Has the pendulum swung too far? Is it too easy for an offensive player to draw a foul in today’s NBA?
Plenty of old-school fans would say yes. And no doubt James Harden, Chris Paul, Lou Williams, and others get to the line for calls that frustrate defenders, coaches, and fans because there is not much there. It’s not what they remember getting called when they played in middle school or on the playground.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr wants to see an end to that. When asked about trends in the NBA he’d like to see with the new year, Kerr talked about the line where fouls are called, via Logan Murdock of NBC Sports Bay Area.
“I would like to see a slight reversal in what we’re trying to accomplish as a league,” Kerr said prior to Tuesday’s game against the Spurs. “I think we’ve gone overboard in rewarding offensive players. And what I mean by that is we’ve rewarded offensive players for fooling the officials and attempting to fool the officials…
“I think we need to get back to the point where players need to earn fouls and earn it by beating their man,” Kerr said, “and drawing contact in a natural way and not flopping and flailing and grabbing arms and that’s going on all over the league.
“We have to decide as a league, are we going to call fouls that people would laugh about at a pickup game? That’s what we have to decide ultimately. And to me that’s where we’ve gone overboard.”
Kerr was quick not to blame the referees — they are enforcing what the league wants. Players, he added, as smart to try and take advantage of the rules as enforced. Kerr said the change has to come from the NBA offices in Manhattan, not game officials. Gregg Popovich agreed with Kerr, calling today’s game “boring” to coach because of the foul hunting.
There’s a balance to be struck here.
Kerr played in the 1990s, and fans remember that era fondly because of Michael Jordan and the Bulls (and those Sunday NBC game broadcasts). That was beautiful, high-level basketball — and a far cry from the slog most of the league had become at the time. Clutching and grabbing were the norm; offensive players could not just move freely around the court, scoring was down and the pace of the game had slowed to a crawl. Go watch a Knicks vs. Cavaliers game from the ’90s and tell me about “the beautiful game.” Only Gen-Xers wearing rose-colored glasses remember the overall game from that era fondly.
So the NBA changed how rules would be enforced starting in 1997-98, most famously putting in the “hand-checking rule” that stopped players from putting their hands on a player on the perimeter. Clutching and grabbing off the ball was called, and the game opened up — and it’s popularity (after a dip in the immediate post-Jordan years) grew as fans gravitated towards star who thrived in the new style of play (LeBron James, Stephen Curry, etc.).
Now, with the push toward efficiency, there are players such as Harden who have turned foul hunting into an art form. Getting to the free-throw line is an efficient way to score, players know what referees will call, and they bait defenders to cross the line (or just outright initiate the contact and count on the call). It’s smart basketball, if not fun to watch. It led to the G-League experiment this season with one-shot for two-point free throws (one of my main takeaways from the G-League showcase in Las Vegas last month is that the 2-for-1 is not coming to the NBA, it’s DOA).
Where should the line on fouls be drawn? Kerr is right. This is a conversation the league needs to have. The NBA’s competition committee should be talking about this next summer. Parades to the free-throw line are not good entertainment, and the league is always focused on keeping the game flowing and exciting to watch. Nobody wants a return to the hockey that was played on some NBA courts in the 1990s, but finding a way to make players really earn a foul would be a good thing.