Not everyone in the NBA is thrilled about the greater penalty attached this season to “take” fouls, those intentional, fast-break thwarting violations that spoil some of the sport’s most entertaining moments before they even get started.
Dallas’ Spencer Dinwiddie, Denver’s Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray and more than a few of the league’s defensive-minded coaches come to mind.
But no one can quibble with the effectiveness of the rule change, which targets those instances when a defender – eager to snuff a transition opportunity – simply grabs, whacks or wraps up an opponent rather than makes a play on the ball. The penalty now: the offensive team gets one free throw, shot by any of its five players, and retains possession.
The league also is reporting success with its other notable rule tweak this season: bench decorum, which addresses excessive standing by players and team staff not actually in the games and particularly those who step onto the court during play.
According to data provided by the NBA, the number of transition take fouls (the official term for such violations) has been declining since the 2022-23 season began. From an average of 0.36 called per game in the first two weeks, the rate had dropped to 0.19 through the games of last week. That’s essentially a 50% decline.
The new numbers are even more significant compared to last season. There was an average of 1.76 take fouls called in 2021-22 vs. the overall rate of 0.27 now. That’s an 85% reduction. Fast-break points are up, year over year, from 12.5 to 13.9, an 11% bump.
There were about 1,500 instances of take fouls last season, per Monty McCutchen, the NBA’s senior vice president and head of referee development and training. “We want this out of the game,” he said. “And if this accomplishes that at an incremental level, we’re very happy we found the right balance that’s not overly punitive but neither is it not enough.”
In terms of payoff, the disincentive to commit such fouls, the league reports that teams had been making 81% of the free throws generated (46 of the first 57). On the ensuing possessions, the team with the ball has averaged 1.18 points per possession, slightly higher than the average efficiency on half-court possessions (1.10 ppp).
Add them up and it’s been an average of 2.0 points per possession off each take foul. That’s better than what a team could expect to average on its fast-break opportunities. That’s why, as intended, defenders are skipping the quick early foul and giving chase. Or at least trying to disguise their buzz-kill contact as actual plays on the ball.
“There are times when you’re tired and you want to take that foul but you’re basically giving away three points,” Philadelphia’s Georges Niang said after his team’s game in Chicago last month. “I’m sure the league has done a lot of research on this and they’re probably happy with the results, where it’s not slowing the game down.
“I think it’s good for the game. People want to see [players] get out there and make plays, and sprint back on defense and make extraordinary defensive plays.”
The approval hasn’t been unanimous. A couple of weeks ago, Mavericks wing Dinwiddie was given a technical foul after protesting a take-foul call in a one-point victory over Toronto. Miami’s Kyle Lowry and Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards also earned technicals for arguing with referees about their judgment on those calls.
That’s the gray area – was that a play on the ball or not? – that has rankled some coaches. It’s also what prompted two-time MVP Jokic to say, “I think it’s stupid” when asked about the rule earlier this season. His Nuggets teammate Murray made a prediction that so far has not come true: “I think it’s gonna get out of hand. How are you going to tell the difference between a fast break and not?”
Jokic isn’t leading a lot of fast breaks, certainly not getting out like his fellow two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer probably saw a net gain for his team when he told reporters: “Trying to be as unbiased as possible, I think it’s a rule that the league is wise to go to just to clean up and allow for the players to be their best, to be great in a transition and to open up the game and open up the floor.
“I think the more flow, the more freedom, the opportunity to make plays with skill and athleticism, I think it’s great for our league.”
As for bench decorum, the NBA’s basketball operations and strategy and analytics groups through last week had recorded three unsportsmanlike technical fouls whistled on a player or coach for standing on the court during play. The culprits: Phoenix assistant Bryan Gates and Lakers guards Kendrick Nunn and Dennis Schröder. (Lakers center Thomas Bryant also cost his team in the preseason, when new points of education like this are enforced to expedite the learning curve.)
There were four delay-of-game warnings issued through the first four weeks to teams for prolonged standing. Remember, a game official must give them an informal “soft” warning first before hitting a team with a delay technical. The NBA hasn’t tracked the number of those soft reminders.
The intent, of course, is to reduce the congestion and confusion on the sideline and near the corners on the bench side of the floor. Large men standing and blocking the view of customers spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on tickets for the best seats is bad for business.
It also can lead to interruptions and potentially game-changing plays, such as Steph Curry’s unintended pass to Theo Pinson in the Golden State-Dallas playoff series last spring. Problem was, Pinson was in street clothes but standing in front of the Mavs’ bench, wearing a white shirt that resembled – in Curry’s peripheral vision – the Warriors’ white jerseys. Oh, and Pinson had his arm raised.
Byron Spruell, President, League Operations, said the league is seeing what its competition committee had in mind with the rule changes. On the bench decorum, in particular, Spruell said: “As always, our players, coaches and teams are fantastic partners. We have a collective understanding about being passionate and enthusiastic without potentially disrupting or distracting live play.”
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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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