Officiating changes in the NBA this season are being made to eliminate instances of players going out of their way to warp the game beyond the way it normally is played, according to Monty McCutchen, who oversees the on-court performance of the league’s referees.
“We want basketball to be played, not manipulated,” McCutchen, NBA senior vice president, head of referee development and training, said in a Zoom call with reporters Thursday afternoon.
The NBA has been quick to point out that the revised focus isn’t on rule changes but rather interpretive changes — ones designed to eliminate some of the overt foul-drawing plays that have become pervasive in recent seasons, as some of the league’s best players, including the Atlanta Hawks‘ Trae Young and the Brooklyn Nets‘ James Harden, have constantly found new ways to create free throw attempts.
“NBA referees are no longer in the business of what would have happened,” McCutchen said, adding that the goal is to determine whether there is an “overt, abrupt or abnormal motion” when the offensive player starts to create contact with the defender.
Some examples of those plays include a shooter launching or leaning into a defender at an abnormal angle; an offensive player abruptly veering off path (sideways or backward) into a defender; a shooter kicking his leg up or to the side at an abnormal angle; and an offensive player using his off arm to hook the defender.
The biggest change for this season is that the NBA will now call an offensive foul on a player who gets a defender into the air with a pump fake and launches himself into the defender to draw a foul in an unnatural motion.
McCutchen was quick to point out — and had several examples to back it up — that the NBA does not want to eliminate players from pump-faking a defender into the air and drawing a foul. If an offensive player gets a defender in the air and would be fouled in a normal shooting motion, that will remain a defensive foul.
“We want there to be equal opportunities to compete with passion and skill,” McCutchen said. “And we want flow in the game, and we want the game of basketball to be played as the game of basketball — not individual 1-on-1-offs in an attempt to get the most efficiency.”
Still, McCutchen said, there will be plenty of ways for players to get to the foul line. One move that has not been removed from players’ arsenals is the ability to come around a screen and go straight up into a shooting motion, causing the defender to run into them from behind and draw a foul.
What won’t be allowed is players going out of their way to jump in front of a defender and then stopping, causing the defender to run into them and thereby drawing contact.
“We don’t want to disincentivize free throws,” McCutchen said. “We want to disincentivize abnormal moves whose sole purpose is to get free throws.”
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