NBA pleased with change to non-basketball-move fouls affecting James Harden, Trae Young

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Scoring is down to start the NBA season, but the league is pleased with how the game is being officiated to date.

In a session in which select media members spoke to league officials, it was expressed that the crackdown on non-basketball moves has gone according to plan — even if there has been some increased physicality at the rim and on drives in the meantime.

After years of seemingly endless scoring increases and defenses feeling as if they had no chance to compete, the competition committee stepped in to eliminate some of the so-called “gimmicks” — a word used by Byron Spruell, president of league operations.

“That purity is coming back in a nice way,” Spruell said. “Just getting away from the gimmicks, and I think that’s a part of what we intended to set out to do here.

“The data is suggesting, lending itself that this is going in the right direction and we need to stay the course. … People are saying, ‘Hey, looks like we’ve cleaned it up.’ The game is moving.”

Those acts involved the unnatural stopping and moving in front of defenders to draw fouls, as well as leaning and jumping unnaturally into defenders on shot attempts. James Harden, Trae Young and others have been tagged as the models for this, and they haven’t adjusted so far.

Free throws have been down among many of the stars and scoring is down 3.8 points per game from last season.

There has been a decrease of nearly two-and-a-half shooting fouls per game from last season and the continued trend of fewer fouls all around. Last season saw the fewest fouls called in NBA history, and should this mark continue, this season will beat it. More 3-point shots seem to influence that more than an increased emphasis on not falling for unnatural basketball moves, though.

James Harden looks distraught while arguing with referee Suyash Mehta who has his back to the camera.
Nets star James Harden argues with referee Suyash Mehta during a game against the Charlotte Hornets on Oct. 24, 2021. Harden is averaging nearly half the free throws per game compared to his career-high in Houston after the rule change this season. (Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

The freedom-of-movement emphasis is still in place, so the league doesn’t want things to go back to the clutch-and-grab days of the '90s.

The increased physical play at the rim seems to be more of an unintended consequence than an emphasis, but those complaints don’t seem very loud — at least from the fans so far.

“We’re generally aligned on the right track with basketball moves,” Spruell said. “There’s this contingent, whether real or perception, but there’s a feel on the court that things have gotten more physical and we’ve allowed the game to become more physical. That was not a directive.”

Some players feel more bumped off straight-line drives to the rim, and in the case of someone like Young, a bump to his 180-pound frame would alter him more than someone like Harden, who’s 50 pounds heavier. Young’s scoring is down so far, to 22.9 points from 25.3 last season, but his field-goal percentage has stayed largely flat.

Harden is averaging nearly half the free throws per game compared to his career-high in Houston, and his 18.6 points per game would be the lowest output since his days as a sixth man in Oklahoma City. Washington guard Bradley Beal’s scoring is down six points from last season and his free throws are nearly cut in half, as well.

Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant are still high on the scoring leaderboard, so it’s not everyone who’s feeling the squeeze. Indiana and San Antonio combined to score 249 points on Monday and took only 26 free throws between them.

“We want to strike the right consistency level here for the referees to apply and enforce the rules,” said Monty McCutchen, NBA senior vice president and head of referee development and training. “The whole balance of allowing our officials to get it right on the court — the expectation the enforcement goes right with the non-basketball moves still with the point of emphasis around freedom of movement, too.”

It feels like there are more non-calls and continuation of play than before, but the NBA said the data doesn’t necessarily support that theory as of yet. Three-point shooting is down league-wide after years of increasing accuracy.

That could be related to fewer free-throw opportunities leading to players feeling less of a natural rhythm and even defenders feeling more emboldened to contest shots given the way the rules have loosened for them.

It’s such a small sample size, with barely 10% of the league’s games completed, but the league said it feels good about the direction and it wouldn’t be wise to expect any market corrections anytime soon.

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