When Zion Williamson was placed on the injured list indefinitely last week following a fractured left finger, New Orleans Pelicans EVP of Basketball Operations, David Griffin, sent a message to the league that they were fed up with the officials. Griffin complained that it had been “open season” on the young star all year long, which, of course, resulted in him being fined $50,000 for his criticism. Griffin even stated that the Pelicans had been sending league officials video evidence all year that further proved their point – and that officials have largely ignored them. However, in a league where players like James Harden and Luka Dončić get multiple fouls called for defenders' fingernails barely grazing their shooting hands, watching Zion Williamson get mauled all year inside has me agreeing with Griffin 100%.
Hack a Zion
Over the past two years, Zion Williamson has been the most hacked player in the NBA. It’s not even close. The league has not seen a man of his size and strength in the game since Shaquille O’Neal. And, if you recall, Shaq was absolutely hammered down low for the majority of his career.
Check out this full Hack a Shaq compilation of the big man being absolutely abused by opposing players and not getting foul calls… In today’s NBA, many of these are easy Flagrant 1s – back then they were barely personal fouls.
But where do you begin to call fouls on a person who seems more physically built than 99 percent of the league such as Zion Williamson? An “arm grab” or a “wrist graze” ends up ignored on a guy of Zion’s size. That is because this abuse often doesn't do much to deter his shot. He powers through it most of the time. And he ends up yelling “and one” after the refs give the defender the benefit of the doubt that they did all they could to stop him.
It’s as if the refs are saying, “We know man – there is no way to guard that – nice try though.”
The only way to stop Zion is to absolutely pulverize him. Unfortunately, the days of the “hard fouls” are long behind us.
The 1980s: The Glory Days for Hard Fouls
My first visual memory of a “Hard Foul” in the NBA was way back in 1984. Kevin McHale absolutely clotheslined Kurt Rambis in the 1984 NBA Finals and nearly took his head off.
It was as ugly as it gets in the NBA. And it actually inspired the Celtics to keep the pressure on the Lakers to eventually win the series. It was also totally normal for the NBA back then. In the “No blood, no foul” ‘80s and ’90s, bruisers and brawlers like McHale, Rick Mahorn, and Bill Laimbeer prowled the paint like gladiators looking to decapitate anybody who dared enter the realm of the “dirty big man.” Google “Bill Laimbeer” and watch as this absolute goon body-slammed NBA players of all sizes, including this horror show involving Larry Bird.
Had Zion played in the 1980s, he would have been brawling with these guys nightly for how hard they would have attacked him.
Does Hacking Zion Actually Work?
But nowadays, what happens when a player like Zion – who weighs 287 pounds – gets a mismatch on a screen and drives inside with a full head of steam? Smaller players hack, punch, grab, and elbow him. Occasionally, this results in an “and one." And sometimes it results in a hard-to-believe “no-call" from the refs. That is what Griffin and the Pelicans are complaining about.
Back in Shaq’s day, committing hard fouls on the Big Diesel worked when you could stop him because he shot an anemic 52.7 percent from the charity stripe for his career. The key phrase there was “when you could stop him,” because Shaq often absorbed everything thrown his way and still managed to fight through players like the Incredible Hulk in every Avengers movie when they send an entire army at him. Zion faces these same challenges but averages a shade below 70 percent from the line. This makes him a bigger risk when you try to take away an easy bucket.
As the game has changed, the league has become much softer. And the less physical play and spread-out offenses don’t make it easy for guys of Zion’s size to get the benefit of the doubt. Guards and small forwards currently make up 16 of the top 20 top “Free Throws Attempted per game” stats in the NBA in 2021. (Zion is #4, for the record, but should be at the top.) Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetekounmpo are in the top five as well. But their game is more spread out than Zion's, who attempts roughly 85 percent of his shots from inside.
So is Griffin correct? Is it “open season” on Zion Williamson, and is his finger injury the result of way too many hacks and blatant hard fouls from opposing players? Probably. It’s just that the league isn’t used to seeing that type of physicality anymore. As his career rolls along, Zion may get to the stripe more than any player since Shaq. Then again, he also may just continue getting mauled by players desperate to stop his undeniable power and force. Then again, Zion isn’t the heaviest guy in the NBA. But he’s certainly more physical than a player like Boban Marjanović. (At 291 pounds, Marjanović is imposing, but not nearly as athletic as Zion.)
Back in the days when a “no blood, no foul” mandate set the tone for a much rougher league, Zion probably would have benefitted from the more physical play. Nowadays, Zion and the Pelicans may have to settle for a no-call and a fractured finger once in a while.
I guess it beats getting body slammed by Bill Laimbeer...