There are times in the history of sports when high-profile players getting injured in high-profile situations shines a light on important issues surrounding player safety. These moments can serve as a catalyst for changing and modernizing league rules to create a safer style of play in high-risk situations.
In the aftermath of two of the NBA’s biggest stars – Ja Morant and Giannis Antetokounmpo – suffering potentially serious injuries on very similar plays just hours apart in the NBA Playoffs, many fans and media members believe now is one of those times. They are calling for the NBA to change its block/charge rule in the name of player safety.
There’s just one problem. There is no obvious way to change the rules to make these plays safer without fundamentally changing the dynamics of NBA defense.
Let’s dive deeper into the current discourse surrounding the NBA’s block/charge rule and discuss what, if anything, can be done about it.
Why the block/charge rule is in the spotlight
On the second day of the 2023 NBA Playoffs, Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant and Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo both suffered injuries after defenders positioned themselves to draw a charge as they were airborne attempting to score a basket.
Morant was called for an offensive foul on the below play in which the Lakers’ Anthony Davis established position outside of the restricted area as Morant gathered for his leaping shot attempt. Morant fell awkwardly and injured his hand as he attempted to brace himself from the fall.
Ja Morant headed to the locker room with an apparent injury after this play. pic.twitter.com/MZOrSN9Tmz
— ESPN (@espn) April 16, 2023
Just a few hours later, Antetokounmpo drew a blocking foul against the Heat’s Kevin Love, who attempted to slide into position as Antetokounmpo was attacking the basket. As you can see in the below video, Antetokounmpo landed with most of his weight on his lower back and suffered a lower back contusion.
Bucks’ superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo (lower back contusion) will not return to Game 1 of Bucks-Heat, per @ShamsCharania.
Giannis sustained the injury on this collision with Kevin Love in the 1st quarter 🤕pic.twitter.com/ep8RFTvVfD
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPoints) April 16, 2023
X-rays on both players came back negative and each carries a questionable status ahead of Game 2 of their respective series on Wednesday night.
The argument for changing the block/charge rule
There has been a flurry of public sentiment and media attention on the block/charge rule as a result of those two injuries to star players in the playoffs.
Many fans feel that help defenders sliding into position to draw a charge rather than attempting to block or alter a player’s shot in the air does not constitute “real defense.” They contend that the block/charge rule incentivizes the defender to draw contact and create a dangerous situation for both players, rather than making a play on the ball.
Giannis and Ja Morant got hurt on charges where guys were just trying to step in front of them instead of play actual defense within like a half hour of each other in real time.
— Ryan Glasspiegel (@sportsrapport) April 16, 2023
I’ll get it out of the way now, because people will definitely reply with
It’s a charge
How else can someone defend
Do you know the rules
Charges like this need to go. It’s dangerous, it’s not basketball, you aren’t even attempting to play. Rules need to change https://t.co/TnePzFAr8g
— Josh Lloyd (@redrock_bball) April 17, 2023
Ban the charge, rotate over and try to play defense instead of just getting in the way. Being a traffic cone is not playing defense. pic.twitter.com/ZiRTS3tX6Y
— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) April 16, 2023
Between Giannis and Ja, hopefully the NBA changes the charge/block rule. It’s the dumbest rule in all of sports. Intentionally trying to get trucked isn’t basketball and unnecessarily dangerous
— Tracy McGravy (@SajibGreenEllis) April 17, 2023
Player safety is a legitimate concern across all sports and is rightfully being prioritized more today than it ever has been in the past.
The challenge is finding a way to do that without placing an undue burden on NBA defenses. In an era where perimeter defenders can’t hand check, it’s nearly impossible for NBA players to keep all ball handlers in front of them. If the block/charge rule changes, it could be a recipe for constant offensive shootouts in the NBA. That said, let’s take a look at some possible rule changes and their viability to resolve this issue.
Analyzing proposed changes to the block/charge rule
Several possible changes to the block/charge rule have been floated as potential solutions to the player safety concerns surrounding this aspect of the game.
Ban charge calls against help defenders
Over at SBNation, Lachard Binkley proposes that charges should only be called on primary defenders and not on help defenders.
