NBA: 5 Unwritten Rules Players Have to Follow

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Every sport has unwritten rules. Baseball has the “neighborhood play,” where as long as the second baseman or shortstop is in the vicinity of the bag, whether his foot is touching it or not, he’s probably going to get the out call he’s looking for. Football has the injury report, where the word “questionable” takes on a whole new meaning. Hockey has the post-series handshake tradition, where players can punch each other’s teeth out for seven games but still get together to exchange greetings once one team is eliminated.

We could go on and on with examples, but suffice it to say: Basketball is no exception. Yes, the NBA has referees whose job it is to enforce the rules in the books, but there are plenty of other “rules” that never get written down anywhere and still play a prevalent role in the outcomes of professional basketball games. Here are a few we came up with — what would you add?

1. Lane violations don’t exist.

When a free throw shooter is attempting his foul shot, it doesn’t really matter if the other players on the floor are standing still outside the paint (like they’re supposed to) or not. As long as they don’t jump all the way into the center of the lane and do the Macarena, they’re not going to be whistled for a lane violation. On a normal free throw rebound attempt, more than half of the players move early to get into position. It’s just accepted at this point.

2. When in doubt, run an ‘iso.’

The single most used play in professional basketball has to be an isolation, whether by necessity because there are no other good offensive options (see: Lakers, L.A.) or by design. If you want to be an NBA coach, just get a good wing scorer or post player, tell your point guard to throw the ball to them as soon as it crosses half-court, and then instruct the four players on the floor that don’t have the ball to get as far out of the way as possible. (Until it’s time to go rebound the isolated player’s tough pull-up miss, that is.)

3. Foul anyone hard that you want to…except a superstar.

Buda Mendes/Getty Images
Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Feel free to take a hard foul on Cavaliers forward Anderson Varejao if it will keep him from getting an easy basket, if you want to make point, or if you’re trying to stop the clock. But don’t you dare commit the same foul on Cavaliers forward LeBron James, unless you want to risk a flagrant foul, ejection, or perhaps even banishment from the league. Okay, maybe not banishment. Well, probably not.

4. Four steps equals a travel.

The textbook definition of “traveling violation” is completely irrelevant in the modern NBA, and everyone from coaches to players to media to fans knows it. The only “travel” usually associated with pro basketball at this point is the first-class jet ride from one major city to the next on a rodeo/Grammys/circus/insert-arena-conflict-here road trip. If a player doesn’t take a minimum of four steps, the referee is going to swallow his whistle and let the Eurostep/layup approach/Sportscenter-worthy move go with no turnover.

5. Don’t bother playing defense until…

There are two variations to the “defense-optional” unwritten rule. The first is that playing defense isn’t really required until the last five minutes or so of an NBA game. After all, the game’s outcome will still usually be in doubt at that point, and players grinding through an 82-game marathon season with back-to-backs galore, most definitely understand that defensive effort can be rationed and saved until it really matters at crunch time. The second variation is that defense in the entire regular season is overrated. Watch a lockdown defender deny the ball or body up a post player in April, then ask yourself where that was in October or December or February. NBA players are capable of playing stifling defense — they just don’t usually bother to do so until it really matters.