Today's NBA stars have turned drawing fouls into an art form. Exaggerated movements on shots. Flails and leaps into defenders. Locked arms on drives to the basket.
In the modern NBA, the offense virtually always has the advantage. When offensive players hunt fouls, the calls can take the teeth out of the league's best defenses.
Harden, Paul, Luka Doncic and Trae Young are considered the game's foul-hunting poster boys. You may remember New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio calling out Young for his clever, perhaps cynical, perhaps strategic playing style in the first round of last season's playoffs.
Of course, every player does it to a degree. But every fan hates it.
But this past offseason, the NBA finally decided to end foul-hunting.
In late September, the NBA tweeted a series of videos outlining its concerns. From the couch, fans will need time to understand the new points of emphasis (and this by no means ends the discussion of how the on-court product can be improved. "Take fouls," we hope you're next).
But for now, a handful of superstars will feel the heat more than anyone else as they adjust to their new normal.
The Kick-out Is Out
Shooters have been kicking out their legs to draw a foul for a long time, and the NBA has tried to crack down on it before. It was called the Reggie Miller rule because, well, it was his move!
All players kick their leg out a little while shooting to help with the arch on the shot. The problem comes when a player exaggerates the movement. At that moment, it is less about getting arc on the shot and more about getting the whistle.
This season, NBA referees will look to reemphasize the Miller rule. This will affect a large number of shooters across the league, including Harden, Stephen Curry and Michael Porter Jr., just to start.
In the video below, Harden has Hassan Whiteside on the perimeter. Watch carefully as he pulls up to shoot three. After the ball is released, Harden kicks his left leg out and lands on Whiteside's foot. That draws the whistle as the ball goes through the net, and it turns into a four-point play for the Beard.
Here's an example from the 2021 playoffs that the referees called correctly. The ball is swung in transition to Porter, who pulls up for three off the catch. As he is releasing the ball, he kicks his leg out to his side to make contact with a closing-out Damian Lillard. The officials immediately, and correctly, call this an offensive foul.
Although a slight kick-out on a shot can be part of someone's form, the above shooters were foul hunting. These are part of the plays the NBA is trying to legislate out of the game to give defenses a chance.
The Harden Hook
Hooking is not just a penalty in hockey. It has been a move several top NBA guards and wings have used to get to the line. It is a sneaky operation. As a defender extends their arm out, the offensive player uses their off hand to hook their arm before going up for a shot or driving to the basket.
No player has perfected this like Harden, who finished seventh in the league in free-throw attempts per game last season. That is the first time since 2013-14 that he didn't lead the NBA—that season he was second to Kevin Durant.
Here's a clear example of a Harden hook against Avery Bradley, then of the Houston Rockets. As the quarter winds down, just past half court, Harden hooks Bradley's right arm from below and goes into his shot. The referee immediately calls the foul on an irate Bradley.
Brooklyn Nets announcer Sarah Kustok even says after reviewing the replay, "Yeah, Harden does a nice job of hooking the arm of Bradley."
To be clear, Harden is not the only player who uses this move. He has just perfected it. The NBA Official Twitter account showed an example from the playoffs, when Paul George drew a foul on Donovan Mitchell using the off-arm hook.
Brake checking is another artisanal move mostly used by small guards. A guard will get past his defender and, as that player looks to make up ground, the dribbler suddenly stops, usually leading to the defender crashing in from behind, forcing the official's hand.
The mantle of the master of the brake check has been handed over to Young, who has drawn the ire of some opponents. During a December game against Brooklyn in which Young shot 16 free throws, Nets head coach Steve Nash complained to the refs "that's not basketball."
Many fell victim to Young's brake check last year. Against the Philadelphia 76ers below, Young pushes the ball up the court and survives everything around him. He looks back, senses Dwight Howard behind him and hits the brakes. Howard completely runs over him, and the officials have no choice but to call the foul.
Referees will look to cut down on calling fouls when the offensive players use a non-basketball move to initiate contact. That includes going sideways and backward.
This is the most common foul-hunting move in the NBA. Multiple times per game, an offensive player gets a defender in the air and then launches into his opponent to get the foul call. All players are guilty of this action.
Here's an example from the Western Conference Finals. See Paul jumping to his side to draw the foul on Reggie Jackson. The officials call it a non-shooting foul, so no free throws.
In the preseason, the referees are not calling this a foul. Curry learned that in the Golden State Warriors' exhibition game against Portland. He sets up Nassir Little for the step-back, and once Little jumps in the air, Curry launches into him—but no whistle.
Curry shared how he felt about that no-call on The Athletic NBA Show with David Aldridge and Marcus Thompson, saying: "That's kind of a judgement call, in terms of, is the defender truly stopping and still in legal guarding position, or am I the one truly initiating the contact? There's going to be that gray area there. Obviously, I lost that conversation."
Foul hunting is not a new phenomenon. Miller has a rule named after him. Dwyane Wade would launch himself at defenders on drives to the rim. Kobe Bryant would flail after shots to draw contact. The new generation of players have gotten much better at drawing fouls. It is why the NBA has put the new emphasis into effect.
Bleacher Report asked a Western Conference scout how the adjustments might change things. Their answer? "A lot. Not as many FTs." They also voiced a concern, saying: "I just hope the refs stay with it and not just [make it a] thing to start the season and let go after a couple of weeks. 'Point of emphasis' things tend to die out."
Curry, Harden, Young and Paul are extremely clever players. All four are basketball savants with plenty of hoops IQ to evolve as the game changes. They will adjust, but not overnight.
Lucky for them, the entire NBA will have to adjust too.