The difference in how fouls are called is warping NBA offenses (2023)

Jun 21, 2021

  • The difference in how fouls are called is warping NBA offenses (1)

    Kirk GoldsberryESPN Staff Writer

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      Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) is a professor and an NBA analyst for ESPN.

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FOLLOWING PHILADELPHIA'S GAME 6 win over Atlanta on Friday night, Joel Embiid took the opportunity to address a double standard in NBA officiating.

"I just felt like it wasn't called both ways, especially because of the minimal contact that they get on their point guard," he said. "When it comes to us, we don't get the same thing. I just want it called both ways."

When Embiid said "us," he wasn't referring to the Philadelphia 76ers as a team. He was referring to NBA big men who operate out of the post -- a dying archetype of player that Embiid says gets held to a different threshold of contact when drawing fouls compared to the lighter standard applied to modern perimeter-shooting marvels, including Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young.

"If we're gonna call some, like nothing [contact] on their point guard, it should be the same way, they should call the same thing on me if I get touched," Embiid added.

Embiid has a point. There is a different standard for jump-shooters than there is for post players, but that is by design. The NBA rulebook explicitly allows interior defenders more contact than perimeter defenders get.

You can legally jam an arm bar into a post player's lumbar region and lean into them with all your might, but if you dare graze the elbow of a shooter 25 feet away from the basket you're not just getting busted, you're on the hook for one of the most punitive penalties in the NBA, the dreaded 3-point shooting foul.

Everyone knows that 3-point shooting has exploded in popularity over the past decade. But there's one thing that's growing even faster: 3-point fouling. And it's having an outsized impact on NBA offenses.

IN THEORY, THE relative sizes of basketball players should not affect the calls on the floor. A foul on a 6-foot-1, 180-pound guard such as Young should also be called a foul when committed against a player who is one foot taller and 100 pounds heavier, as Embiid is. In reality players of different sizes are adjudicated differently by the league's officials. As the game becomes more perimeter-oriented, giving guards more power over the game, particularly in the half court, the inconsistencies in contact allowances that depend on location, size and shot type are more pronounced than ever.

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This was on full display in the first half of Game 7 on Saturday in Brooklyn. Early in the first quarter, Nets guard James Harden was awarded three free throws after getting tangled up with Giannis Antetokounmpo on his descent from an errant 3-pointer. A few minutes later, Antetokounmpo had a head of steam and was racing toward the rim in transition when Bruce Brown wrapped him up, stifling his momentum. The pair got tangled up, and Antetokounmpo ended up taking an awkward spill and landing under the stanchion. The call: common foul, no free throws, side out-of-bounds.

To any neutral observer, it was plain to see that Antetokounmpo had taken far more contact than he'd dished out, so why was the penalty on his foul far more damaging to his team than the one he drew? It doesn't seem fair.

It's not as if Embiid and Antetokounmpo aren't drawing fouls. Far from it. In fact, they ranked first and second in the NBA this season in fouls drawn per game.

Superstars get calls in the NBA; that's nothing new. But they do so in different ways. Three guys on that list are bruisers, two are dancers. Despite his relatively slight stature, Young drew more fouls on a per-game basis than virtually every other player in the game. Is it because he plays a more physical brand of basketball than players like Zion Williamson and Embiid? Of course not. He's simply exploiting what has become a growing trend.

Back in 2002-03, there were only 0.47 3-point shooting fouls per game, and the foul rate on 3-point shots was just 1.6%. This season there were 2.6 3-point shooting fouls per contest, and the foul rate on triples was 3.8%. Even though we are seeing just over twice as many 3-point tries now compared to then, we're seeing five times as many 3-point shooting fouls these days than we did 20 years ago, and 3-point shooters are more than twice as likely to be fouled in the act these days.

So, what's happening? Why are 3-point shooters more than twice as likely to get fouled now than they were 20 years ago? Are defenders irresponsibly making more contact as they close out on shooters? Are they unaware of the severe cost that comes with sending a 3-point shooter to the line? No, the answer is far simpler, and far more concerning for the NBA. It's hijinks, folks.

OVER THE PAST five years, a wide-open 3-point attempt by Harden has been worth 1.16 points per attempt. Young has been even more productive on his wide-open attempts since entering the NBA in 2018, averaging 1.35 points per attempt.

Those are good numbers, ones any NBA offense would be happy with. But there's an even better number elite 3-point shooters are chasing: 2. Using the NBA-average for free throw percentage (76.6%), the expected return on a 3-shot foul is staggering 2.33 points.

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That's how much the average trip to the line after being fouled on a 3-point attempt is worth (give or take an adjustment for a potential offensive rebound after a miss on the third shot). Players know this, and they are savvier than ever, which is why they're doing everything they can to chase this outcome.

