Teams are earning free throws at a near-record low rate. Is it the lockout, new rule interpretations that make it harder to draw shooting fouls or some other factor? SI.com sat down with NBA vice president Stu Jackson this week to discuss what might be driving this trend.
SI.com: You’ve surely seen the numbers. Teams are getting to the line much less often than before. What’s your take? Is it the lockout? Is it because officials are allowing a more physical game? Or is it the new rule interpretations — not calling shooting fouls on the Kevin Durant rip-through move and plays where the offensive player creates contact and then goes up?
Jackson: The trend, obviously, is that we’re down. But we’ve sort of consistently been down in terms of fouls and free throws since probably , when we really started to emphasize the freedom of movement. We got a huge spike [in fouls and free throws], and then, as the players started adjusting, it’s been going down.
This year, the delta is a little greater than in previous years. Do we know about it? Yeah. It’s what keeps us up at night. And you start to look for reasons why. One of the first places you go is, “Is it an officiating issue?” But that doesn’t give us any help, either, because the number of non-calls is relatively consistent with other years. So it can’t be explained that way. Do I think it’ll get better? I do, as the year goes on.
SI.com: It’s interesting you use the word “better.” Does that mean the league considers it a problem?
Jackson: I hesitate saying this. In a typical year, the number of fouls called typically declines from the beginning of the season [to the end]. I’m hoping that our foul-calling and free throws stay consistent throughout this season, because if we stay consistent where we are now, it’ll be about where it ended up last year. So I’m hoping we don’t get that decline we get in any given season. That’s what I mean when I say “getting better.”
If we’re talking here in three months, and the foul rate starts to decline the way it did in previous seasons, then I think we have to find out why.
SI.com: So getting back to the reasons behind the decline in free throws …
Jackson: Anecdotally, teams are playing a little bit more zone. That may be a result of coaches wanting to, from a strategical standpoint, mix things up. And also, to try to go easier on the legs.
SI.com: You mentioned non-calls before, and how the number of non-calls are the same. What exactly is a “non-call”? Do you watch each game, track each time two players bump into each other and decide whether a call should have been made?
Jackson: Yeah, basically. We’ve got an observer in the arena for each one of our games, or if they are not in the arena, they watch the tape of the game, and that’s all they do is evaluate the game play-by-play. And one of the primary focuses of those evaluations is physical play and freedom of movement. If there are instances where there is contact, more than marginal contact that wasn’t called [a foul], that’s a non-call incorrect.
SI.com: And you’re not seeing more of those.
Jackson: It’s flat.
SI.com: David Thorpe of ESPN.com mentioned earlier this week that he’s seeing fewer impeding-progress calls on the perimeter, where a ball-handler dribbles into a defender and gets the call. You disagree?
Jackson: I haven’t gotten that impression. And we haven’t seen that in the data, either, in terms of non-calls. The number of non-calls per game has been consistent with other seasons. I can’t stress it enough: This is something we look at on a daily basis. It’s what keeps us up at night. And we haven’t seen that — that the game is more physical. It’s not. We don’t see a more physical game, where there are calls that used to be calls that aren’t being called now.
SI.com: So, at this point, you’re attributing the drop in free throws to zone and randomness, basically?
Jackson: There’s got to be some explanation. Because if it weren’t flat, we’d probably be seeing a more physical game, and ultimately that would be supported by the data.
SI.com: So the new rules — or rule interpretations — aren’t behind the decline?
Jackson: No, no. In terms of the rip-through play, there’s probably not even a half of one of those a game.
SI.com: I’m thinking more of the emphasis on not calling shooting fouls when an offensive player initiates contact before the player starts his shooting motion. So, for instance, when Paul Pierce drops his shoulder, bangs into someone and then rises up to shoot, it’s not a shooting foul. Is that connected to the free-throw decline?
Jackson: No. It’s too early.
Jackson: Not in relationship to the total free throws. But I will say this: In the last year or two, one of the other interpretations that I think could lead into [the drop in free throws] is the fact of verticality. What teams are getting better at is that big guy in the paint going straight up. And what officials are getting better at is not giving the benefit all the time to the offensive player if the defender goes straight up. So you get contact in there, but we don’t interpret that necessarily as a foul. If a defender goes vertical and we get hard contact, it could in fact be not only no-call, but it could be an offensive foul. So that may explain away some of the [decline in] free throws, along with the rip-through plays.
SI.com: Everyone hates the rip-through play.
Jackson: It’s funny, when we were looking at the interpretation, we went back and looked at games from before, and guys didn’t do that, like back in Bob Lanier’s day. They didn’t go out and seek contact with a defender’s arm and try to manufacture a shooting motion.
The competition committee said it’s a play that looks bad. They said, “Look, this is a fool-the-referee type play. It’s not good for the game. It defies the spirit of the game, and oh, by the way, it really looks bad” — for us and for fans.
SI.com: Is the new emphasis on non-shooting fouls being applied correctly, even if it’s not leading to the drop in free throws?
Jackson: Yeah. I think the officials have done a terrific job. I think it’s just one of those interpretations that made sense. They didn’t like it either.
SI.com: Do coaches and GMs and other personnel around the league like the new interpretations, based on feedback you get?
Jackson: They like it.
SI.com: Even coaches who have players who are good at it?
Jackson: Well, they won’t like it. Just overall, the feedback I’m getting from general managers is that it’s a good thing.
SI.com: The other idea is that having fewer fouls, or fewer free throws, isn’t a bad thing. They slow the game down. I watch a lot of games on DVR so I can fast-forward through free throws.
Jackson: It’s only a bad thing if the games become too physical. I can’t stress that enough.That’s the tipping point. We don’t want to revert to the game of the 1990s. We can’t go back to that.
SI.com: You mentioned the competition committee before. As I recall, the new CBA settlement included an agreement that there would be some sort of new committee, possibly involving players, to talk about possible rule changes and things like that. Is my memory right? Does that exist yet?
Jackson: During the bargaining process, there were a series of basketball operations-type issues that were not resolved at the time. But the players and [the NBA] thought that some of these issues had some merit, in terms of not only discussion, but a potential resolution. So they came up with a concept of having a working committee. The working committee is theoretically going to involve players. It may involve an owner or two. Certainly league office personnel. The whole idea was that this committee would meet and try to resolve these basketball-operations issues.
SI.com: You mean on-court stuff, right?
Jackson: Not necessarily on-court. There are some other things, like the draft combine. What do we do with that? What’s that going to look like going forward?
SI.com: Do you mean including five-on-five play in the combine instead of just all those drills?
Jackson: Anything goes. Like players having to participate in more [combine] activities — is that something we should look at? Other items are just sort of player-related. Players are under a great deal of stress throughout the season, so should we look at working conditions, like days off.
SI.com: You’ve been around the league a long time, obviously, and you’ve seen two different lockout-shortened seasons now. In general, what are you noticing that’s different about this season? Anything stand out?
Jackson: Taking into account that today would be [close to] the start of the regular season [after a full training camp and preseason] under normal circumstances, what we’ve seen a lot of is just you have a game here and there that looks like a preseason game. Quite frankly, players who normally have open shots they would make, wide-open looks, and they miss a shot.