In the first quarter of the Warriors’ first preseason game, Stephen Curry tried to steal some free throws.
Curry recognized third-year forward Nassir Little was defending him on an island and tried to use Little’s inexperience to his advantage. The two-time league MVP stepped back to his left, pump-faked and lurched into Little, who had left his feet.
But unlike in years past, the officials didn’t reward Curry’s flailing. The NBA changed its rules before the 2021-22 season, instructing referees to swallow their whistles when there’s contact drawn from “non-basketball moves” — abnormal launch angles, leg kicks, veering off path, and off-arm contact.
On that Oct. 4 play, the rule changes made Curry look silly. Hunting for a foul, he flung a left-handed shot that hit the top of the backboard and Portland took the other way. But he also took note of the ugly play.
“I think Steph is the guy most affected by (the rule changes), mainly in the pump fake department,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.
“To Steph’s credit, he pump-faked one time in the preseason, jumped into the guy and didn’t get the call. I don’t think he’s done it ever since. I think he started to a couple times, pump-faked, started to jump in and remembered ‘oh yeah, I’m not going to get this call’ and moved the ball. Now he’s to the point where he’s not even trying.”
For years, players have tried to draw fouls by pump-faking their defenders into the air from behind the 3-point arc and contorting their bodies into theirs. James Harden, Trae Young and Luka Dončić are widely regarded as the most notorious offenders. But as the Portland broadcast said, “not anymore.”
The NBA’s rule changes have effectively eliminated that, and other, disagreeable plays from the game. In turn, teams and players are getting to the free throw line less frequently, ultimately resulting in a decline in scoring. Last year, the league average for points per game was 112.6 — the highest since 1961-62. It’s back down to 106.8 this season, in line with the norm from about five years ago.
Nearly every superstar and team has been hurt offensively by the rule tweak. Except the Warriors (16-2). Golden State is averaging an NBA-best 114.3 points per game, half a point less than its 73-9 rate from 2015. Curry leads the league in scoring at 28.2 points per game, the third-highest of his career.
“I think the number one factor is the change in the officiating,” Kerr said when asked about the league-wide decline in scoring. “Just not letting the offensive player initiate contact, grab and hold and be rewarded for that.”
Last season, 21 teams averaged over 110 points per game. So far in 2021-22, only eight have reached that mark. On an individual level, five players averaged at least 28 points per game before the rule changes, with two over 30. Only Curry and Kevin Durant are above 28 this season.
Defenses are playing more physically and getting called for fewer fouls. Andrew Wiggins said he can play more aggressively without having to worry about foul-baiting — something GSW’s physical defenders can enjoy. Teams are shooting about two fewer free throws per game now.
“I haven’t looked at the stats,” Kerr said. “I just know it’s a much better product. It’s more competitive. It’s more real. I’m really enjoying watching the game. There’s so much 3-point shooting out there, the last couple years, we just didn’t give the defense a chance. Now I feel like the defense has a chance. You can get to your spot and not reach, you’re no longer vulnerable to be grabbed and get called for a foul.”
Curry agreed with Kerr, saying earlier this season that he loves the NBA’s effort to make the game more pure.
Aside from adjusting his game slightly — 86-ing the pump-and-flail — Curry’s been unaffected by the rule changes because he’s never relied on getting to the free throw line. His 4.8 free throw attempts per game are the fifth-highest of his career, but he’s never averaged more than 6.3.
James Harden, Trae Young and Luka Dončić, meanwhile, have all averaged over nine free throws per game in a season and are all experiencing significant decreases in fouls drawn this year. They’re still trying to figure out the new rules. Curry’s game was more conducive to adjusting on the fly.
Harden, Young and Dončić are much more reliant on isolation scoring compared to Curry. They have the ball in their hands more frequently, either running high pick-and-rolls or tasked with beating their defender one-on-one. Curry’s scoring profile has more diversity, with backdoor cuts, dribble handoffs, give-and-gos and off-ball screens.
That offensive diversity has helped Curry and the Warriors become immune to the rule changes’ impact. Pick-and-rolls are one of the most common actions players have used to try and steal the fouls that are no longer coming; guards frequently initiated contact with defenders on their hips, jumped into shooting motions as their defender fought through a screen, grabbed an opponent with their off-arm or committed other shenanigans.
The Warriors’ offense has never been predicated on pick-and-rolls. Curry runs 6.4 pick-and-rolls per game, half that of Young and Dončić. Golden State’s spacing and motion-oriented offense has never been reliant on free throws, either; since Kerr took over in 2014-15, the Warriors have never finished in the top 10 in free throw attempts per game.
As teams and stars have struggled to recalibrate to the new officiating, the Warriors have thrived. All the way to the top of the league.