Over the last several years, plays like these have become commonplace in the NBA:
James Harden, one of the league’s most accomplished and well-known swindlers, sensed just the faintest contact from defender Paul George. Harden instantly brought his off-arm up to accentuate the contact, flailing around until a whistle blew.
ESPN play-by-play announcer Mike Breen’s hearty chuckle as he describes Harden being “as good as anybody in the league” at drawing that sort of contact seems easy to interpret: This isn’t really basketball, but it’s in the rules, so what can you do?
Starting with the 2021-22 season, the NBA has decided to answer that question. These sorts of unnatural foul-baiting moves, popularized by Harden and other stars of the game, are being legislated out.
As Monty McCutchen explained to assembled media via Zoom recently, these moves shouldn’t be mischaracterized. The czar of all things NBA officiating (actual title: senior vice president and head of referee development and training) said tweaks to rules governing contact created by offensive players are actually changes to rule interpretations, not rules themselves.
It amounts to the same concept for most fans, however: After several years of player foul-hunting that had reached near-comic proportions in some cases, the NBA’s competition committee (made up of a select number of NBA owners, GMs, coaches, players and referees) decided enough was enough.
While aesthetics and simple common sense were major drivers behind the changes, the impetus for them can also be seen in data. Much of the foul-baiting over recent years has been focused on drawing three-shot fouls behind the arc, and in 2020-21, 3-point shooting fouls were more than two-and-a-half times as prevalent as they were just a decade earlier.
Increases during the early 2010s were mostly in lockstep with the league’s growing reliance on the 3-pointer in general. The major leap from 2015-16 to 2016-17, though, is more of an outlier.
“We could see that one or two players a few years ago were adept at innovating this style of play,” McCutchen said on the Zoom call.
We know those “one or two players” as Harden, with a handful of other prominent copycats in tow. Even as the league instituted changes almost solely driven to curb his foul-drawing style (one became known to some as “The Harden Rule”), Harden became synonymous with the 3-shot foul while racking up absurd numbers here.
Harden’s individual mastery in this distinct area has actually decreased since that 2016-17 zenith, where he drew an unbelievable 124 3-point fouls in 81 games. The NBA’s ever-present copycat effect has been evident since then, and rates remain high across the league.
“Younger players began to see this was an efficient way to get points,” McCutchen said. “It became clear this was not a part of basketball we wanted to continue.”
The focus for refs, he explained, is on three specific terms: abrupt, overt and abnormal. Also up for consideration is whether the contact involved on a given play is “marginal” versus “non-marginal,” which will typically determine whether the play will be ruled an offensive foul or a non-call under the new guidelines.
The competition committee identified four specific actions officials will be tasked with cracking down on:
Launching into defender
With Harden and a few others at the forefront, guys around the league have grown more and more adept at a singular exploit: drawing a defender into the air then leaping into him, drawing free throws.
Under the new guidelines, according to the league, plays like these will be offensive fouls:
Luka Dončić’s hilariously exaggerated lunge forward to draw contact with Andrew Wiggins is a clear example of what won’t be tolerated anymore. Also note that the contact knocked Wiggins back several steps, impeding his ability to play normally. That’s what the league defines as “non-marginal” contact, which is why this — which was last season called as a defensive foul — should be an offensive foul from now on.
By contrast, “marginal” contact on these same plays should result in no whistle at all.
Julius Randle jumped in an abnormal way for this jumper, but because the limited contact he created didn’t impact Rudy Gobert’s ability to keep playing normally, it should be a non-call.
Crucially, players will still be able to fake a shot. “We are not eliminating pump fakes,” McCutchen said firmly. Plays on which the defender legitimately interrupts a normal shooting motion after being drawn in the air should remain defensive fouls:
Abruptly veering off path
This action bleeds over into the previous category, as similar concepts are involved. Plays like this, during which Steph Curry veered overtly off-course with his jump to create contact with Donte DiVincenzo, are offensive fouls — again, the contact is “non-marginal” because it prevents the defender from continuing normally.
One caveat that might come as a surprise to some: The “stop on a dime with a defender behind you” move, popularized by Atlanta’s Trae Young and a few others, isn’t technically illegal under the new rules. Dribblers are allowed to stop anywhere on the floor, including to go up for a jumper.
This was a legal stop by Young, and because Raul Neto was out of control as he made contact, the play should remain a defensive foul. Had Young leapt backward into Neto, on the other hand, the new interpretations would take effect.
Kicking leg at an abnormal angle
Another popular tactic from jump-shooters in recent years has been kicking out a leg at clearly unusual angles to draw contact with a passing defender. Overtly unnatural leg kicks like these are now offensive fouls if they stop the defender from playing normally, like on this play when an abnormal leg kick from Devin Booker left Lu Dort on the floor:
Again, though, this doesn’t have to be an offensive foul every time.
On this play, Jordan Poole’s errant leg hit Desmond Bane as he closed out past Poole — but Bane was unaffected and may have even had a transition attempt the other way if Memphis had secured the rebound, so this should be a non-call.
Hooking defender with off-arm
Last up is another Harden special. Many of today’s stars have become adept at latching onto the defender’s arm on basic exchanges of contact, and they will exaggerate it by going right up into a “shooting” motion.
That’s illegal now too, and it’s an offensive foul if the hook stops the defender from playing normally.
This isn’t even a ton of contact from Donovan Mitchell on Dort, but because Mitchell is hooking Dort’s arm and technically stopping it from its usual movement, this should be an offensive personal foul on Mitchell.
And Mitchell on defense, below, is an example of a play that should be a non-call.
While Mitchell’s arm could technically be considered a “hand-check” against George, McCutchen clarified that hand-checks require the offensive player’s speed, quickness, rhythm or balance to be affected to qualify as a foul. Because none of those things happens to George here, and it’s obvious that he generated the contact himself, the league wants no whistle on plays like these moving forward.
Fans should be prepared for an adjustment period for both players and refs. McCutchen points to “freedom of movement” emphases that were instituted before the 2018-19 season; these were likely at least somewhat responsible for leaguewide foul rates that initially jumped slightly but came back to earth (and then some) within a couple of years.
The effect is even more visible if you drill down monthly into that 2018-19 season:
Expect a similar pattern this season. Offensive fouls will likely go up to start the year, and they should stabilize as the months wear on. (The freedom of movement emphases likely had a bigger impact on fouls at both ends of the floor relative to what these new non-basketball move guidelines, which will be more evident on the offensive side, will have.)
The league anticipates the give-and-take that will surely result: Players will spend some time acclimatizing to the new rules, and the most creative among them will immediately look for the “lines of demarcation,” as McCutchen terms them. The competition committee might convene two or three times all year during a normal season; this year, it will meet several times just before Christmas, McCutchen said, largely to look at new variations of these plays that crop up in the early months and course-correct for any unanticipated exploits.
Preseason action has allowed players and refs alike their first taste of these adjustments; so far, at least, reviews have generally been good.
“It does help to know that you’ll have more of a fair opportunity as a defender,” said Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green. “Guys can’t just cheat the system.”
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In the same set of comments, Green wondered aloud something that’s surely on the minds of many of his peers: Will these changes hold? It’s true that some of the league’s rule emphases have had more staying power than others through the years, making this a justifiable question.
But McCutchen believes that with the proper training and application, this won’t just be a passing fad. “NBA referees are not perfect, but we’re excellent at what we train at — and we’re training hard on this,” McCutchen said.
With the right management of expectations and some buy-in from all involved, the result could be a fairer and more entertaining game.
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