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NBA lays out new focus on stopping “manipulated,” non-basketball play fouls

Milwaukee Bucks v Atlanta Hawks - Game Three

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - JUNE 27: Trae Young #11 of the Atlanta Hawks argues a call with referee Marc Davis #8 during the first half in game three of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks at State Farm Arena on June 27, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

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“We want basketball to be played, not manipulated.”

That was how Monty McCutchen, the VP of referee training and development for the NBA (the guy who oversees the referees), put it on Thursday. Over the past couple of years, there has been a growing trend of players leaping sideways, or awkwardly forward, kicking out their legs unnaturally, or making other moves that would start an argument in a playground pickup game all in an attempt to draw fouls. Steve Kerr complained about it, but it worked. The way the NBA rules were interpreted, those were fouls.

No more. At least that’s the plan starting this season.

Referees have gone through extensive training this past week about not calling fouls on “abnormal, abrupt, or overt movements” that are not part of a natural basketball play, McCutchen said. For example, the trend where shooters pump-fake a defender into the air (often at the arc) then launch themselves awkwardly forward to draw contact will now be either a no-call or an offensive foul.

In a zoom meeting with reporters, McCutchen had plenty of video evidence of what would and would not be a foul now, saying the rules have not changed, but this is a different interpretation of them. For example, Stephen Curry drew a foul on this play leaping sideways into Donte DiVincenzo to draw contact; this season it would be called an offensive foul.

As would this unnatural leg kick by Dillon Brooks.

Paul George drew a foul on Donovan Mitchell with this play a year ago; now it should be seen as a no-call.

Of course, there will be gray areas and bumps along the way, with McCutchen saying several times that the NBA’s Competition Committee — made up of player representatives, GMs, league officials, and more — would review the data and make adjustments. Plus, it will just take some time for players and officials to adjust.

It’s not also always going to be clear-cut. Back to the idea of a player at the three-point line pump faking to get a defender in the air, often those players land very close to the shooter, and there is a natural forward drift with any shooter taking a jumper from there. So, where is the line between intent to draw a foul and a natural shooting motion? Sometimes it is obvious, sometimes less so.

One other situation to watch is when a ball-handler coming off a high pick gets his defender on his back. If the ball-handler stops abruptly and steps backward or laterally to draw contact, then that is now a no-call or offensive foul. However, a player is allowed to both stop or go up for a shot at any time. If, for example, Trae Young gets a defender on his back, gets to the free throw line, and just stops and the defender runs into him, that is still a defensive foul. If in that same situation Young goes up suddenly for a shot, the defender behind him commits the foul if he runs into Young. The ball handler may be stopping abruptly to create contact, but the ball handler always has the right to just stop or go up for a shot, the defender has to be aware of that.

The league has steered away from asking referees to judge a player’s intention in calling fouls, which is why McCutchen said the “abnormal, abrupt, or overt movements” criteria are in place. But it will not be easy. Sometimes players leap sideways on a shot not to create contact but to make it harder for a defender to block. There will be some interpretation by referees.

But at least it’s a step in the right direction by the league, taking steps to do away with the foul hunting that has become too much of the NBA game.