Here's An Idea For Fixing The NBA's Fouling Problem

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Illustration: Jim Cooke (GMG)

The NBA has a fouling problem. Broadly, it’s this: Tactical defensive fouling has been normalized, because it’s a helpful tactic, yet the fundamental nature and rules of the game are built around the premise that fouling is bad.

Here is what I mean. The Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics are playing against each other. Boston’s Terry Rozier misses a jumpshot; the long rebound comes to Brooklyn’s Joe Harris, who’s already beyond at least two Celtics players, and he takes off with it. Out ahead of the ball, beyond mid-court, his teammate Jarrett Allen, a very large and explosive dunker, is loping toward the hoop, with only tiny lil’ Rozier back to try to disrupt any outlet pass or eventual alley-oop lob—but before Harris can get the ball out of his hands, Boston’s Robert Williams III, trailing the play, snakes an arm around Harris’s waist from behind, committing a defensive foul on purpose so that the referee will stop the action.


It’s a smart and inevitable choice by Williams, as it prevents a sure-thing bucket for the other team at an acceptable cost to his own. The above play isn’t even a particularly egregious example of this type of tactical foul, some version of which reliably happens a handful of times per game now, even with the NBA having beefed up its clear-path-to-the-basket rule (more on this later) to try to limit some instances of it. But look at Boston’s Jayson Tatum in that GIF up there, how he’s jogging back with an eye on Harris; there’s no way to be sure, of course, but I’d bet anything he was ready to give the intentional foul if Williams hadn’t. And that’s the point, really: that this sort of thing happens so often in recent years—the wrap-up foul to short-circuit a fast-break; the rough, undisguised chop across a deep-positioned opposing big man’s forearms to prevent him from getting the ball up to the rim for a dunk; the innumerable intentional fouls to stop the clock and force free throws at the end of games, etc.—that it has become a normal, axiomatic basketball play. It’s just part of playing NBA defense: When the other team gets a sudden overwhelming advantage, somebody’s gotta wrap up the ball-handler and foul him.

(It’s even, in some instances—like the hard breakup of a layup attempt—something that commentators who fancy themselves protectors of the game’s manly traditions will defend as an example of tough, physical, old-school basketball. I submit that there is actually not anything particularly hard-nosed or manly about asking the referees to bail you out of a tough spot by stopping play for you, but that’s not really a battle I’m gonna win with this basketblog.)


The problem is, all of this is completely backward. The precise and only reason for the NBA to have a rule against a defender, say, bear-hugging the opposing ball-handler is to prevent that from happening in NBA games. Its purpose is to deter bear-hugging, not to provide a tactical basis for sometimes bear-hugging. If the rule isn’t preventing bear-hugs from happening on a regular basis, then either the rule or its enforcement isn’t working. If the rule is working, then there should be no bear-hugging in NBA games. And it’s kind of important for that rule to work, because bear-hugging a ball-handler, to prevent him from dribbling the ball downcourt and dunking it, fucking sucks.

If defenders were using bear-hugs to disrupt opposing ball-handlers and the bear-hugs were not being called as fouls, the fix would be fairly simple, if ugly. Just emphasize the rule and instruct the referees to flag more violations of it, to tip the tactical calculus so that a bear-hug is too risky to try. But if the existence of a rule against bear-hugging ball-handlers actually is causing defenders to bear-hug ball-handlers, because coaches and players have figured out that, in practical terms, the consequence of breaking that rule functions as a reward, in certain situations, for the team that breaks it—if games now regularly feature the spectacle of players doing things the rules prohibit, in an intentionally theatrical way intended to flag for the referees their having done so, so that the referees will catch them doing it and whistle them for the infraction—then something is very badly broken. If there is ever a circumstance in which what the defense wants is to get caught committing a foul on purpose, and what the offense hopes is that the defense will fail to do so, then shit is pretty fucked up.


The NBA has stuff in place that, in theory, ought to impose some limits on tactical fouling, but just as often creates yet more weirdness. The continuation rule, for example, gives game officials discretion to count a made basket that results from a scoring motion begun prior to a foul but finished (in some cases) well after it. It’s easy to imagine, in the absence of that rule, defenders just poking jumpshooters in the gut mid-shot, as a cynical way of wiping high-leverage shot attempts right off the board and forcing the opposing team to start its possession over again with less time on the clock. But the rule has had some bizarre permutations, and its enforcement is all over the place: A common occurrence, nowadays, is a ball-handling player spotting an intentional foul coming, going into a shooting motion out near halfcourt for the purpose of turning the imminent intentional foul into a shooting foul, getting fouled while attempting a purely-for-show 40-footer ... and then the referees insisting that the foul is not a shooting foul, even though, strictly speaking, it absolutely was.

