In the last two NBA seasons, the league has seen an uptick in scoring and no one signified the why and how of it better than Brooklyn Nets’ James Harden. The NBA’s scoring champion for three years in a row, Harden was the poster boy for finding a new way to supercharge scoring by looking for fouls and then regularly getting to the free throw line. But at the start of this season, the NBA tweaked the rule to curtail free throws. The change has had an intended effect.
The Harden way
Brooklyn coach Steve Nash has said multiple times that the new NBA rules shouldn’t be known for having been made for his shooting guard and the numbers tell a similar story. In his peak years at the Houston Rockets, Harden was averaging close to 12 free throws a game – the most for a guard since 1987. In the current iteration of the NBA, that number has come down to less than 5 per game. It has resulted in Harden’s points per game averaging 18.5 this season.
It isn’t just him. Free throw attempts per game have reduced this season to 20 per game as opposed to 23.1 in 2019. It has directly impacted a scoring-heavy league. The champions Milwaukee Bucks averaged 120.1 points per game last season, the first team to breach that benchmark since 1985. Seven of the most efficient offensive teams since the three-point era were all part of the NBA last season.
But this season, the numbers tell a drastically different story. The NBA’s average offensive rating for teams has dropped from 112.3 to 107 – the largest decline seen in the gap of a single season.
The offensive player clampdown
The rules are largely targeted towards offensive players who manufacture fouls rather than try to go for a bucket. According to the Washington Post, the league’s referees looked at some specific plays. For example, an offensive player running towards the basket but hooking his arm into the defender’s arm for a foul call, was one that was going to be monitored.
Another play, a Harden special, involved kicking your legs out when shooting, thus leading to the leg coming in contact with the opposing defender. Instead of the usual of two free throws for an offensive player, this would result in an offensive foul being called against that player.
“The approach to non-basketball moves is having its intended effect of cleaning up that area of the game and getting back to the skilled pump fakes and normal moves,” NBA President of League Operations Byron Spruell said to the Post, one day after the competition committee held a check-in call. “Getting back to the beauty and skill of the game. The committee was unanimously supportive of where we are and where we’re headed, and they feel like we’re going in the right direction. So does the league, by the way.”
The effects of the rule change
Some of the best scorers in the league have been affected by the change. Luka Doncic, Trae Young and Bradley Beal all have lower scoring averages than their usual metrics. Young, with the Atlanta Hawks is currently averaging 22.4 points a game with 5.6 free throws – as opposed to last season’s average of 25.3 and 8.7. The lack of free throws also means that no player has had 20 free throws in a game this season and that is one possible reason as to why no NBA player has managed to score a 50-point game until now. Jaylen Brown’s 45 points is the closest and that too was on the basis of a double overtime game.
While some players like Golden State’s Draymond Green and LA Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma have welcomed the move, there are players who believe that the changes in foul rules could effectively make the game more physical and thus more injury prone.
An ESPN report quoted Young when he said, “There are certain things that I agree with the rule changes, but then there’s things that are still fouls, and guys are going to get hurt. Especially a smaller guy like me who’s going up against bigger and stronger defenders, they’re using their body and they’re using their legs and their hands to stop me.”
Young’s words have not really permeated the league though. Evan Wasch, the NBA’s executive vice president of strategy and analytics said that there is yet to be any evidence from a pure data standpoint that points to any form of increased physicality.
“So, for example, the number of personal, non-shooting fouls is actually up slightly. That’s inclusive of plays on the perimeter, handchecks, etc. And we’re not seeing an increase in incorrect non-calls, or so-called missed calls, in our game review data, which you would expect to see if defenders were committing more fouls that were going uncalled.
“So again, we’re monitoring it, and listening to feedback, but we’re not seeing any direct evidence in the data of that so-called increase in physicality,” said Wasch, according to a report on ESPN.