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Fouls that NBA doesn't enforce

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(Photo by Keith Allison under CC BY-SA 2.0.)


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MARCH 18, 2022

For the most part, the NBA has worked to make basketball purely about basketball. 

They’ve taken away the head-hunting fouls that defined teams like Isaiah Thomas’ Detroit Pistons. They’ve gotten rid of the hack-a-Shaq nonsense that’s stalled games to silly free-throw competition. Kevin Durant’s rip through foul exploitation? Gone. The Zaza Pachulia à la Bruce Bowen crowding the jump shooter’s landing space? Shamed into disgrace.

Each of these rule changes has made basketball more fun to watch. Nobody wants to see Michael Jordan get clotheslined by Bill Laimbeer or watch Shaq brick his free throws. 

Each of those fouls were exploits, little loopholes that players used to game the game to their advantage. They were not fun to watch and they did not feel like basketball. 

The latest iteration of unfun foul exploitation is the take foul. The take foul is plaguing the NBA. 

It is the foul in which a player intentionally fouls an opposing player in the middle of the fastbreak, usually when they are at a numbers disadvantage, in order to stop the play. 

Why is this a problem? By fouling a player in the middle of a fastbreak, the play is grinded to a halt because after a personal foul the play is resumed by taking the ball out on the side. 

This means that the defending team can neutralize the advantages of a fastbreak, those advantages usually being an open floor, a numbers advantage, a backpedaling defense and an offense with a head start — the defense can prevent a golden opportunity for the offense with a single foul. 

Additionally, the take foul requires no defensive effort; all a player has to do is wrap their arms around the ball handler and the foul will be called. Fouls are supposed to punish the team that commits them. But the take foul is the opposite; it benefits the team that commits them, encouraging lazy play.

There is an old adage that basketball savants like to use: If you wouldn’t do it in a pickup game at your local park, it’s not a basketball play. You would never commit a take foul at your weekly YMCA rec-league game— you would be laughed out of the gym. So why is it in the highest level of basketball? In allowing the take foul to exist, the NBA loses out on the most exciting aspects of basketball. 

The chaos of a fastbreak allows for all sorts of wild plays to occur. From posterizer dunks to alley-oops and lobs, from tic-tac-toe passing to transition threes — fastbreaks offer the most exhilarating moments of basketball. 

Imagine if Jason Terry committed a take foul before the Heat set up the Lebron James alley-oop. The world would have been robbed of that highlight reel moment.

To the NBA’s credit, it put a rule in place in the hopes of deterring teams from committing take fouls. Dubbed the clear path foul, the rule was put in place to punish teams from committing egregious fouls that prevent scoring opportunities in transition. Per the official NBA rulebook of 2021-2022, the rules state:

“A clear path to the basket foul occurs if: (i) personal foul is committed on any offensive player during his team’s transition scoring opportunity; (ii) when the foul occurs, the ball is ahead the tip of the circle in the backcourt, no defender is ahead of the offensive player with the scoring opportunity and that offensive player is in control of the ball or a pass to him has been released; and (iii) the defensive foul deprives the offensive team of a transition scoring opportunity.

If a foul reaches the said criteria, the team is rewarded two free-throw attempts and the ball with a steep penalty designed to discourage this type of play. However, the criteria for a clear path foul is tricky. 

Sometimes a defender is ahead of the play but will elect to take the foul anyway because they are outnumbered on the break: https://youtu.be/KVXipyJDEnA.

Or the team in transition will look as though it will have a guy ahead of the defender in position to score, but the player fouls before the play develops. 

Or the defense will do whatever this is called https://youtu.be/6JIsg2yBQ6Q.

In general, the clear path foul rule doesn’t cover enough scenarios in which the foul stops the flow of the game in the advantage of the defense.

In this clip of Draymond Green committing take fouls, compiled by Anthony Slater of the Athletic, these fouls don’t meet the criteria for clear path whether it be because they are committed in the front court or because the defense is ahead of the play: https://twitter.com/anthonyvslater/status/1454845147234013190?s=21

Green’s sentiment towards the take foul is relatable: “I’m all for (legislating it out) but until they change it, I’m going to use it, for sure.” 

In international basketball, the take foul has been all but erased from the sport.

In FIBA’s ruleset, referees have discretion to call “unsportsmanlike fouls” under this specific criteria under 37.1.1 of the rulebook: “Contact with an opponent and not legitimately attempting to directly play the ball within the spirit and intent of the rules.” 

Take fouls are not attempting to play ball within the spirit and intent of the rules, earning a team a heavy penalty.

Take this play for example: https://youtu.be/d8wUMArTNow

Under the NBA’s clear-path rules, this would be deemed a common foul because it takes place in the front court and the defender was step in step with the ball handler. However, the referee recognized the advantage it created for the defense because the player had an opportunity to score quickly with most of the defense still running back — and as such, called an unsportsmanlike foul. 

It might seem strange to solve this issue by giving referees the power to subjectively enforce this foul, but based on the clear-path foul, specific conjecture cannot encompass every scenario. 

The solution is right on the table. Train the referees to recognize when players are blatantly committing take fouls on purpose. If it’s clear for the viewer at home and every fan and player in the arena, it should be easy for three trained referees to recognize it as well.

Kenzo Fukuda covers lacrosse. Contact him at [email protected].

MARCH 18, 2022