Likewise, the bonus rule—whereby once a given team has committed four team fouls in a single quarter, each subsequent foul results in free throws for the opposing team even if it isn’t a shooting foul—in theory ought to help prevent cynical or sloppy teams from controlling the action via endless fouls; and, again theoretically, ought to privilege controlled, skillful play over mauling. But in practice, the bonus rule often serves to weaponize those later fouls, especially against teams that can’t put five crackerjack free-throw shooters on the floor at the same time: A dismally common occurrence in the closing minutes of modern NBA games is a defending team burning its fourth team foul on purpose expressly so that it can put the other team in the bonus with subsequent fouls. This is particularly common when a team can use the threat of bonus fouls to chase off the floor an opposing big man who’s been dominating interior play but who can’t be trusted to hit his free throws. Like the transition-busting foul above, it’s often a smart tactical play. It just also happens to be precisely the opposite of what the rules are intended to produce, which is the stuff that’s against the rules not happening.


A more recent attempt to address tactical fouling is the league’s refinement of the clear-path-to-the-basket rule, designed to discourage intentional fouls that disrupt fast-breaks and prevent cool dunks. If, during a transition play, the last defender back commits a foul against a ball-handling offensive player who has a clear path to the basket, and that foul prevents a scoring opportunity, then the offensive team can be awarded with both a pair of free throws and possession of the ball. Insofar as this rule might eventually lead to a cutback in tactical fouling and an increase in fast-break buckets, that’s good—but in the meantime, as a practical matter, live-ball turnovers now commonly lead to long breaks in the action, as referees convene around a replay monitor to determine whether the tactical foul was a clear-path-to-the-basket violation or just a common (intentional) foul. This just worsens the sport’s real and growing video review problem. More to the point, it’s the exact opposite of a cool basketball play.

At a certain level, the question of whether it’s good to wrestle, say, Kevin Durant to a stop isn’t really a matter of whether it’s against the rules, but a matter of whether it increases your team’s chances of winning. The purpose of the rules is to make it so that wrestling Kevin Durant to a stop will not increase your team’s chances of winning, to make fouling a bad defensive play—but the enforcement of those rules is having the exact opposite effect. Often, and especially in high-leverage moments, a stoppage and reset of the action is exactly what the defense wants, and one measly team foul is a bargain price to pay for it. This is why beefed-up enforcement and/or outlawing even more things can’t work to deter tactical fouling: The more actions that can be whistled as violations, the more tools coaches and players have at their disposal to stop play by violating the rules on purpose as visibly as possible. But much more importantly, it’s just self-evidently true that the league will never promote fluid, telegenic, free-flowing basketball by imposing more restrictions upon it.


Many smart readers observed this point in response to the jokey, half-serious blog I wrote last week about how the NBA doesn’t have as many cool fast-breaks as it used to. (As I, uh, argued [?], too many sequences that once upon a time would have resulted in a high-speed flurry of cool give-and-go touch-passes leading to a dunk or layup nowadays are either short-circuited by a tactical foul or result in a comparatively more boring transition three-pointer.) Our readers, because they are smart, had some actual thoughtful ideas about this, which I will consider—and reject to hell, like so many weak floaters in traffic!—below, before getting to the best one.


One wise former Deadspinner observed that there’s likely a relationship between the fairly recent league-wide adoption of the three-pointer as the ideal way to finish a fast-break and the increase of break-disrupting intentional fouls. If the expected outcome of, say, a Portland Trail Blazers transition opportunity is now an open three-point attempt by Damian Lillard, one of the NBA’s deadliest shooters (rather than, say, a dunk by Mo Harkless, as it might have been in earlier eras), then there’s an overwhelming incentive to foul, even in a bonus situation: A three-pointer, after all, is worth 50-percent* more points than a pair of free throws. It’s a no-brainer for a defender, and it only gets more imperative as the game situation gets tighter; by the endgame, you’d happily intentionally foul even the best free-throw shooter in the sport rather than let his team run out with numbers in transition.

