The NBA has done a great job of quickly enacting rule changes when they’ve felt the game could be improved upon in the past few years. The most recent was to extend the off-the-ball fouling rules from the last minutes of the fourth quarter to the last two minutes of every quarter. Whether or not you agreed on removing Hack-a-Shaq fouls, it can’t be denied that the NBA was effective in what it was trying to accomplish.
Hacking Andre Drummond or DeAndre Jordan was making viewers turn off games and the league office took the necessary measures to improve the product on the floor. You can be sure that the NBA office checks every metric about what viewers react to and closely watch the minute-by-minute ratings. Making the flow of the action better and shortening the games has been the NBA’s goal for years, and it’s an area where you can expect experimentation going forward.
While this season most of the focus in terms of what the NBA should be interfering in has been around resting star players (particularly in nationally televised games), at this point it’s become obvious that there’s teams are going to rest players no matter what. Considering how athletic modern players are and how demanding defending a spaced-out floor is, 82 games per year is simply overkill. One way to look at the number of games is to think about what the league would do starting from scratch, and the most likely option considering the ease of travel today would a 58-game schedule with every team playing each other twice.
Since the perception is the NBA would lose money if the number of games was reduced – which could be wrong, it’s hard to say, and I’ve yet to see a good analysis on the topic that actually runs through the numbers in a coherent way – there’s another problem that is obvious low-hanging fruit and could be addressed to improve the league.
Fouls that the NBA considers to be “in the act of shooting” are starting to spiral out of control and many players have started to act accordingly. James Harden and DeMar DeRozan come to mind first, but many other players have developed a knack for immediately tossing the ball up towards the basket in a manner that loosely resembles a shot attempt. This is not unlike how Kevin Durant’s rip-through move was copied by every player who received the ball in the high post for isolation opportunities, and turning those fouls into the non-shooting kind was a clear improvement.
Most parts of the NBA game are better than FIBA’s counterpart, from officiating illegal screens to a wider court that helps the pick-and-roll heavy drive-and-kick game (and controversially even enforcing traveling calls in specific situations, particularly in the post), but the one part that could be copied is what is considered to be an attempt in the act of shooting.
By the NBA’s rulebook, “in order for a foul to be ruled to have occurred in the act of shooting, the offensive player must gather the ball and begin his continuous motion to shoot prior to the foul occurring.” In addition, the NBA specifies shooting fouls by having a player perform an “upwards shooting motion” before the on-ball defender makes illegal contact.
The first problem seems to be that the rules aren’t enforced correctly in specific situations. Particularly on a high pick-and-roll with Harden coming off the screen (though others are starting to catch on as well, including Harden’s teammate Lou Williams), he goes up for the shot when he feels the hand-check contact. In those situations, the illegal contact is clearly made before the upwards shooting motion, yet Harden is rewarded with three free throws.
Harden draws a foul on the jump shot against Andrew Wiggins.
The play above is a clear example where Andrew Wiggins makes the contact before the Harden is in an upward motion, yet these are calls that are made against the defender regularly.
Recent rule changes instituted by the NBA have generally helped the offense, and players have adapted to those rules. In part, this has lead to league-wide offensive ratings to be at a historical level this season. The NBA is never going to prioritize defense over offense since one is what fans most enjoy. But especially during the regular season when the intensity level of the defense can’t be at a high level every night, stops are starting to be impossible to come by. Giving every available advantage to the offensive player, even in situations when the rulebook doesn’t agree, doesn’t make for a good product either – particularly among die-hard NBA lifers who care most.
The second issue in the current rule book, in my opinion, is probably in how the foul is defined by an “upwards motion.” It should closer resemble the natural shooting motion of the player. For the 2012-13 season, the NBA started emphasizing the “Reggie Miller rule” against jump shooters who blatantly kicked their legs out in order to draw contact. Both the leg kick and rip-through rules resemble each other in that neither is the player’s natural shooting motion, and that concept can be extended out to some of the plays we see today.
A large category of fouls that comes to mind here is when the offensive player leans forward, and often quite a bit to the side as well, to draw contact. Often you’ll see plays where the defender has already jumped and landed in a spot without making contact and by leaning into the defender, the offensive player can draw a shooting foul on a stationary player standing with his arms straight up. DeRozan, especially on post-ups, is the best at drawing this type of contact.
Problems with call fouls in the act of shooting go beyond protecting only jump shooters. After every call, the immediate reaction of almost every player in the NBA is to throw the ball up somewhere near the basket on a shot that can somewhat be categorized as a floater.
Andre Iguodala throws up floater after contact by Lou Williams. Takes a dribble after the contact and before the shot.
Driving to the basket, the offensive player often has the opportunity to take a dribble after the contact has been called and throwing up the ball is in more cases than not considered a foul in the act of shooting. These are probably the hardest calls to officiate consistently, but on shots that are outside the lane and aren’t layup attempts, focusing on the moment of initial contact and whether the natural shooting motion started before the contact could be improved upon.
Free-throw rates have significantly decreased over the past 20 years from around 33 percent to 27 percent. This makes since considering the NBA is trying to improve the flow of the game, and no one likes watching free throws. Proposals like making one free throw worth two or three points depending on where the foul occurred make some sense, and at some point it will likely become a serious point of discussion in the league. But that’s one side of the equation. Making sure when a player actually gets to the line it’s the right call is another way to make the game go faster as well.
You can find Mika Honkasalo on Twitter @mhonkasalo.