The NBA was already playing fast. The leaguewide pace over the past few seasons reached its highest point since the 1980s—but even that wasn’t quick enough.
One small strategy was slowing that speed and depriving fans of the most exciting play in the sport: the take foul. Players all over the league were intentionally fouling players to stall fast breaks, neutering open-court opportunities. So the NBA introduced a new rule penalizing take fouls this season. After just three-plus weeks of play, the rule is already achieving its intended effect, slotting in seamlessly to become a welcome addition to the accepted status quo.
In conversations over the first few weeks of the new season, players and coaches have expressed near-unanimous approval.
“I think it’s good for the game,” Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton said. “I think it’s what the fans pay to see; they pay to see high-paced basketball.”
In the 2017-18 season, teams committed a combined average of 0.32 take fouls per game (excluding intentional fouls at the end of games), according to ESPN’s Kevin Pelton. Yet the take foul—also known as the “Euro foul” due to its heavy presence in international play—grew untenable as it spread across the league: By 2021-22, there was an average of 1.4 take fouls per game, an increase of 332 percent in just four seasons.
“It was time for [take fouls] to go,” 76ers forward Georges Niang said. “The game was getting bogged down. Guys were just taking fouls as soon as they lost the ball. It was like you were playing tag out there, guys trying to evade other guys on the fast break.”
So the new rule—imported from the G League, where it had been in effect since 2018-19—added a penalty designed to make players think twice before stopping a transition attack with an intentional foul. Now, instead of simply receiving the ball on the sideline after a take foul (as is the case with other common fouls), the hacked team gets to pick any player to shoot one free throw, then receives possession. Now, Pelton wrote, “A transition take foul will cost teams about 1.89 points on average.” (The league averaged 1.08 points per possession after non-shooting fouls last season, and shot 81 percent on technical free throws: 1.08 + 0.81 = 1.89.) Unless the offensive team has a sure uncontested dunk worth two points, the math says a take foul isn’t worth it anymore.
Defenders have responded appropriately, and the NBA has returned to the low-take-foul volume it had before the recent rise. Through three weeks of the 2022-23 regular season, an analysis of NBA Advanced Stats’ play-by-play data reveals that teams are committing a combined 0.33 transition take fouls per game.
That volume suggests the rule is working as intended. As do the second-order results: So far this season, teams are averaging 14.4 fast-break points per game, according to NBA Advanced Stats. That’s not a huge jump, but it’s the highest figure in the first three weeks of the season going back at least a decade. Over the previous 10 seasons, teams at this juncture averaged 13.1 fast-break points per game.
Moreover, on all transition plays, according to Cleaning the Glass, teams are averaging 1.26 points per play. That’s the highest transition efficiency in any season in CtG’s database.
The near-elimination of take fouls doesn’t just help teams convert fast-break opportunities more easily; it also might inspire them to go full speed ahead and look for more fast-break opportunities in the first place. “If you get a rebound and you run, probably the opponents are not going to foul you anymore,” Bulls guard Goran Dragic said. “So you have to take advantage.”
Because it’s still early, there are still some kinks to iron out as the season unfolds. Players have to consciously remind themselves on occasion that they can’t simply reach out and stop a fast break anymore; watch any NBA game on a given night, and you might see a defender start to lunge for a foul, only to pull back as they remember the new rule. “I’ve had times where I turn the ball over and I want to grab somebody, but you’ve got to think about it,” Haliburton admitted.
There has also been some manner of disagreement about what constitutes a take foul, versus a regular reach. Kyle Lowry and Anthony Edwards have collected technical fouls arguing a take foul ruling. And multiple coaches also complained about calls that had recently gone against their players. For instance, after Joel Embiid was penalized for a take foul in a recent game against the Raptors, Doc Rivers argued, “By the law, he went across the body to reach, and they still gave him a take foul. I love the rule; I just hate that it’s such a judgment call.”
“I think for all of us,” Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff predicted, “it’s going to take some time to get calibrated.”
Bickerstaff’s new star guard, Donovan Mitchell, had been whistled for a take foul early in the Cavaliers’ second game of the season in Chicago, although Bickerstaff said he thought Mitchell had “made a play on the ball.” Mitchell agreed afterward, saying that he’d been trying for a legitimate steal—though he also admitted that breaking the practice of automatic take fouls would take some time.
“I came from an organization where we did it all the time; we probably led the league,” Mitchell said with a laugh. Indeed, the Jazz tallied far and away the most take fouls in the league last season with nearly two per game—Mitchell accounting for 31 by himself and ranking second in the league. Now with the Cavaliers, he’s tied for the lead so far this season—but with only two take fouls, total.
Mitchell was one of multiple players who mentioned that stopping an opponent’s transition opportunity wasn’t the only reason they’d take a foul in the past; it also allowed them to take a breather as the referees reset play from the sideline. “If you’re tired and you need a break, you definitely want that take foul. We did that a lot in Utah,” Mitchell said. That sneaky strategy isn’t worth it anymore.
There is some early evidence that players are adjusting already, albeit in a small sample. Games in October saw an average of 0.37 take fouls, but that figure has dropped to 0.27 per game thus far in November. There hasn’t been a single game with multiple take fouls since October 26.
On the whole, the rule seems well-designed, with considerations that close a couple of potential loopholes from the start. The rule applies even if the offensive team hasn’t yet begun to advance the ball down court. A number of take fouls this season were whistled when a player made inadvertent contact while chasing a loose ball or long rebound, but that’s the price of preventing a defender from fouling to stop a transition opportunity before it even begins.
The rule also applies on fouls committed against any offensive player, even if he’s not the ball handler. This clarification is why Mike Conley was penalized away from the ball last month.
One conceivable loophole remains, however, and might pull back some of the rule’s gains if players become better at disguising their take foul intentions. That’s because fouls committed during the course of “a legitimate play on the ball will remain a common personal foul (regardless of whether the foul occurs during a fast-break play) and will not be subject to a heightened penalty under the new rule,” as the league’s press release about the change explained.
In other words, there’s still room for craft and gamesmanship when attempting to slow an opposing fast break. “You have to be careful. You still can use [the strategy] as long as you go for the ball,” Dragic said, adding, “You know how all the NBA players are. You try to find those loopholes.”
Dragic carries a nuanced view of the new rule, and is the reason I said it was only near unanimous up above. As the veteran point guard said with a smile, “I’m kind of divided because, you know, I’m from Europe. It’s a smart play if you’re outnumbered in transition and just take a foul.”
Yet he also acknowledges the rule makes sense for the spirit of the sport, and appreciates its ability to juice offensive production. A teammate with a locker next to Dragic’s agreed.
“When guys were [committing take fouls], stopping play, fans don’t want to come here and see that,” Bulls wing Javonte Green said. But he doesn’t like the new rule just for the entertainment product, he added. “It’s for us, too. So we can get out and get easy buckets.”
Statistics through Tuesday.