Wake Up Call: What Exactly is a Foul?

First things first — referees don’t decide basketball games. I just want to establish it up front that Oklahoma City is not down 0-2 because of bad calls

But it’s impossible to talk about this series without talking about fouls. There have been plenty. The teams have combined for 114 total free throws in the two games, slightly more than their averages for the season. Averages which had the Rockets leading the NBA in free throw attempts per game at 26.5 and the Thunder close behind at 25.8, also top five in the league.

Exactly half of those FT attempts have come from the teams’ preeminent stars James Harden and Russell Westbrook. And there was no greater display of this than Game 2, where Harden’s mind-boggling 20 attempts were rivaled by Westbrook’s 18.

The problem in people’s minds isn’t so much that the two shot a lot of free throws. Superstars get preferential calls, and have since James Naismith nailed the peach basket to the gym wall. I imagine Naismith’s refereeing strategy in that first game resembling Patches O’Houlihan.

In fact, a quick drive down the state from where Games 1 & 2 were played, another game was played in which a superstar got 18 free throws. Just ask David Fizdale about it. Free throw attempts are the most famous “data” in the NBA right now.

What has really gotten people talking is the way in which the fouls have been drawn. Questions have been asked, such as the ones in the tweet below, and honestly I’m not sure I have any answers to them.

So I went to the official NBA Rulebook, an incredibly dense document full of lawyer-speak, to find out exactly what the definition of a foul was. Here it is:

NBA Rulebook – Rule 12B, Section 1A, 1B

a. A player shall not hold, push, charge into, impede the progress of an opponent by extending a hand, forearm, leg or knee or by bending the body into a position that is not normal. Contact that results in the re-routing of an opponent is a foul which must be called immediately.

By that definition you can see how defenders are called for fouls on Harden’s signature move. From a young age, basketball players are taught to keep one hand on their man on defense in order to identify where they are at all times, so their eyes can be up and looking around the rest of the floor. Instinctively, when a quick offensive player drives around you or in this case through a screen, that arm outstretches in order slow him down. Thus the “extended hand/forearm.”

Obviously Harden wouldn’t actually want to take a shot with a defender’s arm draped around the chest, but he can certainly bring his arms up in a faux-shooting motion in order to allow them to be “impeded.” As for the “position that is not normal”, look no further than the flailing legs and Harden’s signature head-jerk.

Until Harden retires due to an extreme build-up of whiplash, he’s going to continue to produce like 700 points per season off of the head-jerk. It’s so powerful that one time Harden’s beard drew a foul.

Really the whole sequence of events leading up to Harden drawn foul is a beautifully orchestrated circus trick.

After yesterday’s shoot around, Andre Roberson was asked about how hard it is to guard Harden’s swooping shot maneuver, and had this to say:

Roberson is referring to the rip-through move made famous by Kevin Durant, that spawned a brand new rule in 2011-2012 deeming it to be a non-shooting foul. The more I think about it, Harden’s move isn’t just like the infamous rip-through move, it is that same move!

Durant’s rip-through would take advantage of handsy defenders, waiting until they had an outstretched arm in his chest before bringing his arms swooping across in order to allow the defender’s hand/forearm to impede his shooting motion. Doesn’t that sound familiar?

At the very least, Harden’s swooping maneuver should be considered a non-shooting foul from this point forward using the Durant rip-through rule as precedent. In the future an effort should be made to completely eliminate it. While I had the rulebook up, I found three stipulations that could be used against Harden’s foul-drawing “skill.”

NBA Rulebook – Rule 12B, Section 1B

b. Contact initiated by the defensive player guarding a player with the ball is not legal. This contact includes, but is not limited to, forearm, hands, or body check.

Therefore contact initiated by the offensive player shouldn’t apply right? Clearly Harden initiates the contact, but I realize this is a nearly impossible condition to enforce, so let’s move on.

Rule 12B, Section 1E

e. Contact which occurs on the hand of the offensive player, while that hand is in contact with the ball, is legal.

Rule 12B, Section 2C

The dribbler must be in control of his body at all times. If illegal contact occurs, the responsibility is on the dribbler.

Well those are interesting…

Now just to cover my bases, I’d like to acknowledge that I know Westbrook creates bogus fouls also. He has his own set of tricks and they are all as mischievous as the Harden swoop. My personal favorite is the leg-kick-into-fall-down, shown to perfection here against Chris Paul. I give it a 9.0 since he didn’t stick the landing.

But what can I say? I’m biased. This is an Oklahoma City Thunder site, after all.

And besides, what’s a playoff series without pointing fingers and sports-hating everyone on the other team while complaining about how fraudulent the calls they’re getting are?