NBA offenses have never been as prolific as they are right
We're buzzing with buckets in this era, currently riding a
four-season streak of the league's average Offensive Rating
eclipsing 110 points per 100
The emphasis on shooting and spacing — linked, but not
synonymous! — has led to a more open game. Ball-handlers are more
dynamic, blending slick handles, a more-willing trigger from
(super) deep and driving chops that leave defenders asking, "What
the heck am I supposed to do with this?"
We love buckets around these parts. Pull-ups. Stepbacks.
Floaters. Eurosteps. Reverse lay-ins. Thunderous finishes. Post
work — hooks, up-and-unders, fadeaways. Scoring is fun, obvious to
the eye, and easy to break down and compare for the most part.
There is a brand of scoring that doesn't get the respect it
deserves, however: free throws. Not only are they boring to watch,
but the process in which they're earned also has an approval rating
of, like, six percent.
Don't take my word for it: I asked y'all.
It's anecdotal of course, but it's telling that 72.3% of the
vote — well over 4,500 people — voiced their displeasure of
foul-drawing. Or foul *baiting*, since that distinction matters to
so many of you.
You can cycle through the replies and quote tweets if you'd
like, but the common theme was a sense of gaming the system. Those
dreaded non-basketball plays. The flailing. The possessions where
players make moves to draw contact versus trying to make the
It's a fair position in vacuum. I got a hearty laugh out of
Chris Paul drawing a rip-through foul on young Jonathan Kuminga
some 70 feet from the basket, but I can understand why that might
(On the Paul front, he talked about the rip-through on
JJ Redick's podcast not too long ago. I'd recommend it; also, he's
What I will say, however, is that foul-drawing as a concept
seems pretty underrated. Flat-out disrespected, even. I don't think
enough people understand the level of skill it takes to draw fouls
LET IT RIP
Actually, let's talk about the Paul thing for a minute.
Did you know he's essentially made ICE coverage — the tell is
when the on-ball defender positions himself in a way to force the
ball-handler towards the sideline — unplayable against him?
Going into an ICE possession, you have to worry about him
snaking the pick and flowing into the pull-up middy he shoots
8,032% on. He's one of the three best pocket passers in NBA history
(argue with your mother), so any miscue can lead to a shot at the
basket for his big. If all else fails, he can string out the pick,
force a late switch and either:
- Abuse it himself
- Let his big brutalize a small guard
On top of that, you can't even press him prior to his
drive because he'll locate your arm. If you think you can get your
hand out of the cookie jar quickly enough, you can't. He's too
quick, too good at timing it.
Over the past three seasons, Paul-led ball screens are
generating north of 1.1 points per possession against ICE coverage
— the second-best mark among high-volume guards, per Second
Spectrum. Again, Paul as a scorer and passer against the coverage
is deadly enough.
On the foul front, only Ja Morant (91) has drawn more fouls
against ICE coverage than Paul (83) during that span. Considering
the stark difference in athleticism and shot profile between the
two, you can surmise who's drawing what type of fouls the most.
Of course, Paul isn't the only guy that can make you pay in that
Kevin Durant might be the godfather of the move. He doesn't go
to it as often anymore, but he's sure to remind you to keep your
hand out of the cookie jar.
Trae Young sprinkles it in as well, though we'll talk about him
a little later.
Can we talk about the Cameroonian Cheat Code?
People are furious with the whistle Joel
Embiid gets. I get it in a vacuum; it's a bit wild to watch a guy
that big hit the ground (or flail his arms) as often
as he does. But man, I really do implore you to dig into the
subtleties of his foul-drawing.
Think about your priors when defending Embiid. He's bigger than
you, stronger than you and likely quicker than you. You're already
working at a disadvantage before digging into the skill level.
Then, he's smart on top of all of that.
If you think guards can be handsy before an attack, bigs
definitely are. Embiid has countered by mastering the rip-through
in his own right. Because he's so comfortable with his jumper now,
defenders are even more susceptible to his pump fake. You're truly
at his mercy when he faces up.
On a related note — very, very, very, quietly,
Embiid is one of the most skilled drivers in basketball.
The threat of the jumper (and pump fake) opens up driving
opportunities for him. I've found myself in awe of the way he
decelerates or changes his stride length when attacking the basket.
And when those skills work in conjunction, defenders have no idea
what to do with him.
I still have the foul he drew against Evan Mobley last week on a
loop in my head.
Mobley is already one of the best defenders in the sport, and he
has nothing here. Embiid faces up, hits Mobley with a stutter-rip
(shout out PD Web) and immediately gains inside
leverage. On the gather, Embiid hits the brakes on his second step
and waits out the Mobley contest to draw the foul.
Think about the amount of balance it takes to pull that off, as
well as the strength it takes to power through and get a shot
You know who else is good at throwing defenders off in that way
without really getting credit for it? Giannis Antetokounmpo.
It turns out "Run and Dunk Man" has a little more to him. He
doesn't just hit you with spin moves and Eurosteps; he mixes up the
speed and stride length of those moves.
LEVERAGE PLAYS — STRENGTH VS. SLICK
Zooming out, there's a difference between players who can knock
defenders off-balance and players who can shift defenders
off-balance. The best foul-drawers are able to do both, of course,
but it's rare to find a player with a pure 50/50 split between
You generally think of bigs — Giannis and Embiid in particular —
when you think of strength-based foul-drawing, which is precisely
why Jimmy Butler is so unique.
He doesn't possess elite burst. The handle isn't great. His
jumper is non-threatening. He's passive at times as a scorer. And
yet, Butler (5.17) is one of four high-minute players
averaging at least 5 two-point shooting fouls drawn per 100
possessions: Embiid (8.16), Giannis (7.82) and DeMar DeRozan (5.03)
are the others.
Butler does possess great footwork, which helps him in face-up
situations. He may be the NBA's prominent stutter-rip enthusiast.
But man, does he do a lot of work with his shoulder.
If he gains an inch, he's driving his shoulder into his
defenders' chests. And if they try to recover, he's able to pump
fake them into oblivion, or plow through them for foul calls. Look
no further than his masterclass against the Houston Rockets on
As annoyed as people have been with Harden's tricks, his ability
to power through guys has gone grossly under the radar for most of
his career. Remember the LaMelo play up top? Harden has the cadence
down and the strength to power through.
He weaponizes his strength with a low, lull-em-to-sleep dribble
that unlocks the rest of his game. Stay lax? Stepback time. Try to
shade him a certain way? He's able to attack your front foot and
getting downhill. Try to disrupt the dribble? He's powering through
Then, there's the finesse side of the equation, where
unpredictability can put defenders in torturous positions.
That's where Young comes in. He's a tricky little booger you can
never really catch. His ability to change directions is nearly
unrivaled in the leauge.
You don't think of him as explosive because
of the lack of vertical juice, but he's a pretty violent dude in
terms of darting around; he's the NBA's (peak) LeSean McCoy in that
regard. On top of that, I'm not sure anybody in the league
decelerates quite like him. To have that, on top of his ball
skills, is simply unfair.
I'm not here to argue that watching these guys rack up 10 to 12
free throws on a given night is as fun as an ankle-breaking
crossover that flows into a pull-up.
I do think there needs to be more credit given toward how hard
it is to make defenders wrong as consistently as these guys do.
There are so many split-second reads (and microskills) at play that
can be missed if you aren't paying attention.
Or put another way: If it was easy to flop or grift your way
into calls, more people would pull it off consistently.
They don't for a reason.