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Kolsky: NBA refs are giving freedom to the wrong movements

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Damian Jones (15) of the Golden State Warriors takes a free throw against of the Los Angeles Lakers during the second quarter on October 12, 2018 at SAP Center in San Jose, California. (Chris Victorio / Special to S.F. Examiner)

One of the great things about the NBA, especially when compared to America’s other two major sports leagues, is a willingness to admit inadequacies and make measured adjustments.

This year’s, the NBA’s “Points of Education” for its officials made a couple of clear improvements — resetting the shot clock to 14 instead of 24 on offensive rebounds and clarifying the “clear path” rule — but the initiative addressing “freedom of movement” has hit some snags.

It has led to some ugly, choppy games with a preponderance of foul calls. The Warriors have been as much a victim as anyone, racking up more than 26 fouls per game, up from under 20 last season.  Bottom line — this is not what we want to watch.

The goal is to eliminate, or at least reduce, “arm wraps, grabbing and dislodging by both offensive and defensive players.” The league even makes available a handy video featuring VP of Referee Development and Training Monty McCutchen.

While helpful to understanding the goal of the rule changes, that video also serves to elucidate exactly what some refs are doing wrong. The examples of what should be called fouls all have something in common — they significantly and directly impact the outcome of the play.

It includes plays where a defender re-routes a player who would have caught the ball; “wrap” plays where a defender bear-hugs someone to keep them from gaining advantageous position; defenders beaten on screen plays who grab a roller by the arm to stop their unimpeded route to the basket.

In short — they are all off-ball plays, but none of them are irrelevant or incidental.

What we have seen far too much in the early-going are touch fouls on off-ball plays that have no direct effect on outcome; most notably, perimeter defenders away from the ball getting whistled for fighting over screens.

Generally, the Warriors have accepted responsibility when asked about what has looked from the sidelines like a tough whistle. But Draymond Green didn’t mince words when he was asked about the purpose of the rule adjustments: “Defense isn’t really an emphasis anymore in this league … I think you’re seeing it all around the league with these high scores. We know what the emphasis is.”

He’s right, but what he doesn’t address in that quote is that these changes should benefit the Warriors. In fact, Jeff Van Gundy believes the NBA’s Points of Emphasis are built to do just that.

“It’s all about the Warriors,” Van Gundy told ESPN’s Kevin Pelton. “Any team like that, that tries to play like that and has the skill, obviously, is going to be rewarded. The NBA doesn’t necessarily favor a team, I don’t think, but they favor a style.”

The problem is that so far the wrong things are being rewarded. Lakers head coach and old Warriors pal Luke Walton addressed it after a frustrating loss (though he may just have been complaining about his own team’s tough whistle at the time):

“If we are going to play a certain way, let’s not reward people for flopping 30 feet from the hole on plays that have nothing to do with that possession … And then not reward players that are physically going to the basket and getting hit. It’s not right.”

Not only is it not right, it’s not at all what the league is looking for. As McCutchen told ESPN, “I think the idea is, if we’re consistent and the players adjust, the flow will return, but not only will it return, it will return to a better, more free-flowing game.”

So far the game is distinctly less free-flowing — fouls are up from 19.9 per game last year to 23.2, which would be the highest in nearly 20 years. The issue is actually best captured in a different portion of the NBA’s rulebook, one that a lot of people seem a little shaky on — specifically, the distinction between incidental and illegal contact:

“The mere fact that contact occurs does not necessarily constitute a foul. Contact which is incidental to an effort by a player to play an opponent, reach a loose ball, or perform normal defensive or offensive movements, should not be considered illegal.”

Too many referees seem to be honoring the new Points of Education over that tried-and-true tenet of NBA officiating. Klay Thompson making contact with a player on the opposite side of the court from the ball as he fights through a screen is incidental contact, whether there’s an emphasis on off-ball freedom of movement or not.

The good news is that this will likely work itself out. As McCutchen suggests in his comments, there is always an adjustment period with new Points of Education and the players and refs usually find an equilibrium by midseason. The NBA is thoughtful and usually effective when it comes to addressing problems like these, and in all likelihood they are already communicating with the officials about it.

More good news — if the freedom of movement emphasis does ultimately achieve its desired effect, it would mean Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant having an easier path to open looks. It would mean the Warriors have even more opportunity to achieve the peak “flow” that Steve Kerr is always talking about.

That is what we want to watch.

Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear him on the Bay Area sports radio station 95.7 the Game, 5a-6a every weekday morning. You can listen to his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. You can find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.

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