|(Illustration courtesy of Mario Alba)|
Then the NBA made a crazy-like-a-fox rule change, making it so that the clear path foul was worth two shots and the ball. The NBA actually makes a living off of players getting easy, pretty-to-look-at uncontested dunks, and they don't like it when defenders fuck it up by fouling guys before they can do it. So they went ahead and gave the clear path foul a ridiculously steep penalty -- it currently carries the same weight as a flagrant foul, meaning there's absolutely no reason for a player to intentionally commit one.
However, you can still see the clear path foul in NBA games because it's an instinctive, impulsive thing for a player to do. And on Sunday, when LeBron James took the ball from Jason Kidd, Kidd's first reaction was to foul James; given another half-second, it's likely something Kidd wouldn't have done, but in the moment, in the zeal to make up for a mistake and prevent a basket for the other team, his autonomic course of action was to wrap up LeBron and commit a foul at half court.
Now, what made this foul curious was that it sure as hell seemed like a clear path foul. I certainly thought so; so did LeBron, who immediately started hopping around and pleading his case to the refs. But ultimately, after going to the monitor to view the replay, the referees concluded the image below did not constitute a clear path foul. (Note that the fifth white-shirted Knicks defender was standing in the right corner, and can't be seen in this screencap.)
Here's the baffling the part. According to the rules, the refs actually got it right. Even though LeBron was clearly ahead of every Knick defender, the rule states that the offensive player must have full and complete possession of the ball in order for the clear path to be called. And as you can kinda make out in the image above, Kidd managed to foul James just before he could get full possession.
Of course, it's hard to feel that good for the refs because this rule is now UNBELIEVABLY STUPID. It seems like in order to make the clear path foul a two-shot penalty, the NBA had to create dumb, technical stipulations in order for teams to go along with it. I mean, let's ask ourselves a simply question: why the fuck is Jason Kidd fouling LeBron James at half court? Defenders don't just randomly foul people for no reason, right, least of all savvy veterans like Jason Kidd?
Of course it was a clear path foul. The spirit of the rule is that it should be used when a defender intentionally fouls someone who would've gotten an uncontested dunk. If not for this foul, there's a 100% chance that LeBron would've mutilated the rim with a dunk. So should it really matter that Kidd managed to hack him before he could get a complete grip on the ball? After all, in the absence of the foul, LeBron would've scored easily.
Let's also keep in mind that even if LeBron had full possession of the ball when Kidd fouled him, had J.R. Smith -- the Knick who was running parallel to Kidd and LeBron -- been even with LeBron, the refs wouldn't have called a clear path on Kidd. The rule is that the offensive player must be ahead of every single defender, so even if J.R. Smith was fifteen feet to his right and in no position to catch him, as long as Smith was as close to the basket as LeBron was, it wouldn't have been a clear path.
The NBA, which has done its due diligence by trying to weed out these anticlimactic, dunk-preventing fouls, should really take a look at fixing this rule so that it isn't bogged down by semantic bullshit. It's one thing for a ref to make a misinterpretation, but it's something else when your gut says it's one thing, and your heart says it's the same thing, but your mind that tells you that the thing you see isn't really what it is for a reason you don't really care about. The NBA rulebook shouldn't need this much parsing; if it looks like a clear path foul, nay, if the only conceivable reason for it is that it's a clear path foul, then goddamn it, it's a clear path foul.