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The Defense Strikes Back

NBA defenders are rejoicing over a new rule change, but how long will the good times last?

Trae Young is about to run the play that’s helped turn him into one of the game’s most explosive players: the high pick-and-roll with Clint Capela. It’s late in the third quarter during an early-season game between the Hawks and Jazz, and there are no good options for Utah’s defense in this situation. Joe Ingles, who is tasked with the unenviable assignment of guarding the Atlanta star, knows it. If he tries to avoid the screen by going under it, Ice Trae will pull up from three and fire without hesitation. If he goes over the screen, he’s on his own; Capela’s defender, Hassan Whiteside, has to stay close to the Hawks’ big man, otherwise he will run to the rim for an easy alley-oop. And if the Jazz decide to hedge, Young can skip a quick pass to Capela and Atlanta’s offense can play four-on-three.

The best option, though still treacherous, is for Ingles to stay attached to Young’s hip and go over the screen, crowding Young so he can’t shoot, but not so close that the lightning-quick guard can launch himself into his body and pick up an easy foul—something Young is adept at doing.

That’s the option Ingles takes. With Capela setting a screen on Ingles’s left side, the Jazz forward darts above it to stay attached to Young, who right on cue stops abruptly, hooks Ingles’s arm on the way up and immediately draws a whistle.

Ingles remembers clearly what happened next.

He quickly began complaining to the ref, trying to explain his arm was hooked, while Young headed straight to the free throw line, expecting his customary three free throws for the infraction. That was before both players realized the call wasn’t in the act of shooting.

“I think in the past he would have got free throws on that situation,” Ingles says. “He grabbed my arm and they still ended up calling a foul on me, but then they said take it out from the side.

“Obviously he was a really good one at getting to the line 10-plus times a game. In the heat of the moment, I was like, ‘S---, he’s gonna shoot free throws.’ And then the ref was pointing to the sideline, and I was like, ‘F--- yeah!’ I’ll take a foul for him not to get free throws.”

Indeed, something as small as a side-out of bounds is now a huge win for defenders.

A quick glance at some of the NBA’s rule changes in the 21st century reveals most tweaks to the game were made to benefit the flow of play, or more truthfully, offenses. In 2001, the league got rid of illegal defense, but introduced defensive three seconds to keep people from camping out in the paint and discouraging drives. In ’04, the league did away with hand checking, removing most contact and hand fighting on the perimeter, giving offensive players much more breathing room to operate. Subtle changes like those, as well as shortening backcourt violations from 10 to eight seconds, or the shot clock resetting to 14 seconds after an offensive rebound, have all helped to improve the pace of play and freedom of movement in the NBA. (In ’18, The Ringer posited that offenses couldn’t be contained let alone stopped.) Those refinements, in addition to a league-wide embrace of threes, layups and free throws, led to an offensive boom that peaked in ’21.

The league-average offensive efficiency last season was a whopping 112.9, per Cleaning the Glass, which excludes garbage time and late-game heaves. (For context, the 73-win Warriors had a 113.5 offensive rating in 2016. Last year’s average offense would have had the second-best one in the league only five years before.) In ’21, a comically high 23 teams had an offensive rating of at least 110, a feat the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers managed to accomplish only once. (Fifteen teams have such a distinction this season.)

The story is a little different in 2022. The league-wide offensive rating is 110.5, the lowest since ’18, while points per game and pace are also at four-year lows. And while there are likely many reasons why offense has dipped after last year—a season which happened after a short turnaround, with no fans in arenas for months, dozens of games being postponed and players catching COVID-19—there is one change that players and coaches agree has finally helped the defense: the league’s decision over the summer to no longer allow offensive players to draw fouls through nonbasketball moves or jumping at abnormal angles.

You’ve seen those fouls before, and likely groaned at them as well. In the past, Young may have taken three free throws for hooking Ingles’s arm coming off that pick. Stars across the league exploited the rules and baited refs into foul calls, including pump faking and jumping forward at a diagonal angle, and abruptly stopping and throwing their backsides out. But these moves have all been, to a degree, legislated out of the game.

“The first thing I thought of when the rule came out, it’s almost like getting back to pure basketball,” says Ingles, who often finds himself in the chest of the opponent’s best scorer. “When I was a kid growing up, there was no hooking, no leaning. Defensively, it does let you be more aggressive, you can get into guys. I haven’t looked at or seen any numbers, but I’m assuming free throws are down. But [the new rule] does give you a bit more freedom as a defender to be more physical.”

Ingles’s assumption is right. Once again with the caveat that it’s impossible to pinpoint one reason, free throw attempts per game are their lowest since 2018, per Basketball-Reference.

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Nuggets swingman Aaron Gordon, the burly perimeter stopper for the Nuggets, echoes his conference rival’s sentiment.

“The last couple years, people were getting 20 free throws a game; it was crazy,” Gordon says. “Playing at the park, you would never be able to finish a game. We would be arguing the whole time.”

