Take it! The NBA is picking up speed, thanks to a new rule.
The NBA was already playing fast. The league-wide pace in recent seasons reached its highest point since the 1980s – but even that wasn’t fast enough.
One small strategy was to slow down the speed and deprive fans of the most exciting play in sports: taking the foul. Players across the league were intentionally fouling players to stop fast breaks, neutering open court opportunities. So the NBA introduced a new foul penalty rule this season. After just three plus weeks of play, the rule is already achieving its intended effect, seamlessly stepping in to become a welcome addition to the accepted status quo.
In conversations in the early weeks of the new season, players and coaches have expressed almost unanimous approval.
“I think it’s good for the game,” Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton said. “I think that’s what the fans pay to see; they pay to see fast-paced basketball.”
In the 2017-18 season, teams committed a combined average of 0.32 fouls per game (excluding intentional fouls at the end of games), according to ESPN’s Kevin Pelton. Yet the take foul – also known as the “Euro foul” due to its heavy presence in international play – became unsustainable as it spread across the league: in 2021-22 there was an average of 1.4 take fouls per game, a 332 percent increase in just four seasons.
“It was about time [take fouls] to go,” 76ers forward Georges Niang said. “The game was deadlocked. The guys just made mistakes as soon as they lost the ball. It was like you were playing tag out there, guys trying to avoid other guys on the fast break.”
So the new rule — imported from the G League, where it had been in effect since 2018-19 — added a penalty designed to make players think twice before stopping a transition attack with an intentional foul. Now, instead of simply receiving the ball on the sideline after a take-foul (as is the case with other common fouls), the hacked team gets to choose any player to shoot one free throw, and then gets possession. Now, Pelton wrote, “A pass gone wrong will cost teams about 1.89 points on average.” (The league averaged 1.08 points per possession after non-shooting fouls last season, shooting 81 percent on technical free throws: 1.08 + 0.81 = 1.89.) Unless the offensive team has a certain uncontested dunk worth two points, the math says a take foul isn’t worth it anymore.
Defenders have responded appropriately, and the NBA has returned to the low-ceiling volume it had before the recent upswing. Through three weeks of the 2022-23 regular season, an analysis of NBA.com play-by-play data reveals teams are committing a combined 0.33 turnover fouls per game.
This volume suggests that the rule is working as intended. So do the second-order results: So far this season, teams are averaging 14.4 fast break points per game, according to NBA Advanced Stats. That’s not a huge jump, but it’s the highest number in the first three weeks of the season in at least a decade. Over the previous 10 seasons, teams at this point averaged 13.1 fast break points per game.
Also, on all transition plays, according to Cleaning the Glass, teams are averaging 1.26 points per play. It is the highest transfer efficiency of any season in CtG’s database.
The near elimination of shooting fouls not only helps teams convert fast break opportunities more easily; it can also inspire them to go full speed and look for more fast break opportunities in the first place. “If you get a rebound and you run, opponents probably aren’t going to fake you anymore,” Bulls guard Goran Dragic said. “So you have to take advantage.”
Because it’s still early days, there are still some kinks to iron out as the season unfolds. Players have to occasionally consciously remind themselves that they can’t just reach out and stop a fast break anymore; watch any NBA game on any given night, and you can see a defender start to lunge after a foul, only to retreat when they remember the new rule. “I’ve had times where I turn the ball over and I want to grab somebody, but you have to think about it,” Haliburton admitted.
There has also been some sort of disagreement about what constitutes a take foul, versus a normal range. Kyle Lowry and Anthony Edwards have accumulated technical fouls that argue for a take foul ruling. And several coaches also complained about calls recently directed at their players. For example, after Joel Embiid was penalized for a take-foul in a recent game against the Raptors, Doc Rivers argued: “According to the law, he went over his body to reach and they still gave him a take-foul. I love the rule; I just hate that there is such judgment.”
“I think for all of us,” Cavaliers coach JB Bickerstaff predicted, “it’s going to take some time to get calibrated.”
Bickerstaff’s new star guard, Donovan Mitchell, had been whistled for a foul early in the Cavaliers’ second game of the season in Chicago, although Bickerstaff said he believed Mitchell had “made a play on the ball.” Mitchell agreed afterwards, saying he had tried to steal – although he also admitted it would take some time to break the practice of automatic mistakes.
“I came from an organization where we did it all the time; we probably led the league,” Mitchell said with a laugh. Yes, the Jazz had by far the most errors in the league last season almost two per game– Mitchell stands for 31 by itself and second in the league. Now with the Cavaliers, he is tied for the lead so far this season – but with just two total errors.
Mitchell was one of several players who mentioned that stopping an opponent’s transition opportunity was not the only reason they previously drew a foul; it also allowed them to catch their breath as the referees reset the play from the touchline. “If you’re tired and need a break, you’re definitely going to feel bad. We did that a lot in Utah,” Mitchell said. The sneaky strategy isn’t worth it anymore.
There is some early evidence that players are already adjusting, albeit in a small sample. Games in October averaged 0.37 fouls, but that number has dropped to 0.27 per game so far in November. There hasn’t been a single match with multiple roof errors since October 26th.
On the whole, the rule seems well designed, with considerations that close a couple of potential loopholes from the start. The rule applies even if the offensive team has not yet begun to advance the ball downfield. A number of fouls this season were whistled when a player made inadvertent contact while chasing a loose ball or long rebound, but that’s the price for preventing a defender from breaking to stop a transition opportunity before it even begins.
The rule also applies to fouls committed against some offensive player, even if he is not a ball handler. This clarification is why Mike Conley was penalized away from the ball last month.
A conceivable loophole remains, however, and could undo some of the rule’s gains if players become better at hiding their tar-ful intentions. That’s because fouls committed during “a legitimate play on the ball will remain a regular personal foul (regardless of whether the foul occurs during a fast-break play) and will not be subject to an increased penalty under the new rule,” which the league’s press release on the change explained.
In other words, there’s still room for craft and gamesmanship when trying to slow down an opposing fast break. “You have to be careful. You can still use [the strategy] as long as you go after the ball,” Dragic said, adding, “You know how all the NBA players are. You try to find the loopholes.”
Dragic takes a nuanced view of the new rule, and is why I said it was just that near-unanimously above. As the veteran pointer said with a smile: “I’m a little bit torn because, you know, I’m from Europe. It’s a smart play if you’re outnumbered in transition and just take a foul.”
Yet he also acknowledges that the rule makes sense for the spirit of the sport, and appreciates its ability to juice offensive production. A teammate with a locker next to Dragic said yes.
“When the guys were [committing take fouls], stops the game, the fans don’t want to come here and see it,” Bulls wing Javonte Green said. But he doesn’t like the new rule just for the entertainment product, he added: “It’s for us too. So we can get out and get easy buckets.”
Statistics up to and including Tuesday.