NBA’s habitual foul seekers having a hard time finding fouls

James Harden is upset he has to play actual basketball

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James Harden’s not getting to the line as much as he’d like.
James Harden’s not getting to the line as much as he’d like.
Image: Getty Images

If the world ended today (because that’s the only way the NBA season would end today, and I hate cliches, but this one is useful in this case), the NBA would finish with the fewest free throw attempts per game in the history of the league. Even though we’re only five games into the season and players haven’t yet adjusted to the refs (or vice versa), it’s not a made-up ESPN stat to make a mid-November Pacers-Raptors game seem meaningful, like “Pascal Siakam’s 13 points are the most from the 9-minute mark to the 11:15-minute mark in a third quarter since Michael Jordan in 1987.”

James Harden is already desperate, saying “I just ask every official: If they see a foul, call a foul” less than two weeks into the season. This isn’t workplace harassment, James, it’s basketball, and shit like this isn’t basketball.

At 20 attempts per game, it’s about two attempts lower than the per game average over the past decade. Again, it’s early, but it’s also been intentional, which is refreshing.


Watching Team USA in the Olympics this summer was so much fun because the refs approach the game the same way their soccer counterparts do. They know the tricks players use to draw fouls, don’t call them,and then finger wag players when they complain. The best way I can describe it is ... authoritatively cynical. (While I have you, FIBA rules on open court fouls should be adopted, as well. Not the live ball on rim, though, because then we’d never have another Kawhi shot.)

I mention the Olympics because Damian Lillard struggled with the lack of whistle at times in Tokyo. He’s gotten off to a slow start this season and his attempts are down. It’s also Dame, and he’s only played four games, so I’m not worried.


Interestingly, Trae Young has increased his scoring while getting to the line almost half as much as last year. It’s almost as if he’s been liberated by not playing the foul game — or it could be a carryover from the playoffs and this guy really is who the Hawks thought he was.

Steph Curry has increased his free throws, but he’s a savant and probably already adjusted after getting tagged for it in the preseason.


Fouls in general are trending down, as the league started chucking 3s at a crazy rate, so that also could be a reason for the decrease in attempts this season, because of course 3-point attempts are up again. (Thirty-six per game out of 90 total is a wild number. How many is enough? In theory, we could see an equal distribution of 3s and 2s in the future, and I don’t know how I feel about that.)

It may be an aberration, and the players just haven’t bitched the refs into submission. Remember when the league tried to crack down on complaining and it lasted like a season?


Whatever ends up happening — it’s probably a gray area where guys figure out what refs are still calling and seek out those fouls, and refs acquiesce because they’re sick of being treated like a school board member at a COVID-protocol meeting — I hope the league keeps these rules, because it speeds up the game and keeps the players playing. Try lurching into a guy the next time you’re playing pick-up and then having the audacity to call foul.

Harden and Steve Nash want to whine about Harden being the poster boy for these rules, but that Chris-Paul-slam-the-brakes-halfway-up-the-court-so-a-trailing-defender-runs-into-you move isn’t getting called either. I would say it’s adapt or die, James, but I hate cliches and that’s probably not accurate. How about: Adapt or cry?