Is the NBA’s New Approach to Foul Calls Wreaking Havoc on Some Stars?

By Patrick Hayes   November 3, 2021 

Is the NBA’s New Approach to Foul Calls Wreaking Havoc on Some Stars?

James Harden built himself into an MVP and one of the top scorers in the league thanks, in part, to his ability to use his body in unorthodox ways that baited referees into calling a significant number of fouls against players defending him over the years.

Trae Young became so good at flailing his body into contact to draw fouls all over the court that normally laid-back Brooklyn Nets coach Steve Nash lamented last season that “that’s not basketball.”

That sentiment seemed to be embraced by the league in the offseason, as the NBA sought to redefine its foul rules and stop rewarding offensive players who make non-basketball moves with foul calls. The major way the enforcement has played out is by not giving players foul calls when they jump into a defender in an effort to get to the free throw line.

Early in the season, it was once again Young who became a focus of the change after he suggested that things have swung too far in the other direction and now, he’s no longer getting calls that are legitimate fouls.

“I don’t want to get fined too much, but it’s frustrating,” Young told “There’s a lot of missed calls. It’s basketball. It’s just, it feels that they’re learning, and they’re just — I don’t know. It’s frustrating. There are certain things that, I agree with the rule changes, but then there’s things that are still fouls, and guys are going to get hurt. Especially a smaller guy like me who’s going up against bigger and stronger defenders, they’re using their body and they’re using their legs and their hands to stop me.”

Young elaborated by pointing out that other star players, including Damian Lillard, James Harden, and Devin Booker, got off to slow starts to their season, which has already impacted the NBA odds. Young and Harden, in particular, are two players who were known for working well within the old system and there is some belief that they might be now overly targeted by officials because of those reputations.

The numbers certainly make a case for that. Here’s a look at some star players who are off to unexpectedly slow starts.

Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

Nov 1, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) reacts after losing the ball against the Washington Wizards in the second half at State Farm Arena. Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off of a breakout playoff performance in which he led the Hawks to the Eastern Conference Finals, Young was expected to make a big leap forward this season.

Instead, he’s averaging 22 points per game (his lowest total since his rookie year and three points per game lower than last season) and shooting a career-worst 29 percent from three-point range.

It’s easy to see a notable area where Young’s scoring opportunities have dwindled – the free throw line. He’s averaging less than five free throw attempts per game this season, nearly five fewer than he averaged per game a season ago. 

Young is averaging a career-best 10 assists per game and he has more talent around him than at any point in his career, so it makes sense that he’s deferring to teammates more. But he’s definitely been impacted by the rule changes and is clearly still adjusting to how games are being officiated.

James Harden, Brooklyn Nets

Oct 31, 2021; Brooklyn, New York, USA; Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden (13) loses the ball after driving between Detroit Pistons guard Cory Joseph (18) and forward Kelly Olynyk (13) in the third quarter at Barclays Center. Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Harden’s first five games this season were the first time since 2011 he’d gone five straight games with fewer than five free throw attempts. 

Harden has said that he was aware of the “stigma” around his game and his penchant for drawing cheap fouls. His decline in free throw attempts has been modest, though. He’s averaging a little over 5 attempts per game, just two fewer than last season. Some of that is also attributable to his role in Brooklyn’s offense. Unlike when he was in Houston, Harden has become more of a facilitator with the Nets. They still obviously need his scoring, but Kevin Durant is the leader in that area and Harden has become among the best in the league at putting teammates in position to score.

He also seems to be figuring out the officiating changes – he’s played better in recent games simply by being more aggressive attacking the basket when he has the ball.

Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

Oct 29, 2021; Portland, Oregon, USA; Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard (0) shoots the ball over LA Clippers shooting guard Luke Kennard (5) during the second half at Moda Center. Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Lillard’s horrendous shooting slump has received much of the attention for his poor play this season. He’s shooting just 23 percent from three-point range, down 16 percent from last year. His 18 points per game is his lowest total of his career.

But his free throw attempts have also plummeted. Lillard is attempting just 3.7 free throws per game, nearly four below his average the last two seasons. 

Lillard has shown signs of breaking out of that slump of late, but there’s also off-court distractions at play. The Blazers didn’t have a great offseason. They bungled a coaching search and didn’t add any big-name pieces to the roster. It’s possible Lillard could be interested in a change of scenery at some point this season – Philadelphia fans certainly made it known they’d like the Sixers to trade for him earlier this week. If he continues to struggle and Portland lags in the playoff race, it’s conceivable those things could eventually lead to a trade.

Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

Oct 30, 2021; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) shoots the ball against Cleveland Cavaliers forward Lamar Stevens (8) in the fourth quarter at Footprint Center. Chris Coduto-USA TODAY Sports

Booker is shooting worse overall and from three-point range than his rookie season and his 22 points per game would be the lowest scoring average he’s posted since his second year in the league. 

Booker’s slump can’t really be explained by the foul rules, though. His free throw attempts are down modestly (to four per game from about five per game last season), but his game has never revolved around his ability to draw fouls. Booker also has shown recent signs of busting out of his slump, which should help Phoenix overcome its so-so start to the season.

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