Watch any NBA game and you'll see 3-point shooters snaking their arms through defenders, jumping into closeouts or kicking their legs out. These cunning techniques are central to Young's approach because the league rewards them. There is no equivalent near the basket where legitimate physical violations often go unnoticed or uncalled.

Young's average shooting foul occurs 14.5 feet away from the basket -- and it's not as if he's racking up a bunch of fouls on 15-foot jumpers. He was fouled 76 times this season while attempting a jump shot, the most in the league, and that does not include the many more calls he got where he was coming off a screen and felt contact, drawing a foul that was called on the floor, thus denying him three shots.

Of the 48 players who drew at least 100 shooting fouls this season, Young boasts both the highest average foul distance and the highest share of shooting fouls drawn on jumpers. This season 41.8% of the shooting fouls committed against Young occurred in the act of a jump shot.

Compare that to Embiid, who takes his fair share of outside shots but operates far more frequently in the paint. The average distance from the basket on the shooting fouls he drew was 6.9 feet -- and that doesn't even account for the countless times he was hammered on a layup, putback or rebound attempt at the rim without hearing a whistle blown.

The geography of contact allowances in the NBA is strange, and in an era when an increasing amount of offense is coming from the perimeter it's fair to ask why these jump-shooters still have it so easy? Or conversely, in an era when post play has been cut in half, why do interior players still have it so hard?

Three-point shooters already enjoy the largest subsidy in the sport. They get a 50% bonus on their converted shots compared to players who operate inside the arc. Isn't that a big enough advantage? Do we also need to provide them with the opportunity to go to the line for 3 shots if they can draw minimal contact? These juicy opportunities are too tempting, and are directly incentivizing players like Harden and Young to chase whistles as much as they chase buckets.

CHANGES ARE COMING, that much is certain. ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the NBA's competition committee is exploring rule changes this summer that would restrict "unnatural motions" by jump-shooters used to draw fouls, such as jumping sideways or backward into defenders to earn a trip to the line. That's a great start. We're seeing too many cynical, whistle-chasing plays in too many big moments. The NBA has to do a better job aligning its rules with its values. Over the past 40 years the league has changed countless rules that have opened up the sport, sometimes with unexpected consequences.

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Just four years ago, the 2017 Western Conference finals were forever altered when Golden State Warriors big man Zaza Pachulia slid his foot under Kawhi Leonard as he attempted a jump shot on the left wing. The San Antonio Spurs star came down on Pachulia's foot, reinjuring his ankle. At the time, the Spurs led Game 1 by 21 points. They would go on to lose the game and the series, and Leonard would play just nine more games in a Spurs uniform before being traded to the Toronto Raptors.

In response to the obviously dangerous play, the NBA upgraded the penalty for a defender who slides his foot into a shooter's landing zone, making it a flagrant foul. However, in recent years, shooters have taken advantage of that by expanding their landing zones. Players will move their legs forward or sideways (even at risk of injury) to draw a valuable 3-shot foul. The Bucks were insistent that Harden had done just that on the foul he drew in the first quarter Saturday night, even appearing to consider challenging the call before standing down and accepting the outcome.

The NBA also has a rule on the books that 3-point shooters who kick out their legs in an attempt to draw contact are supposed to be called for an offensive foul, but the rule is rarely enforced in this manner. Officials are more likely to see a shooter fall to the ground and send him to the line for three shots, regardless of whether it was the shooter or the defender who caused the fall.

In addition to enforcing the rules as written now, the league could do more to disincentivize shooters from seeking out cheap fouls. As both Kevin Pelton and John Hollinger have pointed out, simply reducing these penalties from three free throws to two could go a long way in aligning crime and punishment on the perimeter. An average two-shot trip to the line is still worth more on a points-per-possession basis than a wide-open 3-point shot, so what's the point of adding the third shot? Well, one consideration is that 3-point shooters often yield three total points at the end of games, and reducing the free throw count here would make fouling these shooters a smart play at the end of some close games. But the league could simply revert to the 3-point penalty in the last two minutes to counter that.

The answer isn't to start allowing just as much contact on the perimeter as is allowed inside, not unless the NBA wants to go back to the kind of bully ball we saw in the 1990s and mid-2000s, when a trip to the NBA Finals was decided by a game that finished with a score of 69-64. Nor is the answer to treat post players like perimeter players, which would result in Embiid, Antetokounmpo, Williamson and many others shooting 20-30 free throws a night.

Still, Embiid made a valid point. Interior players do not get the same foul treatment as perimeter players do. Interior scorers must overcome tons more contact to get their 2-point buckets than jump shooters do to get their 3-point buckets. The answer isn't to punish Young, Harden and others like them (nor is it to let defenders punish them physically). But the goal for the NBA should be to fix the game, before it tilts even further in the direction of chasing minimal contact further than ever from the goal.

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