After a loss at Washington last week, Atlanta Hawks star Trae Young calmly aired some of his frustrations with the way NBA games are being officiated amid a new crackdown on non-basketball moves used to draw contact.
The 6-foot-1, 164-pound Young, who made more free throws than anybody in the NBA last season, said he agreed with some of the changes, but he was clearly concerned some fouls are now being overlooked.
A short while later, Kyle Kuzma of the Wizards weighed in on Twitter.
“The new rules changes to the sport are the best thing the league has done in recent history,” Kuzma tweeted.
It’s not unusual for the NBA to tweak the way rules are enforced, and it remains to be seen how officiating might evolve throughout the season. So far, some of the game’s biggest offensive stars are indeed going to the free throw line less often, and there’s some concern that the changes may be allowing more physicality in general, beyond what was intended.
“If we’re sacrificing freedom of movement, that’s not, in my understanding, the intent of what we’re trying to do,” Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “I’m cautiously optimistic that that’ll balance itself out.”
Snyder compared the current points of emphasis to a previous crackdown on flopping. The idea is to curtail certain tricks that seem to have no purpose other than drawing fouls.
“Some of the gamesmanship involved, whether it’s kicking a leg into someone, stopping and going backwards and having someone run into you, grabbing someone’s arm when you’re not in a shooting motion,” Snyder said.
Young said he agreed with targeting certain egregious examples, but he said he was frustrated with the way the game is now being called. Young averaged 8.7 free throw attempts a game last season, and that number is down to 5.3 so far in 2021-22.
It’s a similar story for some other perimeter stars. Damian Lillard’s average has dipped from 7.2 to 3.9, Bradley Beal’s from 7.7 to 4.2, and Luka Doncic’s from 7.1 to 4.7. Star big men may not be exempt: Joel Embiid averaged 10.7 free throws last season, and that’s dropped to 8.8.
And then there’s James Harden, who has turned drawing fouls into an art form in which the beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder. Harden dealt with injury problems last season, but in 2019-20, he averaged a whopping 11.8 free throw attempts per game.
That figure is down to 5.3 this season. Harden attempted 19 free throws in a win over Indiana on Friday night, but he has had four or fewer in every other game.
“I think it’s difficult for the players, for the referees, and the coaches,” said Steve Nash, Harden’s coach with the Brooklyn Nets. “I think we’re all just trying to get through this period where we become accustomed to where the line is.”
Beyond the impact on a few high-profile players, some league-wide stats are also showing a decline. The NBA average so far this season is 19.9 free throws per game, per team. That’s down from 21.8 in 2020-21. Additionally, the league is shooting 45% from the field so far and 34% from 3-point range, down from 47% and 37%.
“I have noticed that you’re allowed to be much more physical with the driver or finisher at the rim,” Nash said. “How that will maintain itself throughout the year is yet to be seen.”
Detroit Pistons coach Dwane Casey said the dip in 3-point shooting may be because of an increase in defensive switching.
“That’s taking away some of the easy 3s,” he said.
Casey said there’s a competition committee meeting Tuesday where these issues can be discussed.
“We talk about this idea of cause and effect, the changing of the rules, and I think you’ve seen it in some of the shooting percentages and attempts and everything,” Casey said. “It’s an adjustment for everybody.”
Perhaps that adjustment was best summed up by Milwaukee Bucks guard George Hill, who is not exactly a big scorer and has attempted only eight free throws all season. He doesn’t sound all that confident that he can draw cheap fouls — especially now.
“If I feel like it isn’t just going to be an honest true foul, there’s no point in trying it,” he said. “Because if they don’t call it, you look real stupid.”