NBA rule changes 2021, explained: Referees will no longer reward ‘abnormal’ moves from foul-hunting stars


During the first quarter of a preseason game between the Trail Blazers and Warriors, Stephen Curry tried to take advantage of a mismatch on the perimeter. The two-time NBA MVP created some space against Portland forward Nassir Little and appeared to be in position to shoot a 3-pointer, but instead he jumped forward to create contact with Little in an attempt to draw a foul.

As Trail Blazers TV analyst Lamar Hurd said during the broadcast, “Not this year.”

That no-call served as the perfect example of foul-hunting that the NBA is hoping to eliminate. The league changed its rules ahead of the 2021-22 season in order to discourage offensive players from making “overt, abrupt or abnormal non-basketball moves.”

Essentially, NBA referees will no longer reward offensive players who launch themselves into defenders. But how will they know when to blow the whistle?

MORE: How does Trae Young draw so many fouls?

NBA rule changes: What is (and isn’t) a foul?

During an appearance on “The Crossover NBA Show,” Monty McCutchen, the NBA’s vice president of referee development and training, told Sports Illustrated’s Howard Beck that the league knows teams are always searching for the most efficient ways to score. That means plenty of corner 3-pointers, layups and free throws. It’s only natural that players would seek out contact, particularly on shots from beyond the arc, if they continue to earn trips to the charity stripe.

Now, the league is incentivizing what McCutchen calls “good play.”

“If you’re placed at a disadvantage through good play, then therefore a foul should be called, offensively or defensively,” McCutchen told Beck. “We’re not trying to take away every pump fake. We are trying to take away a pump fake that then leads to an abnormal launch angle that the defender never would’ve hit the offensive player had this offensive player not taken this abnormal launch angle.

“We want to balance out the ability of a defensive player to compete with passion with an offensive player who can compete with passion, and when we find that balance, good competition is the result.”

You can see the differences between “good plays” and “non-basketball moves” in the clips below.

Abnormal launch angle

Veering off path

Overt extension (leg kick)

Off-arm contact

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Reaction to NBA rule changes

Stephen Curry

While the rule changes hurt Curry on that preseason play, the Warriors star is generally on board with the league doing everything in its power to take away the trickery.

“I love the effort,” Curry said (via The Athletic’s Anthony Slater). “You’re sitting in a boardroom looking at film all summer, it’s hard to know how it’ll translate on the court. But definitely the purity of the game, the goal is to put the ball in the basket and not be out there just living and dying by trying to get to the free-throw line any way you can. I love the effort.”

Steve Kerr

The Golden State coach also supports the new rules, saying that the changes are “what every coach wants.”

“As long as the refs follow through on what the league says they will do — and I have every confidence they will — we’ll get away from players manipulating refs and back to basketball,” Kerr said. “The defense, I think, has to be given a chance to guard. It’s never been harder to guard with all the shooting.

“I think the league recognized things had gone a little too far over the top giving every benefit of the doubt to the offensive guy. So eliminating some of these BS plays is really big.”

James Harden

Nets coach Steve Nash called Harden the “poster boy” for the new rules. Harden agreed with that description, but the nine-time All-Star doesn’t feel that he needs to change his game.

“I just asked every official, if they see a foul, just call a foul,” Harden said. “Sometimes, I feel like, coming into a game, it’s already predetermined. I already have that stigma of getting foul calls. I just ask for officials to call what they see. … A foul is a foul, no matter what league it is.”

Trae Young

Young understands that referees are adjusting to the new rules, but he also believes that they are “kind of swallowing their whistles for certain guys.”

“I know how to score without shooting free throws, but at the same time, I know I’m getting fouled a lot more than I am,” Young said (via The Athletic’s Chris Kirschner). “They’re definitely holding on to their whistles a lot more than they would in previous years. … A lot of my fouls, I’m driving, and I’m smaller than a lot of guys, so they’re knocking me off balance and knocking me off track, so that’s a foul. If a ref knows the rules and knows that, they should call it.

“I just hope they call it within the rules because I know the rules, too. I’ve done my research and my book work, too.”

A note on out-of-bounds calls . . .

In addition to the adjusted approach in those “abnormal” situations, the NBA’s board of governors also approved a change to the usage of instant replay. Reviews of out-of-bounds calls in the final two minutes of regulation or overtime will now be triggered by a coach’s challenge rather than referees.

“What we found is that constant reviewing, to some degree, was taking away from the joy of the game itself, the ability to play in real time,” McCutchen said. “We had several games last year that had an extensive amount of time to play the last two minutes, and that drove this idea that we want to find the balance of getting the calls right while still injecting flow, still injecting the ability to play the game in real time.”


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