The NBA instituted new officiating points of emphasis this season regarding “non-basketball moves.” This change came much to the dismay of anyone who enjoyed watching the planet’s best basketball talents stop mid-play, launch themselves head-first into another human being like Vin Diesel in Fast & Furious 6 and fling the ball up in the air to let everyone know that what they had just witnessed was, in fact, a shot attempt.
For the 2021-22 NBA season, there will be an interpretive change in the officiating of overt, abrupt or abnormal non-basketball moves by offensive players with the ball in an effort to draw fouls. The following Points of Education videos showcase areas where a change was needed:
— NBA Official (@NBAOfficial) September 30, 2021
Players can no longer draw fouls by hooking opponents’ arms, suddenly veering into off-balance defenders, or kicking their legs out while shooting. Even on normal basketball actions, the refs have had noticeably more of a “let ‘em play” attitude this year. The percentage of all shots that yield a shooting foul has decreased from 10% last season to 9%.
The 13.9% shooting foul rate on 2-pointers is down from last season’s century-high 15%, but refs have been even more lenient with how players defend 3-pointers. The 3-point shooting foul rate has essentially been cut in half after it had increased steadily for two decades. In 2020, 1.7% of all threes were fouls. This season, just 0.87% have drawn whistles.
Although there are 2.1 fewer shooting fouls per game, there have been slight upticks in offensive fouls (+0.2), loose ball fouls (+0.3) and non-shooting defensive fouls (+1.1). Still, fewer fouls have been called per game in 2021-22 so far than any season in NBA history.
That’s good news for the league. Reducing fouls is one way to shorten games and improve flow, along with limiting instant replay stoppages and timeouts. According to a survey conducted by SB Nation, 87% of fans are in favor of the new officiating style. Stephen Curry and Draymond Green of the 18-2 Golden State Warriors both publicly expressed their approval.
Not all players, though, are happy. Portland Trailblazers guard Damian Lillard called the officiating “unacceptable,” and Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young said, “Guys are going to get hurt,” while Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden was more measured in his criticism, saying, “A foul is a foul.”
Notably, when looking at players’ free throw attempts per field goal attempt, guards have experienced substantially larger decreases than other positions.
Free throw rates by point guards and shooting guards in 2021-22 are down 15% and 26% from their respective averages over the previous four seasons. Small forwards’ trips to the charity stripe have taken a smaller hit, and power forwards and centers have seen their rates nearly unchanged.
An analysis of the 59 individual players, who averaged at least 15 points per game last season and this season, tells a similar story. Just four of the 16 volume scorers whose free throw rates have not declined this year are guards (none are shorter than 6'4"). On the flip side, 12 of the 16 players whose free throw rates have decreased the most dramatically are guards (seven are shorter than 6'4").
The officiating is hurting the little guys, and that’s not necessarily surprising. The league’s points of emphasis largely concern outside shots and drives from the perimeter, actions more commonly taken by shorter, quicker players.
Young, at 6'1", has seen the biggest decline in shooting foul rate among volume scorers. His foul-baiting gambits of the abrupt-backwards-jump variety had drawn the ire of Madison Square Garden faithful during Atlanta's playoff series against the Knicks last spring. He was fouled on 18.5% of his 2-point attempts in 2020-21, but only 9.3% so far this year. He’s maintained his scoring output by drilling threes at a 39% clip (up from a mediocre 34% last year) with an increase in attempts, and his Hawks have the third-best offense in the NBA.
Curry, who led the league in points per game last year, is getting fewer calls as well, but he’s also focused his efforts farther from the basket. In leading his Warriors to the league’s second-most-efficient offense, he’s taking 13 threes per contest and on pace to obliterate his own record for most threes made in a season.
Like Young and Curry, Lillard’s decreased free throw rate hasn’t slowed his team down—Portland has the NBA’s fourth-best offense—but he hasn’t compensated for fewer freebies with more accurate shooting. Lillard is a freezing cold 30% from three, perhaps thrown off by a dearth of calls, which in turn may be enabling defenders to play tighter perimeter defense. Over the previous four seasons, Lillard has drawn 129 3-point shooting fouls in 286 games, good for almost one every two games. This year, he has drawn just two such fouls in 19 games.
Ironically, James Harden, whom Nets coach Steve Nash called the “poster boy” for the officiating adjustments, has been one of the few guards to get fouled on a higher percentage of shots than he did last year.
Harden is averaging his fewest points per game since he left Oklahoma City in 2012, but several stats indicate a decline in assertiveness on offense—and perhaps nagging discomfort from his injury in the 2021 playoffs. He’s shooting less overall—the share of those attempts which have come at the basket has dropped from 0.24 to 0.18, and his shooting percentage at the rim has dipped from 67% to 58%.
Harden has hardly been unaffected by the officiating, though, despite a free throw rate in line with his MVP-caliber seasons with the Houston Rockets. I hand-counted four lost-ball turnovers, seven missed floaters and three driving layups this season, on which Harden begged for a foul call that he may have gotten last season. He also has two offensive fouls for arm-hooking—a direct application of the new rules.
The decline in free throw rates among guards is noteworthy, since the game has generally evolved to benefit perimeter players over the past two decades. The league legislated defensive hand checking out of the game in 2004-05, and the 3-point shooting boom gave guards space to operate more freely. Meanwhile, foul rates on those threes had been creeping upwards.
Even off the court, guards run the show. Despite comprising less than half of the league, seven of the 10 highest-earning NBA players in 2021 were guards, including Harden, Lillard and Curry.
At least in terms of team success, those three have weathered the storm of the new officiating points of emphasis. It will be interesting to see, however, if the league’s other star guards, such as Bradley Beal and Devin Booker, can adapt to getting fewer calls. On the flip side, Nikola Jokic, who became the first center in more than 20 years to win MVP last year, is finally getting superstar treatment by earning more foul shots than he did in 2020-21.
While shooting foul rates on 2-pointers have stayed steady over the first month and change of the season, officials may be softening up on 3-pointers. During the first 20 days of the season, 0.71% of threes drew fouls. In the following 20 days, that rate was back up to 1.03%.
Lillard has his fingers crossed.