As NBA watches non-basketball moves, numbers dip a bit

After a loss at Washington last week, Atlanta star Trae Young calmly aired some of his frustrations with the way NBA games are being officiated amid a new crackdown on non-basketball moves used to draw contact.

The 6-foot-1, 164-pound Young, who made more free throws than anybody in the NBA last season, said he agreed with some of the changes, but he was clearly concerned some fouls are now being overlooked.

A short while later, Kyle Kuzma of the Wizards weighed in on Twitter.

“The new rules changes to the sport are the best thing the league has done in recent history,” Kuzma tweeted.

For its part, the NBA is happy with how the first two weeks of the season have gone. Scoring is down slightly, a byproduct of free-throw attempts also being down slightly, but the league believes the way the game is being officiated is working.

“The league sees it as a good move,” NBA President of League Operations Byron Spruell said after Tuesday’s meeting of the league’s competition committee. “We need to continue to stay consistent with it. But the intended effect is there right now, too. Overall, from a league perspective — and aligned with the committee — it’s a stay-the-course sort of action with that.”

It’s not unusual for the NBA to tweak the way rules are enforced, and it remains to be seen how officiating might evolve throughout the season. So far, some of the game’s biggest offensive stars are indeed going to the free-throw line less often, and there’s some concern that the changes may be allowing more physicality in general, beyond what was intended.

“If we’re sacrificing freedom of movement, that’s not, in my understanding, the intent of what we’re trying to do,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said. “I’m cautiously optimistic that that’ll balance itself out.”

Snyder compared the current points of emphasis to a previous crackdown on flopping. The idea is to curtail certain tricks that seem to have no purpose other than drawing fouls.

“Some of the gamesmanship involved, whether it’s kicking a leg into someone, stopping and going backwards and having someone run into you, grabbing someone’s arm when you’re not in a shooting motion,” Snyder said.

Young said he agreed with targeting certain egregious examples, but he said he was frustrated with the way the game is now being called. Young averaged 8.7 free-throw attempts a game last season, and that number is down to 5.3 so far in 2021-22.

It’s a similar story for some other perimeter stars. Portland’s Damian Lillard has seen his free throws per game dip from 7.2 to 3.9, Washington’s Bradley Beal’s from 7.7 to 4.2 and Dallas’ Luka Doncic’s from 7.1 to 4.7. Big men aren’t exempt; Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid averaged 10.7 attempts last season, 8.8 this season.

And then there’s James Harden, who has turned drawing fouls into an art form in which the beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder. Harden dealt with injury problems last season, but in 2019-20, he averaged a whopping 11.8 free-throw attempts per game.

That figure is down to 5.3 this season. Harden attempted 19 free throws in a win over Indiana on Friday night, but he has had four or fewer in every other game.

Steve Nash, Harden’s coach in Brooklyn, said players, refs and coaches are all adjusting on the fly.

“I have noticed that you’re allowed to be much more physical with the driver or finisher at the rim,” said Nash said. “How that will maintain itself throughout the year is yet to be seen.”

Beyond the impact on a few high-profile players, some league-wide stats are also showing a decline. The NBA average through Monday was 19.9 free throws per game per team. That’s down from 21.8 in 2020-21. Field-goal shooting is at 45%, down 2% from last season, and players are shooting 34% from 3-point range — the worst there in more than 20 years.

Detroit coach Dwane Casey said the dip in 3-point shooting may be because of an increase in defensive switching.

“That’s taking away some of the easy 3’s,” he said.

Monty McCutchen, who oversees officiating matters for the NBA, said that referees are “eager to be aligned” with the expectations of the competition committee. Adjusting is happening, McCutchen said, but he believes the game is being called properly.

“To be clear, we love where the game has been from a freedom of movement perspective over the last few years,” McCutchen said. “And we do not want to give that up in any way.”

Foul calls are down about two per game when compared to the same timeframe — the first 102 games — last season. Milwaukee guard George Hill, not exactly a big scorer or a volume free-throw shooter, doesn’t sound all that confident that he can draw cheap fouls — especially now.

“If I feel like it isn’t just going to be an honest true foul, there’s no point in trying it,” he said. “Because if they don’t call it, you look real stupid.”

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AP Basketball Writer Tim Reynolds and AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee contributed to this report.

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