Fouls the NBA does not enforce
For the most part, the NBA has strived to make basketball just about basketball.
They removed the headhunting fouls that defined teams like Isaiah Thomas’ Detroit Pistons. They got rid of the hack-a-shaq nonsense that blocks plays in a silly free-throw competition. Kevin Durant’s tear through fetid exploitation? Faded away. The Bruce Bowen-style Zaza Pachulia invading the jump shooter’s landing space? Shame in disgrace.
Each of these rule changes has made basketball more fun to watch. Nobody wants to see Michael Jordan get clotheslines done by Bill Laimbeer or watch Shaq brick his free throws.
Each of these fouls were exploits, small flaws that players used to play the game to their advantage. They weren’t fun to watch and they didn’t feel like basketball.
The latest iteration of non-amusing faulty exploitation is fault taking. The grip foul is rampant in the NBA.
It is the foul in which a player intentionally fouls an opposing player in the middle of the counterattack, usually when at a numerical disadvantage, in order to stop play.
Why is it a problem? By committing a foul on a player in the middle of a counter-attack, the game is interrupted because after a personal foul, the game is resumed by taking the ball out to the side.
This means that the defending team can neutralize the advantages of a fastbreak, these advantages usually being open ground, a power play, coaster defense and attacking with a head start – the defense can prevent a chance in gold for attacking with a single foul.
Additionally, the grab foul does not require any defensive effort; all a player has to do is wrap their arms around the ball carrier and the foul will be called. Fouls are meant to punish the team that commits them. But the taking fault is the opposite; this benefits the team that hires them, encouraging lazy play.
There’s an old adage that basketball savants like to use: If you wouldn’t make it in a pickup game at your local park, it’s not a game of basketball. You would never foul in your weekly YMCA Recreational League game – you would be ridiculed from the gym. So why is it at the highest level of basketball? By allowing the foul to exist, the NBA loses the most exciting aspects of basketball.
The chaos of a fastbreak allows all sorts of wild games to happen. From poster dunks to alley-oops and lobs, from tic-tac-toe passes to transition threes – fastbreaks deliver the most exhilarating moments in basketball.
Imagine if Jason Terry fouls before the Heat set up the Lebron James alley-oop. The world would have been deprived of this highlight.
To the NBA’s credit, she put a rule in place in hopes of deterring teams from fouls. Dubbed the cleared lane foul, the rule was put in place to punish teams for committing flagrant fouls that prevent scoring opportunities in transition. According to the official 2021-22 NBA rulebook, the rules state:
“A clear path to the field goal foul occurs if: (i) a personal foul is committed on an offensive player during his team’s transition scoring opportunity; (ii) when the foul occurs the ball is in front point of the circle in the backcourt, no defender is in front of the attacking player with a chance to score and that attacking player is in control of the ball or has issued a pass to him; and (iii) the defensive foul forfeits the team offense a scoring opportunity in transition.”
If a foul meets said criteria, the team is rewarded with two free throw attempts and the ball with a severe penalty intended to discourage this type of play. However, the criteria for a clear path foul are tricky.
Sometimes a defender is ahead of the game but will still choose to take the foul because they are outnumbered at the break: https://youtu.be/KVXipyJDEnA.
Or the team in transition will look like they have a guy in front of the defender in scoring position, but the player fouls before play develops.
Or the defense will do what we call it https://youtu.be/6JIsg2yBQ6Q.
In general, the clear path foul rule does not cover enough scenarios in which the foul stops the flow of play to the benefit of the defense.
In this clip of Draymond Green committing fouls, compiled by Athletic’s Anthony Slater, those fouls do not meet the criteria for a clear lane, either because they are committed in the front court or because the defense is ahead of the game: https://twitter.com/anthonyvslater/status/1454845147234013190?s=21.
Green’s sentiment towards foul-taking is relatable: “I’m all for (legislating) but until they change it I’m going to use it for sure.”
In international basketball, the grappling foul has been virtually erased from the sport.
In FIBA rules, referees have the discretion to call “unsportsmanlike fouls” under this specific criterion under 37.1.1 of the rulebook: “Contact with an opponent and legitimate attempt not to play the ball directly into the spirit and intent of the rules.”
Fouls committed do not attempt to play ball within the spirit and intent of the rules, earning a team a heavy penalty.
Take this game for example: https://youtu.be/d8wUMArTNow
Under NBA free lane rules, this would be considered a common foul because it takes place in the front court and the defender was in step with the ball handler. However, the referee recognized the advantage this created for the defense because the player had the opportunity to score quickly with most of the defense still going – and as such called an unsportsmanlike foul .
It may seem strange to solve this problem by giving referees the power to subjectively apply this foul, but based on the clear lane foul, a specific guess cannot encompass all scenarios.
The solution is on the table. Train referees to recognize when players are blatantly committing fouls on purpose. If it is clear to the viewer at home and to every fan and player in the arena, it should also be easy for three trained referees to recognize.
Kenzo Fukuda covers the stick. Contact him at [email protected].