During the offseason, some of the buzz centered around the new emphasis referees were going to be placing on how they called fouls. We have seen this before with rip-throughs no longer being shooting fouls and awkward “shooting” fouls being effectively curbed due to no calls. Now refs were tasked with focusing on the various pump fake, lean-in shooting fouls, offensive players randomly stopping their dribbles, and other unnatural basketball plays that have proliferated through the league. The league was turning into a gotcha on the refs, and, not only was lame, it was creating game flow and stat lines that were unruly.
Scoring Had Been on the Rise
This peaked last season, where the median offensive rating was 112.96 according to Basketball-Reference, as these types of fouls were everywhere. Coupled with no fans in the stands, scoring numbers, both team and individually, were on another level. In the 2017-18 season, the median offensive rating was 109.58.
Another way that illustrated the scoring boom was charted by Curtis Harris, aka Pro Hoops History, showing the gigantic leap of 24.2+ per game scorers from 2017-2021. Since the NBA/ABA merger, there had never been more than 47 scorers top that mark in any five-year period. 2017-21 saw an astronomically high 70 players score 24.2 or more per game!
Combine the increased emphasis on pace and these unnatural fouls running rampant, stat lines were becoming ahistorical. Now some of this can be explained by more threes being taken and increased player skill, but not something that saw offensive ratings records set seemingly every year. While the league can’t stop teams from shooting threes or playing faster, they could certainly look at the foul call. And that is exactly what they did.
Less Fouls, Less Scoring
Now, we are only seven or eight games into the season, small sample size caveats, but scoring is down. Way down. The median offensive rating so far in this young season is 107.29. Raw scoring is down too with the league average at 107.4 this year compared to a whopping 112.1 last season. We even have three teams averaging below 100 points a game.
Some might be lamenting the dip in scoring, after all, who doesn’t want to see the hoop filled with basketballs? Well, you might have guessed based on the title, the author is enjoying the dip in scoring. To me, there is something to be said for give and take between the offense and the defense. What we saw building ever since the end of the hand check, illegal defense rules, and rise in threes was turning the league into a glorified pickup game. The ethos “it’s a make or miss league” was becoming way too literal.
As this article from the Boston Sports Journal notes, the free throw rate per 100 field goals is at an all-time low. Already in the first two weeks, we’ve seen Trae Young and Steve Nash complain about the lack of calls they feel have been doled out. Good riddance, I say. Yes, has there been an awkward adjustment period for the refs as they seek to avoid getting got? No doubt. But as the season goes, the players and refs in the league will adjust to the new, better normal.
open season on mauling James Harden right now. pic.twitter.com/CEJphfgNa2— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) October 30, 2021
This is not to say that to say scoring will continue to take such a large dip. Many people with more access to stats have already shown that shooting percentages tend to rise over the season. This includes three-point percentage which is below 35% for only the fifth time in the last 25 years. However, the new emphasis on certain foul calls combined with a slight downtick in threes will allow defenses to take back some control of the game.
Hopefully, this trend can continue. It’s better to see those 130-122 games of last year become the extreme outliers. Games of the 111-105 variety tend to see more back and forth strategy. Forcing players to use more skill that doesn’t result in stopping the game is better for the viewers. Now if we could also see the Euro foul diminished, we’d be in business.