Talk to NBA defenders (seriously, approach them on the street, they love it!) and they will gladly tell you about the types of fouls that really bother them. Ingles vividly remembered his nonshooting foul on Young weeks after it occurred. Gordon still harbors frustrations over rip-throughs, which he claims are really more like an offensive foul. (That may be a reach, no pun intended.) And Suns forward Mikal Bridges, an All-NBA-caliber wing defender, is glad he can finally fight over screens without being whistled for using his body.

“You know ball screens are tough in general,” Bridges says. “Usually you put your hands on somebody, they stop and shoot, and it makes it really impossible to go over because otherwise they just come off naked. [The new rule] really helps just guarding ball screens, things that we were taught by our coaches we couldn’t do the last couple years.”

Ingles, Gordon and Bridges are among many physical defenders in the NBA, and the new rules allow them to use their strengths on the defensive side of the ball. Ingles and Gordon both play with starting centers (Rudy Gobert and Nikola Jokić, respectively) who typically don’t switch on the perimeter, which makes bumping and checking even more important for them when defending pick-and-rolls.

Bridges, meanwhile, earned much recognition after a Suns win against the Warriors on Nov. 30. In a highly anticipated matchup between the two best teams in the league, Bridges guarded two-time MVP Stephen Curry from tip-off and helped limit Curry to 12 points on 4-of-21 shooting, including only 3-of-14 from three. Bridges was able to utilize his long arms to stay attached to Curry and could more easily get into the Warriors star’s body without worrying about ticky-tack fouls. Considering how much of Curry’s game depends on movement and setting or scurrying around screens, defenders have very little chance if they can’t be physical. (And superstars are going to score even against a great defense, anyway.)

“With all the fouls, you could barely touch a guy, and it really gave them an advantage,” Bridges says. “Obviously those guys will make tough shots. But at least I have more confidence on that end. If they run into me, they won’t get the call. And if I bump them, it can be physical on both ends.”

For coaches who always want their team to impose their will defensively, the contact allowance on the perimeter empowers players to practice what their coaches teach. Dan Craig, an assistant coach for the Clippers and the architect of their No. 6 defense, says the new rules haven’t changed what Tyronn Lue’s staff implements but thinks they’ve had an impact in terms of the offensive dip.

“As a staff, we prefer coaching physicality and preaching that in general,” Craig says. “So has there been a carryover because of the rule changes and the way we coach? That’s not something we honed in on.

“I think you have guys that were used to a certain number of free throws a game. And now those are taken away.”

Dallas Mavericks guard Jalen Brunson (13) drives to the basket as Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges.

While Trae Young may be shooting fewer free throws and videos of James Harden noncalls are going viral, it’s important to note the new rules aren’t necessarily a perfect solve for high-octane offense. Ingles mentions that physicality can still fluctuate depending on how the refs are calling fouls on a given night. Bridges has a healthy skepticism that the changes are going to last, especially as high-profile players voice frustrations with their lower free throw rates.

“I gotta see a whole season to believe they might not go back to it. So I’m just patiently waiting,” Bridges says. (He would probably say “I told you so” if he found out Harden was actually averaging more free throws per game than last season.)

And of course, all three of Ingles, Bridges and Gordon, as well as every defender in the league, has to contend with the rules themselves on the other end of the floor. All three play with some of the game’s best scorers and intimated that refs are still working to find the right balance, as some of the contact being allowed is perhaps too lenient. (Because even when they want to be in someone’s jersey, the best defenders still want their teammates to get to the line.)

As to where things go from here, Craig notes offensive evolution is almost always forcing defenses to play catch-up. And the future of defense won’t rest solely on being able to get handsy fighting around a screen.

“Offensive players continue to get better,” Craig says. “The biggest thing is the ability to have different coverages based on how dynamic offenses are. You’re really toggling back and forth between priorities even during a game. You have to give the great offensive players different looks.”

(Craig is obviously speaking from experience—the Clippers are a great example of a team able to toggle different looks, as they did during the 2021 playoffs, defeating two top-10 offenses in the Mavericks and Jazz. The Clips had to slow down Luka Dončić in Round 1, and then the Jazz’s three-point-heavy attack in Round 2. This season, L.A.’s coaching staff has been able to put together one of the best defenses in the league despite injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.)

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Ultimately, the stress test for the new perimeter rules likely won’t occur until the postseason, when the margins become razor thin, defensive intensity is ratcheted up and public scrutiny on officiating increases tenfold. (Not to mention the mind games coaches and players like to play during their media sessions.) And what makes the great scorers of the world as effective as they are is they constantly find ways to adapt.

For now, the players who are frequently stuck on an island with the Stephs, Hardens and LeBrons of the world at least have something to fight back with. It feels like defenses actually have a chance to slow down offenses in a league in which every team has adopted only shooting from the highest-percentage spots on the floor. And it’s not only made the game seem more fair, NBA fans on Twitter or in group chats seem to like the aesthetic value of the league much more this season. At the very least, all three of Ingles, Gordon and Bridges agreed they enjoyed playing in this year’s version of the NBA compared to the last couple.

“I love it,” Gordon says. “I’m watching more basketball than I ever have because it’s so much fun to watch now.” 

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