On the Personal Foul

Editor’s Note: If you’re looking for NBA Finals coverage, don’t look here. Look literally anywhere else. It is a documented fact that I believe The Miami Heat in general and LeBron James specifically are inventions of the NBA and sports media desperate to make money off larger-than-life superteams and superheroes and have fundamentally changed the professional game and there’s nothing else to say about that.

I’ve watched a pretty insane amount of basketball this year. I watch a pretty insane amount of basketball every year. Sometimes I even play an insane amount of basketball. With all of that roundball experience, there’s one thing I’ve learned to be true about basketball players at all levels: No one ever thinks they break the rules ever. Not even once.

Mike Bibby infamously fouls Kobe Bryant with 12 seconds left in Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals

After the whistle is blown on a basketball court, there are plenty of occasions where both teams hold their breath and wait to celebrate or complain accordingly. It happens with superstars, it happens with benchwarmers, it happens with the coaches, and it happens with people in the stands so much that it isn’t entirely uncommon for the crowd to receive a technical. Why does it happen? Because there’s one rule in basketball that is necessarily subjective – the personal foul.

Of the major sports, is there a rule more prone to contention than basketball’s personal foul? It’s about 90% gray area.

In baseball, the strike zone can change from one umpire to the next, but it’s the same for both teams and if a batter swings and misses on a third strike, you don’t see him turn and face the camera with a confused look on his face.

In football, you could make a case that the holding penalty is unclear, but it’s only called a few times a game, and even then, the offense still has a chance to convert after the penalty, essentially nullifying it.

Hockey has almost no whistles and even then, a casual fan like me can understand the logic behind the rules and even see the penalties coming before they are called.

The average NBA team commits a total of 19.6 fouls per game. The average basketball team has exactly 2.0 teams, bringing the average number of personals in a game to 39.2. Some of those fouls are obvious, some even intentional, but I’d think at least half are unintentional touch fouls or at least bordering on allowable.

Tim Duncan committed one foul in 2004, and he learned a lot from it

Basketball is a physical sport, and most of the time that physicality is understood and expected. I’d guess that somewhere around 60-70% of basketball fouls (and foul-related non-calls) are what I’ll label “borderline.” Offensive players react almost every possession when they don’t get a foul call. Defenders shake their heads and approach referees to convince them that called fouls were incorrect.

In a 48-minute game, there is one foul called roughly every 74 seconds. Isn’t that crazy? In the pro game, teams average about 95 possessions each on a night (190 total possessions), 39 of those possessions contain a personal foul. That’s more than 20% of possessions with a foul call.

In a game that ends up being decided by a couple of points, isn’t it a little weird that the subjective officiating plays such an important role in the number of overall possessions?

What’s more is that a couple of gray area foul calls in basketball can drastically reduce a player’s minutes and overall impact on the game. In no other sport can a series of minor penalties result in a player missing time or eventually getting ejected from the game, but in basketball, players foul out all the time.

It seems to me that the personal foul in basketball is both the most impactful and the most arbitrary call in sports. From a data perspective, the personal foul ruins the significance of a basketball score. With so many questionable calls, the score to a game could easily swing for one team or another based entirely on factors that aren’t really basketball.

Do I doubt the way the game is called? Certainly. Does that mean they should stop playing? Certainly not.

In my opinion, fouls should be called only on the most violent contact. In my ideal reffing system, there are about 10 fouls on each team per game and no one misses minutes because of foul trouble. In my ideal game, a foul is a way of punishing one player for acting outside of the allowable aggression of the game and not rewarding another player for catching an opponent out of position and forcing contact that wouldn’t have otherwise happened.

Or maybe I just hate officiating in every sport.

On a side note, there’s about to be some serious NBA Draft coverage coming up on SpreeGoogs, including a new surprise. We’re also going to welcome a new writer who is more or less perfect for this blog. I hope that sounds mysterious enough for you to come back.