“Charge calls should not be eliminated, but they should only be called if the offensive player runs over his primary assignment as a defender. Help defenders shouldn’t be rewarded for trying to take a charge on someone they aren’t defending. If it is any doubt, it should be an automatic block that would cut down on players sliding under airborne offensive players.”
The problem with this proposal is that help defense and the concept of “establishing position” is fundamental to basketball. If a help defender is not able to establish position in the path of a ball-handler, then what is the point of “help defense”?
A similar scenario plays out away from the basket several times every game when teams run the most common and fundamental play in basketball: the pick-and-roll. If a defender switches on a pick-and-roll, they are taught to establish position in the path of the ball handler. This forces the ball handler to take a wider path around the defender and gives the defense a chance to catch up and defend the roller.
In that situation, if the ball handler runs over the switch defender after they have established position, rather than going around them, that is an offensive foul.
The only difference in block/charge situations involving a help defender sliding into position is that the play occurs closer to the basket and the ball handler may be gathering for a shot attempt and rising into the air. Fundamentally, however, the help defender is doing the exact same thing as the pick-and-roll switcher: establishing position.
Not allowing anyone outside the primary defender to establish legal guarding position around the basket creates an undue burden on NBA defenses. If such a rule were to be instituted, players like Ja and Giannis would have a free trip to the basket every time they beat their man off the dribble. In an era where defense is already becoming increasingly hard to play, the rule change would consistently put teams in a bind- forced to make an impossible decision between committing a foul or giving the opponent a free trip to the basket.
Expand the restricted area
Another proposal making the rounds on Twitter is to expand the restricted area where charges cannot be called.
The 2 best ideas I’ve seen on changing the NBA charge rule:
1. Only the on-ball defender can draw a charge. Most of the dangerous plays are caused by help defenders sliding in the path for a collision instead of playing D.
2. Expand the charge circle to limit the in air ones.
— JWills (@itsjwills) April 17, 2023
The idea is that this would prevent defenders from trying to draw a charge whenever a player is jumping towards the basket for a shot attempt, which only happens close to the basket, but often outside of the current restricted area.
Expanding the restricted area would indeed prevent defenders from being able to draw charges when a player is leaving his feet to attack the basket, which is what caused the Morant and Antetokounmpo injuries, among many others.
The problem is that expanding the restricted area would also prevent defenders from drawing charges in many other situations that don’t pose a significant injury risk. The unintended side effect would be creating a significant disadvantage for the defense, making it nearly impossible to protect the rim in an era where it’s already hard to stop guys from getting to the basket.
Call flagrant fouls for players undercutting airborne players
There was another proposal at SBNation that is probably the best idea I have seen.
“Maybe we should start calling flagrant for defenders sliding under players in the air at the basket, which is more dangerous than a defender not giving a shooter space to land. That would also deter defenders from sliding under driving players.”
This idea is similar to a proposal by Chris Herring of SI.
“At a minimum, the rule can and probably should be altered to require that defenders be set prior to offensive players gathering the ball to shoot or pass the ball, to give ballhandlers enough time to avoid contact that can result in such a nasty fall.”
The problem with either of these ideas is that they only add to the current levels of confusion over what constitutes a block versus a charge. It all comes down to timing, and these rule changes would make the job of referees judging the timing of a bang-bang play even more challenging. Do we really want to create even more situations where referees are forced to make a subjective judgement?
Sure, these changes, particularly the flagrant rule, might deter players from even attempting to draw a charge in certain situations. But at the end of the day, playing defense in basketball is still fundamentally going to be about beating a man to a spot, and players are still going to try to do that. Making it harder to do that, or increasing the penalties for failing to do so, is not going to prevent it from happening.
Some player safety issues unfortunately are unavoidable
The harsh reality of sports is that injuries happen. Some of them can be avoided by creating rules that promote player safety, but not all of them.
Changing the block/charge rule won’t just fail to prevent injuries in these situations, but it will also have a negative effect on the fundamentals of the game.
If there is a better solution out there to prevent the types of collisions and subsequent injuries that Morant and Antetokounmpo suffered, then of course the NBA should do that. But changing the block/charge rule does not seem to be the answer.