over the ball…

It’s also not a stretch to think he and his teammates were frustrated at that point and that he felt like putting a little mustard on that block. Doing so in that situation constitutes reckless endangerment. The NFL has rules to protect the kicker and quarterback in certain situations. The NBA should do something like that for players on breakaway plays.

He makes some great points, but here was my response:

Perhaps. But until they do, the fact is that it was a normal, well-intended, run-of-the-mill block attempt, which ended in a very unfortunate landing for Rudy. It wasn’t malicious, it wasn’t intended to cause harm. Was it perhaps intended to be a bit more emphatic than usual? Yeah, maybe. But then, guys like LeBron James and Dwight Howard go for emphatic blocks all the time, when a simple hand straight in the air would probably do. It’s a normal part of the game. All of that is normal stuff. The landing was all that changed.

If the NBA adds some sort of rule, then we’ll expect it to be followed, and I’ll be the first one saying [about the Lakers], “Hey, they made the rule, you gotta play smart.” But until they do, that was just a normal play that ended bad.

It's unfortunate that Rudy Fernandez was hurt on that play. But while the player that got hurt, his teammates, and his fans may consider that "reckless endangerment," the fact remains that the chase-down block from behind, which may involve some incidental contact, is currently an acceptable play in the NBA. What do you expect from players, who are taught by experience that that type of play is normal and acceptable? Should they not do everything they can, within the bounds of what is currently considered acceptable play, to play hard and make whatever play they can?

If the NBA wants to add a rule to "protect the kicker," so to speak, by clamping down on in-flight contact on come-from-behind blocks, then I'll be here applauding them for resolving this issue in the future. But in the meantime, it's important that we be even-handed in our judgment of various plays. The blogosphere "tore Ariza a new one" for his foul on Fernandez; they should be crying foul today, as well.

And that means taking issue with every come-from-behind block in which the defending player creates mid-air contact — even if the offensive player doesn't even fall down.

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