The Dot is a Sports Taboo

There is a way to change the game for the better with minimal negative side effects on the court of play. It just requires such a dramatic alteration to our cherished numeric symbols that even I’m not in favor of the proposal.

I am quite serious about phasing free throws out of the NBA, though it’s hard to convince people that such an inclination is anything more than a joke. It’s a dead-ball aspect of the game that bores and suctions valuable time from our eyeballs. It’s a part of the game that bears a greater resemblance to golf–one individual, against a stagnant back drop–than to the basketball action that fans cheer on. Obviously, I don’t have the power to remove free throws by fiat, but I would celebrate the movement gaining traction eventually.

There is an impediment to such a movement, though, and it isn’t just tradition. The obvious argument against removing free throws is that the live ball action would be changed for the worse. If, as I’ve suggested, all free throws were instantly converted to points, flopping could increase substantially as teams chase a 2 point value as opposed to the roughly 1.5 point value that an average foul line trip means.

The challenge in creating a free throwless game is doing so in a manner that doesn’t fundamentally change the game, aside from nixing freebies. There is a way do this, though it will never happen. There is a way to erase free throws without increasing flopping, but it requires a conceptual shift that we’ll never be ready for.

The wacky HoopIdea suggestion would be to award 1.5 points for every foul line trip. In this scenario, the rare “And-1″ would result in 1 point, and the rarer three-shot foul would result in 2 points.

We’d be dealing with the ever-awkward decimal on an every game basis. Such a little dot shouldn’t matter, but the tiny circle amounts to more clutter in a messy world. We process the decimal almost as though it were a number, which is why companies advertise their prices sans decimal–so as to make the price appear smaller. The decimal nags like the “The” before “Facebook,” back before technological titan and Grizzlies co-owner Justin Timberlake made history:

While we might intrinsically grasp what a “2 pointer” or “3 pointer” means, decimal usage requires a bit more effort, a bit more grappling with the emotional vagaries connected to concrete numerical symbols. How should you feel when your team is “down 2.5″ as opposed to “down 3″? You know that “up 6″ is still a “2 possession game” but how should you feel when your team goes “up 6.5″ and makes it a “3 possession game”? Also, isn’t a 105.5 to 96.5 score just gross-looking?

There is another end-run around decimals, though this is the kind of rule sequence that’s only feasible when tradition bakes it into the game (Think tennis’ entire scoring system). A foul line trip could count as a silent 1.5 that only becomes actual points when the next foul line trip makes it a three-point play.

We already have the phrase “in the penalty” for when teams go over the foul limit. A silent “1.5″ could be, say, “in the line.” If you’re in the line and fail to capitalize with another foul drawn, you lose those points, like runners stranded in baseball.

Yet another solution, posed to me by Kevin Draper, is multiplication as opposed to decimals. Just make every 2-pointer a 4-pointer, every 3-pointer a 6-pointer, and every foul line trip a 3-pointer. Suddenly, Kobe’s 81-point game becomes an even more impressive 162-point outing. Suddenly, LeBron’s 2011 Finals numbers don’t look so shabby.

It will never happen. We somewhat arbitrarily set up this particular scoring system and a change would be too wrenching, even if the different numbers are representing the same exact thing as before. A comfort level with traditional numbers is as much a barrier to reform as a comfort level with how the game’s traditionally played. Charles Barkley is fond of saying that teams “die by the 3.” It’s too hard to imagine a world where he says, “die by the 6.” Such ideas will certainly die by the decimal or die by the multiplication.

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