The NBA is cracking down on dangerous Zaza-esque closeouts

(Screenshot: ABC)

In an attempt to keep its stars on the court and prevent players from exploiting a gray area between unfortunate accident and dirty play, the NBA is instituting stricter penalties for reckless closeouts on jump shooters.

The league announced the changes Thursday, after years of endeavor to better police the play. Referees, after whistling for a foul on a jump shooter, will be able to go to the replay monitor to decide whether the foul merited a technical or a flagrant.

Technicals will be assessed to the defender if there is an apparent attempt to injure but no actual injurious contact. If there is contact – and even if there is no discernible intent – refs can assess a flagrant.

The emphasis will be on allowing jump shooters space to comfortably land. The encroachment of a shooter’s landing space is one of the more common causes of sprained ankles. One particular incident, Zaza Pachulia’s closeout on Kawhi Leonard, marred last season’s playoffs. It knocked Leonard out of the Spurs’ Western Conference finals series against the Warriors, and effectively ended San Antonio’s season.

Skeptics might dub the new “Zaza Rule” an overreaction to that one play. But it’s not. Defenders have been covertly sliding under perimeter shooters for years. Heck, two weeks before the infamous Zaza play, Al Horford knocked Markieff Morris out of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series between the Celtics and Wizards.

It was and is unclear if either Pachulia’s or Horford’s closeout was purposefully dangerous. And that will be the issue for NBA refs. It is incredibly difficult to determine intent, even during a video review. It will be difficult to differentiate between a standard basketball play and a dirty one.

But, as many pointed out in the aftermath of the Leonard injury, intent doesn’t necessarily matter. A movement on a basketball court can be dangerous without being dirty. The threshold for a technical or flagrant won’t be intent; it will be recklessness. The Associated Press’ Brian Mahoney used the words “dangerous or unnatural.” That should encapsulate many of the plays the NBA is trying to stamp out, and it should do so without penalizing innocuous ones.

And even if a few totally natural plays lead to questionable flagrants or technicals? Consider that the relatively meager price of injury prevention.

As Joe Borgia, the NBA’s senior VP of replay and referee operations, said Thursday: “It’s 100 percent for the safety of the players.”