So at the very least, it’s necessary to raise the price of the tactical foul! What about, as the former Deadspinner suggested, adjusting the rules so that, before a team enters the bonus, a non-clear-path intentional foul to stop a transition play—however the league wants to define this—results in one technical free throw for the fouled team, plus possession? This reimburses the offensive team at least part of the value of the easy scoring opportunity it lost by having its fast-break taken away by an intentional violation of the rules. Thus, there’s not as much for the defense to gain by taking that fast-break away via fouling intentionally; the smarter play, in that case, might just be to try to play good defense instead. Then, post-bonus, how about each subsequent foul results in either three free throws—or, even more radically, a two-and-one trip to the line, where if the shooter makes his first two shots he gets a third one?


There’s stuff to like about this idea. I like it as, at the very least, a bare-minimum acknowledgement that three-point shooting is now central to offensive play, so giving a measly pair of free throws for a defensive foul often amounts to rewarding the defense for fouling. On the other hand, it seems like it would stack the deck ever more strongly against teams that can’t put five good free-throw shooters on the court at the same time, which in practical terms means unbalancing the game even more dramatically in favor of small guards and pushing big slam-dunking giants ever further toward its periphery. Maybe you’re into that idea! But it also means, at least in the short term, transferring even more of the game’s scoring from the run of actual play to the free-throw line, and that’s not what we’re trying to accomplish, here.

Another former Deadspin Idiot suggested changing the free-throw rules so that in all instances, a trip to the free-throw line is one shot, and that shot just happens to be worth two or three points, depending on the circumstances. I’m not really sure how this is supposed to help! As even this particular former Deadspin Idiot pointed out, NBA players shoot a worse percentage on their first attempt in a pair of freebies, so this likely would drastically lower the league-wide free-throw shooting percentage and thus incentivize more intentional fouling as an alternative to playing defense. Frankly I suspect that this Deadspin Idiot was not actually addressing the subject of reducing tactical fouling at all but rather was having an aneurysm. I’m glad the Daily News hired this dingus to run its sports desk.


A more drastic potential change along these lines that seems like it could do away with tactical fouling forever would be to eliminate most (or all) free throws altogether and just award points directly after things like intentional fouls, clear-path fouls, off-the-ball fouls, and possibly even regular shooting fouls. The NBA already awards points directly, in the absence of made baskets, in the case of goaltending or defensive basket interference violations; those are instances where the rules are just straight-up saying That would have scored if you didn’t cheat, and this would be an extreme expansion of that idea.

One good thing about this idea is that it would tip the game hugely back toward empowering large slam-dunking oafs like Andre Drummond and Hassan Whiteside, whose unreliability at the free-throw line could never again be used against them. Another good thing is that, depending on how it were applied, it could eliminate up to, well, all free throws, which suck except in instances of players who have weird, stupid shooting motions. On the other hand, I dunno, there’s just something ... monstrous and horrifying about the idea of any portion of NBA possessions ending with the points just being awarded directly to the teams, without anybody making—or in some cases even attempting—any kind of shot, whether a field goal or free throw. Goaltending and defensive basket interference aside, you should still have to actually score baskets in order to get points in basketball.


Or, hey, how about reducing the number of fouls a player can commit before he’s ejected, like from six down to, say, four, or three? When I imagine this essentially eradicating my absolute least-favorite player type, the reckless try-hard goon—the Matthew Dellavedova, the Zaza Pachulia, etc.—from the sport, I am extremely into it: There’s neither room nor incentive to keep a Designated Foul-Doer on the active roster if he’s gonna foul out within five minutes of play every single night. On the other hand, when I imagine it basically doing away with even the barest minimum of physicality in the sport, I like it less. And when I imagine it causing basketball to evolve into a sport in which every team’s primary aim is getting the opposing team’s best players to foul out at all costs, in which the thing to do with a player like Steph Curry or LeBron James is to hold him out of most of the action and only use him in high-leverage moments, to protect him from being targeted for foul trouble, well, shit, I don’t like it at all anymore.

