Every once in a while, a player is so dominant at a certain aspect of basketball that the league has to change the rules. Wilt Chamberlain had the NBA changing rules all the time—most notably, they introduced goaltending and interference calls to dampen his dominance around the rim.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was so good the NCAA actually outlawed dunking for a few years. Reggie Miller was so adept at drawing fouls on three-point attempts by kicking his feet out while shooting that the NBA decided to outlaw the move. Mark Jackson so often posted up defenders for increasingly boring periods of time that the league said anything longer than five seconds would result in a turnover.
These rule changes are like badges of excellence for those who inspired them. Which leads us to James Harden, and the rule change the NBA made this summer to prevent him from executing one of his signature offensive moves. “The Harden Rule” states that an offensive player can no longer draw a foul by initiating contact, and that a player must be in the act of shooting to be attributed a shooting foul. Essentially, continuation is no longer guaranteed. If a player gets fouled but they are not clearly in the shooting motion, it will no longer be called as a shooting foul.
What’s fascinating, however, is that this purposeful rule change hasn’t stopped Harden from continuing to utilize the rulebook in a favorable way. Despite his free-throw rate currently the lowest it’s been since his second year in the league, Harden—currently out with a hamstring injury—is still attempting 14.0 free throws per 100 possessions, the second most of his career. Most of his tactics continue to work, and all he’s had to do is simply speed up how fast he shoots the ball after drawing contact.
The only effect the rule change has had on Harden is pissing him off on the occasions that it is not officiated consistently. Sometimes, as we see below, players are awarded shots after they’re hacked on the gather.
DeMar DeRozan gathers the ball, gets hit on his first step, takes one more step, shoots, and is attributed the shooting foul. In the same game Pascal Siakam is “hit” following the first step after his gather. He takes one more step following the alleged foul and then shoots the ball. He does not get the shooting foul, however, and it is just called a common foul.
The difference between these two plays is so minute that attempting to rationalize the referee’s decision would almost certainly be headache inducing. It’s not an isolated occurrence, either.
The rule is now so convoluted that refs have to not only quickly decipher whether a foul was committed, but exactly at what moment contact occurred. They then have to figure out whether or not the gather was in the shooting motion or before the shooting motion, all within one second. Sometimes it’s not their fault. For example, this three-point attempt was not called a shooting foul:
It’s as clear and obvious as a shooting foul can possibly be, and yet the referees missed it because they are being forced to evaluate so many different elements at once.
What happens when rules get too complicated? Look at the NFL, where the debate over the catch rule continues to dominate the league, and where referees continued to be confounded by its complexities. Something easily regulated by children on grassy fields has become impossible to decipher at the professional level.
Leagues that do this to themselves not only lose control of the conversation, much of which shifts to the rules of the game rather than the games themselves, but wind up seeing games decided by rules that nobody understands. The NBA has not had this moment yet—but it’s a real possibility.
Imagine Harden’s Rockets are down two in the final seconds of a close playoff game. Harden gets fouled after gathering and goes on to hit his shot. But the ref decides not to call the continuation. No and-one. The Rockets lose. The media doesn’t let go for days.
Many NBA rules get called unevenly. Human error is built into the game and has decided games since it was invented. But there’s no reason to exacerbate things with frustrating rules. The league has never been good at stopping stars from taking advantage of facets of the game that other players simply can not.
Some of these rules have obviously been a net positive—we’d hate to watch a version of the NBA without goaltending. However, in Year 71, the rules are beginning to get stacked on top of one another. Impulsive rule making has historically always been a mistake. This particular rule has made shooting fouls impossible to predict. Hopefully, it won’t one day decide the outcome of a pivotal game.