Are NBA Refs Unfairly Targeting James Harden with New Rules?

Jake Fischer@JakeLFischerContributor INovember 4, 2021

Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden (13) dribbles up court during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons Sunday, Oct. 31, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Corey Sipkin)
Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

Three words sum up the NBA community's response to the elimination of foul calls on non-basketball moves: addition by subtraction.

You'll be hard-pressed to find a coach or executive who isn't in favor of the change. It seems nobody, except perhaps the superstars who mastered exploiting the previous rules, enjoyed players hunting whistles to such a degree. In a memo obtained by B/R, the league office informed teams on Tuesday that the new officiating on non-basketball moves has drawn unanimous support from the NBA's Competition Committee.

The results so far are a clear win for the league's on-court product. Team field-goal attempts are up 1.4 per game. Free-throw attempts are down by 1.8. The overall average pace is up from 99.2 last season to 99.9, per Basketball Reference.

For a league determined to engineer an exciting nightly product for a generation of multi-screen watchers, faster games with fewer starts and stops have made for a better viewing experience than most NBA observers can remember. But perhaps more interestingly, the biggest fans of the rule change seem to be the basketball purists within the coaching community.

Anthony Slater @anthonyVslater

Steve Kerr on the way referees aren't rewarding foul-hunting tactics: "I love what I'm seeing. I think the officials are doing a great job. The game has more of an authentic feel." On the take foul in transition: "I think that's next (to get legislated out)." https://t.co/Q9hHU8jffr

Stan Van Gundy @realStanVG

I know it’s early, not even a week into the season, but the NBA rule changes are making a big difference. Fewer fouls called, players have to try to score rather than just draw fouls and better game flow, especially at the end of the game. It’s a better game to watch.

"It's good for the game," said one team analytics staffer. "Don't ever play 'looking for the foul.' It cheapens everything. Trae Young getting 12-14 free throws a game was ridiculous. He's not a power player who's just getting to the rim. That's not his game."

But the transition hasn't come without glitches. Some teams have offered feedback that officials are letting too much contact pass at the rim. However, the Competition Committee, according to the memo, did not see any direct evidence of more physical play this season. Nor did the league's accuracy data for officiating reveal anything substantive.

Most notably, the non-basketball move crackdown has seen offensive efficiency and scoring numbers fall off a cliff, especially for a few All-Stars.

Damian Lillard may be experiencing the most notable drop-off in production. His scoring has decreased from 28.8 points per game to just 18.6, due in part to a three-point shooting slump. But his trips to the foul line have been nearly sliced in half, down from 7.2 last year to 3.9 this season.

Trae Young recently said he felt officials have been "missing calls," perhaps in reference to his plummeting free-throw line attempts per game (8.7 to 5.3).

James Harden has voiced the same concern, and he has speculated that referees are over-aware of notorious foul-chasers.

"Sometimes I feel like coming into a game, it's already predetermined," Harden said. "Or I already have that stigma of getting foul calls."

Many league insiders contacted by B/R agreed there's truth to what Harden is saying—that officials are perhaps overcorrecting in the early stages of this season. Referees will likely find an equilibrium. There's an expectation among analytics staffers that scorers' free-throw numbers will likely improve over time.

But Harden's slow start has drawn the attention of skeptical league personnel who wonder whether this is the beginning of the perennial MVP candidate's decline into more of a secondary All-Star.

Other observers believe Harden's conditioning is the main factor in his depressed stats. He did flash a bouncier performance in Sunday's victory over the Pistons, hanging an easy 18-point triple-double on only nine shots, including 4-of-7 from distance. And on Wednesday, he knocked down five of his 11 attempts from deep against the Hawks.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

Still, Harden seems to be in need of a strategic makeover more than any other player in the NBA.

Perhaps he'll adapt like he once did in Houston. He arrived from OKC as more of a straight-line driver, who started a handful of possessions in the corners. The Rockets' analytic brain trust first helped Harden reprogram his scoring mentality through the sole lens of high pick-and-rolls, chasing free throws, layups and three-pointers with a lethal step-back. It was Harden's mastery of earning whistles, seemingly playing two games at once, that sparked his reputation as a basketball savant.

If those whistles are permanently swallowed, it's not difficult to imagine he can rewire his approach yet again.

"I think that's part of James Harden's genius is he works within the rules and figures out a way to score 50 on any given night," said the analytics staffer.

Player development coaches have historically used film sessions and on-court skill work to train players in the art of foul-hunting. Philadelphia 76ers coaches, for example, were once blown away when a younger Joel Embiid would find moments on tape where he could have drawn a whistle that even the staff hadn't seen. Embiid went on to lead the league in free-throw attempts last season at 10.7 per game. He's now down to just 8.8 this year, good for second behind Jimmy Butler.

That coaching area will now surely fade to the back of development programs. It seems rudimentary, but from B/R conversations around the league, assistants are now advising drivers to play through contact and not expect a whistle, rather than attempt to draw a foul as they have been trained in recent years. Playing through the whistle has long been a mantra, but now it seems like more of a direct counsel.

And with the success of removing those non-basketball foul calls, league personnel are now highlighting the open-court "take foul," also commonly referred to as the "Euro foul," as the next obvious rule change.

The take foul happens when a defender deliberately fouls his opponent to stop a runaway bucket, as opposed to when a player reaches for a steal during a fast break and happens to make contact with the ball-handler. It's easy to close your eyes and see Chris Paul taking such a foul, even back in his early days with New Orleans.

"I've been saying this for like eight years," griped one assistant general manager. "You shouldn't be able to just grab someone. It's bad for the game."

Coaches and executives have pointed to the league's influx of international players as a cause for a perceived uptick in this type of foul, perhaps inspired by a similar strategic foul in soccer.

Whatever the cause, better policing of the open-court foul might not have as simple of a solution as eliminating non-basketball moves. Should it be whistled just like a clear-path foul, where a team then gets two shots and the ball back? Or maybe those fouls generate two shots like any normal shooting foul, and play resumes after the second attempt leaves the shooter's hand? Maybe teams get one shot and the ball back? In the G League, for example, players must make a clear move on the ball, otherwise teams get one shot and possession.

It seems no rule change is imminent, though. While the Competition Committee did discuss the issue on Tuesday, they were only capable of encouraging the league office to develop potential rule changes for future seasons. Technically, the NBA could collaborate to amend the rule on a moment's notice, but that would be highly unlikely.

For now, as players adapt their games while officials are allowing more contact and not rewarding foul-hunting, onlookers will continue to discuss and debate the Euro foul and other rule stipulations to follow.

"It's just the next thing everybody's focusing on because they fixed something else," said another assistant general manager.

Jake Fischer covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is the author of Built to Lose: How the NBA's Tanking Era Changed the League Forever.

Unless otherwise noted, stats are current entering games Wednesday, Nov. 3.