Likewise the idea, which a couple smart readers suggested, of instituting a penalty box in basketball, like the one in hockey. On the one hand, a couple minutes of five-on-four or -three basketball, with the shot-clock in place, could lead to a decent amount of runnin’ and gunnin’ for the team with the numbers advantage. On the other hand, cynical play-acting, designed to bait referees into calling baloney shooting fouls, already plagues the sport; imagine what James Harden would be like if, on top of free throws, he could get an actual numerical personnel advantage for the Rockets via those gross feigned shooting fouls on step-back threes. An absolute nightmare. A performance of Willem Dafoe’s death scene from Platoon, over and over again, for 48 minutes, 82 times per season.


The idea I like best is one a few different commenters suggested, and which the Guardian raised a few years ago: adopting something like advantage play, from soccer! In broad terms this means giving the referees discretion to allow play to continue without interruption in an instance when a defender commits a foul but the offensive team has an advantage that might lead to a basket. As I envision it, it’s similar to soccer but slightly more punitive to the fouling team. So, for example: Sucker-ass Kelly Olynyk does a lame-as-hell intentional reaching foul as Giannis Antetokounmpo blows by him in transition; the referee notes the foul, but doesn’t blow his whistle, allowing Antetokounmpo to take advantage of having gotten past his defender; and then, after Antetokounmpo punctuates the play by dunking several puny, helpless Miami Heat men into hell, the referee briefly stops play to assign the foul to Olynyk, and awards an and-one free throw to Antetokounmpo. The defense gets all of the penalty for having done something the rules prohibit, without any of the reward.

Sounds extremely cool, right? Hell, it doesn’t even have to be limited to transition play. As things stand now, the smart thing to do when Joel Embiid seals his defender off under the rim and catches an entry pass is to foul him as quickly as possible so that he can’t get a shot up to the rim. But imagine him patiently waiting out that foul, dunking on his feeble defender’s head anyway, and then getting a trip to the free-throw line! Imagine Grayson friggin’ Allen doing the bullshit intentional reach-around foul when Luka Dončić is losing him going around a ball-screen ... and then your sweet Slovenian son Luka still getting to use the space created by that screen to draw a second defender across the lane and throw a sweet lob pass for a frickin’ alley-oop slam, plus the foul. It seems to me that this rips up the cynical defense playbook in the very best way. I’m into it, so far.


I have a hunch this could even go some distance toward reducing the instance of those miserable shameless foul-drawing attempts I mentioned earlier. Free from the pressure to react to every foul immediately, referees might avail themselves of an extra couple seconds to go, No, wait, that was horseshit, I’m gonna let play continue. Moreover, there’s at least the possibility that adopting advantage play might, over time, rewire the way even cynical ball-handlers operate, orienting them toward what might give their team an advantage, with or without a foul, rather than toward what might earn them a stoppage in play and a trip to the line. It’s reasonable to hope for these effects, anyway.

It isn’t even as radical an idea as it might at first seem! It’s just an expanded application of the principle behind continuation: That, where possible, the rules should be enforced in a way that doesn’t interrupt or take precedence over the free flow of basketball play—but that there should still be a penalty for doing the stuff the rules prohibit. It takes all of the reward out of fouling on purpose.


Well, almost all. A possible near-term problem I could see advantage play creating is an extreme spike in flagrant fouls, as coaches and defenders try to calibrate the right degree of fouling to break up a play definitively, unambiguously, so that the referee will stop play immediately instead of applying an advantage. That could ugly things up pretty bad. (I suppose this could be cool if you happen to like fights.)

Another thing that would have to be sorted out is what to do when a defensive player commits a foul, the referee allows play to continue, and then a second defender also commits a foul, this time definitively stopping the action. Stack up the free throws? Award the higher-value foul? Behead whichever defender committed the more serious infraction? I suppose there’d have to be some kind of cap in place on the number of free throws that could be awarded from one sequence, to avoid the outside possibility of a play resulting in a 20-minute trip to the line, while also not establishing a point beyond which adding a few extra fouls to a play tips from being a bad play to being a good one. Possibly I am overthinking this.


Also, it doesn’t really do anything to address the issue of players running to the three-point line in transition instead of cruising all the way to the basket for cool dunks, which possibly only I think is less than ideal. One possibility for addressing that would be to make dunks and alley-oops worth three points, though this seems like it leads pretty inexorably to games with scores like 240-238, and to a sport even more difficult to reconcile with what basketball historically has been like than the version played in 2019 already is. Another possibility is getting rid of the three-point line altogether! I am just throwing out ideas, here! It’s up to you to say why they are bad and stupid!