There are Too Many Fouls in the NBA Playoffs. Here’s How the League Can Fix It.

The stadium scene.
June 6 2012 5:06 PM

Eastern Conference Hackfest

The playoffs would be more fun if there were fewer whistles. Here’s how the league can fix its foul trouble.

Kevin Garnett foul.
Kevin Garnett, No. 5, of the Boston Celtics reacts as Mario Chalmers , No. 15, of the Miami Heat helps up teammates LeBron James, No. 6, in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals on June 3, 2012 at TD Garden in Boston, Mass.

Photograph by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

Basketball fans, rejoice: We are in a golden age of nonfouling. During the 2011-12 regular season, teams committed 19.6 fouls per game, the puniest amount in NBA history. This is not an anomaly. The five most-recent seasons have been the five least-fouling years in NBA history.

What’s behind the lack of hacks? In an interview with SI.com’s Zach Lowe back in January, NBA vice president Stu Jackson said he believes it dates back to 2004, when the league started cracking down on perimeter contact. Fouls went up initially, as defenders were slow to learn that hand checks were impermissible. But after 2007, the game opened up as guards faced fewer impediments when driving into the lane, fouling decreased, and scoring increased. (Scoring dropped in this lockout-shortened season as field goal percentage, three-point percentage, and free throw percentage all declined.)

If you’ve been watching the playoffs, you might find it insane to suggest that nobody fouls any more. And you’d be right: There have been 1.6 more fouls per team per game in the 2012 playoffs than in the regular season. But as you can see in the chart below, the playoff foul fest is an annual NBA trend:

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When it comes to fouling, one series has been particularly brutal. While the Western Conference Finals between San Antonio and Oklahoma City have hovered around the 2012 playoff fouling average, the Boston-Miami series has been off the charts. There have been a remarkable 239 fouls in five games in the Eastern Conference Finals—5.3 more per game than a typical 2012 playoff contest and almost 10 more than in an average regular-season meeting. The peak of this madness came in the Celtics’ Game 4 win, in which the teams combined for 58 muggings, flops, and charges; Paul Pierce and LeBron James both fouled out in overtime; and, in a halftime interview, Boston point guard Rajon Rondo noted that his team was consciously taking advantage of the Heat “complaining and crying to the referees in transition.”

It’s a problem for the NBA that the league’s showcase games are marred by hacks, complaints, and endless trips to the free-throw line. The ugly aesthetics of foul after foul are exacerbated by playoff games’ grindingly slow pace. With a championship in sight, teams dial down the fast break and play more in the half court. According to Basketball Reference’s “Pace Factor” stats, which tally up possessions per 48 minutes, there’s been only one season in the last 38 in which the playoffs had a faster tempo than the regular season. (That was 1985, when the “Showtime” Lakers ran past the Celtics in the Finals.)

Throughout basketball history, there have always been more fouls in faster-paced games—the greater the number of shots and rebounds, the more opportunities for whistles. The playoffs, however, turn this convention on its head. Postseason games are a brutal combination of slow and foul-laden. There have been 0.48 fouls per possession in the 2012 playoffs compared to 0.43 in the regular season, an increase of 11 percent. As the graph below indicates, that postseason rise happens every year in the modern NBA.

So, what can the league do about its foul trouble? It’s reasonable to believe that a close, high-stakes game would feature more fouls than a late-season, lackadaisical matinee between the Bobcats and Raptors. A hard smack on a layup attempt—a “playoff foul”—is seen by fans and announcers as a refusal to concede defeat. But it’s just not as fun to watch a game in which the whistle stops play on nearly every possession. We want to see LeBron James and Paul Pierce play tough, fluid basketball. We don’t want to see a football game on hardwood.

I agree with Beckley Mason and Henry Abbott of TrueHoop that the onus shouldn’t be on the referees. Though refs vary in competence, even the best zebras are burdened with an impossible task. When players are ramming into each other and toppling over on every possession, what are the guys with the whistles supposed to do? Mason and Abbott are also correct to suggest that the league needs both to discourage fouls and to come up with different punishments for those who commit them.

There’s an easy fix in the discouragement category: Call more flagrant fouls. If someone—let’s call him “LeBron”—is chugging along on the fast break and a defender grabs him around the waist, that should rise to the level of a flagrant foul: “unnecessary contact committed by a player against an opponent.” In that case, LeBron’s team would get two free throws and retain possession. To avoid that fate, defenders would have to make a legitimate play on the ball, which doesn’t seem like too much to ask. If such a rule were enforced, the pace of play would increase and teams in defensive retreat couldn’t use fouls as a get-out-of-jail-free card.

The league’s macro problem, though, is illustrated by the phenomenon of “drawing fouls.” In Game 4 of the Heat-Celtics series, Paul Pierce and LeBron James fouled out because Shane Battier and Mickael Pietrus were rewarded for falling over. Offensive players, most notably Dwyane Wade, are also guilty of jumping into defenders and throwing up nonsense shots as a ploy to get to the line. The fact that players strategically seek out contact on offense and defense is an indication that the NBA’s rules encourage fouling rather than discourage it.

The pie chart below, which uses data collected by the blog Weak Side Awareness, shows how many fouls of different types were committed during the 2010-11 regular season. (That’s the most-recent data I was able to track down.)

Though offensive fouls aren’t all that prevalent proportionally, they are the biggest affront to stylish basketball. When a guy like Battier plants himself in the lane, he transforms a graceful jaunt to the rim into a graceless pile-up. As ESPN broadcaster Jeff Van Gundy has argued, this problem could be alleviated by expanding the “restricted zone” under the basket—the semi-circle wherein it’s illegal for a defender to draw a charge. Increasing the radius of that half-circle would surely prevent Battier and his ilk from behaving like statuary in the lane.

But more generally, I believe the offense needs to get the benefit of the doubt on block/charge calls. A drive to the basket is an optimistic, joyful move; trying to get run over is a cynical one. Though an offensive player should be called for charging if he rams through a defender in a set position, the NBA should draw a harder line about what constitutes a set position. You have a right to your spot on the floor. You should not have a right to slide to a spot on the floor with the intent of getting run over. If you happen to get stampeded, that’s a charge. If you maneuver yourself so you get stampeded, that’s a block.

Some have suggested that post-game video reviews could put an end to flopping. Such a system would be helpful in weeding out egregious abuses, such as the Celtics’ Pietrus flinging himself to the ground to draw a technical foul on Mario Chalmers. But fines for flopping would address the main symptom of the league’s fouling problems, not the cause. The only way to get fouls under control is to change what constitutes a foul, and to decrease the incentives for fouling. Shane Battier draws fouls because he’s rewarded for it. Take away the reward, and you’ll take away the fouls.