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It took awhile, but NBA finally got this right

The approach to how the league officiates nonbasketball moves is having its intended effect — more basketball, fewer free throws

Brooklyn Nets’ James Harden talks with a referee a foul Harden was called for during game against Chicago, Nov. 8, 2021.
Brooklyn Nets’ James Harden talks with referee JB DeRosa about a foul Harden was called for during game against the Chicago Bulls Monday, Nov. 8, 2021, in Chicago. A change in the rules has already reduced how many times Harden, and fellow NBA players, are getting to the foul line.
Charles Rex Arbogast, Associated Press

The NBA finally did something right. During the offseason, league officials — the same people who have slept through the super team era and player collusion — decided to do something about an old and growing problem in the league.

James Harden.

Well, not exactly Harden; just the antics he has employed over the years. League officials decided they would no longer allow offensive players to execute “non-basketball moves” to draw foul calls — leaning into defenders, getting them up in the air and stepping into them, hooking defenders with an arm to make it look like a foul. In other words, all the tricks Harden has employed to become a star.

The NBA said enough.

It’s a long overdue change. It will speed up the game — who wants to watch all those game stoppages for free throws? — and prevent players such as Harden from getting cheap points.

Harden, the Brooklyn Nets guard, has made it an art form. He crafted several creative (phony) ways to get to the foul line (there are plenty of YouTube videos out there if you want to see the nonsense he has pulled off). Is there anyone who will miss him flopping around the floor like a gaffed tuna, selling his act?

Harden had only nine free throws in the first three games of the season — he averaged 10-11 per game for nearly a decade. During one season he averaged nearly 12. So far this season, he is averaging 4.8 free throws per game and his scoring average has dropped from 24.6 last season to 18.7. He is so frustrated that after finally drawing a foul call during a game against the Bulls Monday night, he launched a sarcastic celebration.

“I’m not the type to complain about it,” said Harden (small aside here: yes, he is). “I ask every official if they see a foul just call a foul. Sometimes I feel like coming into a game it’s already predetermined or I already have the stigma of getting foul calls.”

“I feel like he’s unfairly become the poster boy of not calling these fouls,” Nets coach Steve Nash told reporters after a game in late October. “Some of them could definitely be fouls still, but they’re so alert and aware and he’s the poster child of these new decisions. I get it, there’s a line, but some of them are still fouls.”

Undoubtedly, the NBA was thinking of Harden when the rules were tweaked. He is the poster boy for abusing fouls. He earned it and brought all this attention upon himself. From the 2012-13 to 2019-20, he averaged 10.4 free throws per game. He also averaged 29.6 points per game during those years with 30.3% of his points coming at the foul line. He led the league in foul shots seven of those eight years.

As was noted here in a 2018 column, all this might be acceptable if Harden were drawing legitimate fouls at such an alarming rate, but he intentionally forced many of them, or pretended. If a defender extended his arms horizontally, Harden attacked him, sweeping the ball or his arms through the defender’s extended arms to force a foul. Or he might use his left arm to hook his opponent under the left armpit as he leaps toward the basket with the ball in his right hand.

What was remarkable is the referees bought what this guy was selling.

During one six-year stretch from 2012-13 to 2017-2018, these were the leaders in free-throw attempts: James Harden 4,726; Russell Westbrook 3,501; DeMar DeRozan 3,350; DeMarcus Cousins 3,286; LeBron James, 3,201. In other words, Harden shot 1,225 more free throws than anyone in the league.

During the 2018 playoffs, Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell dared to complain about Harden’s game. “If that’s what he needs to be the (expletive) MVP ...” he said.

The change in rules hasn’t just impacted Harden; it has impacted the entire league. As The Washington Post noted, the last three seasons have seen teams scoring at an ever higher rate — an average of 111.2 points per game, then 111.8 points and last year 112.1 points, the latter two the highest scoring seasons since 1979 (the year the 3-point shot was adopted). The first two weeks of the current season saw scoring fall to 107.8 points per game. Per the Post, as of Nov. 5 teams were attempting 20 free throws per game, the fewest in league history, down from 21.8 in 2020-21 and 23.1 in 2019-20.

“The approach to non-basketball moves is having its intended effect of cleaning up that area of the game and getting back to the skilled pump fakes and normal moves,” NBA President of League Operations Byron Spruell told Post reporter Ben Golliver. “Getting back to the beauty and skill of the game. The committee was unanimously supportive of where we are and where we’re headed, and they feel like we’re going in the right direction. So does the league, by the way.”

Meanwhile, Harden and other players like him will have to figure out a new way to find more points; they’ll have to earn them.