Are NBA refs suddenly ‘letting them play’? OKC’s Mark Daigneault takes the stand

Are NBA refs suddenly ‘letting them play’? OKC’s Mark Daigneault takes the stand

The whistles are coming less in the NBA. Though Daigneault doesn’t try to explain why, he knows it’s resulting in more physicality and fewer points.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Mar 16, 2024, 6:00am CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Mar 16, 2024, 6:00am CDT

(Want Berry Tramel’s stories, videos and podcasts in hour inbox? Subscribe here.)

On Jan. 26, Dallas’ Luka Doncic scored 73 points against the Atlanta Hawks.

On March 10, the New York Knickerbockers scored 73 points against Philadelphia.

Forty-four days after Doncic spiked an NBA season of ridiculously-high team and individual point totals, a game failed to produce a squad that reached 80, for the first time since January 2016.

That’s a statistical anomaly. A wild coincidence.

Except it’s no coincidence.

Between late January and early March came the NBA’s all-star break, a week-long interruption in the flow of the season, and the basketball has been different since the NBA returned.

Scoring is down: through Wednesday, the median score per team has dropped 3.45 points a game, from 114.85 to 111.4, and the average score is down 3.88 points a game.

That might not sound like a lot, 3½ points per team, but it’s a major dip with such a vast data set. NBA scoring changes rarely jump like that season to season, much less in-season.

But there’s more. NBA writer Tom Haberstroh has noted, on his website, that virtually all whistles have decreased since the all-star break. Non-shooting fouls. Defensive 3-second calls. Technical fouls. 

And more and more, the deep thinkers of the NBA — be they unknown analysts, writers or head coaches — are saying it’s not random deviation.

“I think the game is being called differently,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said matter of factly. 

Since the all-star break, the NBA is averaging 5.2 fewer foul shots per game. The NBA’s February free-throw rate was the third-lowest month in league history. Haberstroh pointed out that on the same night last week, in separate games, the Cavaliers and the Hornets each had zero foul shots through three quarters. No team had gone three quarters without a foul shot since October 22, 2022. Then it happened twice on the same night.

Daigneault said the “sharpness of decline in free throws” would suggest the whistles have changed, “and I don’t think a universal decline like that would be the result of all the players not trying to get fouled, or all the teams doing a better job of not fouling.

“So I definitely think the game’s being called differently now than it was in November. I’m not going to start to unpack the reason why. But practically, there’s really no other explanation for that sharp of a decline in free throws across the entire league, without saying they’re not putting as much air in the whistle.”

The league says no. Reports say the NBA chalks up the change to statistical anomaly, which is a rationalization that doesn’t work with the analytical minds of today.

Only seven of the 30 NBA teams have better offensive ratings (points per 100 possessions) post-break than pre-break. Some of the declines have been steep.

The Knicks are averaging 8.1 points per 100 possessions less, the Warriors 7.4, the Hornets 5.9.

And on Ethan Sherwood Strauss’ House of Strauss podcast, Haberstroh noted the smoking gun: since the all-star break, the under on over/under betting has won 71% of the time. That’s no statistical anomaly.

Not all NBA people see a change.

Mavericks coach Jason Kidd is an NBA lifer; 30 years as a player or coach, and he was an all-star point guard, which means he feels the game as much as he thinks the game. So you can understand why data might not be as vital to Kidd.

“Yeah, I think the game maybe is being called differently,” Kidd said, but he fell back on another theory. “Guys are playing defense. Scoring’s down, the fouls are down. It’s basketball.”

Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander didn’t even seem to be aware of the trend. I asked him about it Thursday night after the Thunder beat Dallas 126-119, in an atypical game during this spree, considering the points and Gilgeous-Alexander getting 15 foul shots.

“I personally haven’t noticed it, to be honest,” SGA said. “I don’t know if it’s something I’m not paying attention, but I haven’t noticed it at all.”

Since the all-star break, Gilgeous-Alexander’s foul shots per game are slightly down, from 9.1 to 8.3 per game, but his scoring has been virtually unchanged (31.1 to 31.0). So no reason why he would notice.

His running buddy, Jalen Williams, has noticed a difference in games in the three weeks since the league returned from the all-star break.

“I think it’s a little more physical,” Williams said. “I don’t know if that has to do with calls. I think guys just competing more.

“You can definitely feel a lot more physicality through teams. Everybody’s kind of on that cusp, especially in the West, where one game can move you down a seed or two. I think it’s just a more competitive thing. Feels like we’re playing a lot more physical. So it’s fun for me. I enjoy it.”

That’s the siren song of the NBA. As the season shortens, the intensity rises. That’s scripture to pro basketball players. That’s a heritage that is passed down from generation to generation.

So a veteran like Kidd is all over such a theory.

“There’s a change, during the season, beginning of the season, guys are making shots,” Kidd said. “Maybe after the all-star break, there’s less guys making shots, there’s less fouls being called.

“Defense is kind of trending back. You can see the physicality is up, pointing to the … playoffs.”

But that’s the point. If physicality is up, whistles should be up, too, right? But whistles are down. The referees are letting the players play.

And here’s a time to insert, that’s great. This is the better brand of basketball. A rash of foul shots is not good entertainment. A whistle blowing every 10 seconds ruins the flow of a beautiful game.

Epic-scoring games should be something extraordinary. Instead, they almost became routine leading up to the all-star break. Before Jan. 22, only 45 times in the 77-year history of the NBA had a player scored at least 62 points in a game. Then it happened twice on the same day — Joel Embiid’s 70 points; Karl-Anthony Towns’ 62. Four days later, it again happened twice — Doncic’s 73, Devin Booker’s 62.

The game was being cheapened. Points were not at a premium. The higher the scores, the fewer the close games, which is what the NBA needs most.

So I’m all for the change. We just have to admit that the change is not organic. The whistles are coming fewer.

Daigneault said players likely are fouling more than ever, since teams adjust to the whistles, so physicality is indeed up in recent weeks, as Williams suggested.

“If the game gets called looser, teams are going to be more physical,” Daigneault said. “So I would actually argue the physicality’s higher right now than it was in November, because of the way the game’s being called.”

Some in the Thunder organization figure that helps OKC. As a young team, the Thunder might not get the whistles of a veteran team, though eyes will roll at that thought, since Gilgeous-Alexander has been among the league leaders in fouls drawn the last couple of years.

The Thunder also is an analytics organization, so this kind of data can help forge better game planning. The fewer the whistles, probably the better for OKC.

“We just kind of calibrate the rules of the game, how it’s getting called,” Daigneault said. “Then we adjust to it. We don’t have control over the game rules. So if they call it tight, we have to adjust to that. If they are more liberal with it, then we have to adjust to that, and we’ll try to figure out ways to leverage the rules of the game to our favor.”

But Daigneault did note one more thing, which is at the heart of this entire discussion. The suddenness of the change. The in-season switch. The apparent decision from the league office or someone in power, for referees to back off of blowing the whistle so often.

“With this one, the only thing I’d say is, like, it’s been a little abrupt,” Daigneault said. “No one really told us it was going to change, so we’re kind of adjusting on the fly.

“But we don’t really care. Let us know what the rules are, and we’ll play inside of those.”

The game is better with fewer whistles. No rules were changed. Just some emphasis switched. No reason for the NBA to hide what is abundantly clear to anyone who studies the data and thinks the game.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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