Scoring, free throw rates are down after the All-Star break. Did the NBA tweak its rules?

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Dallas Mavericks
NBA: Golden State Warriors at Dallas Mavericks

Before the All-Star break, NBA per-game scoring was at its highest rate in more than 50 years. We didn't need the stats to tell us that, we saw Luka Doncic drop 73, Joel Embiid drop 70 and two more 60+ point games within days of each other. Scoring was up, and the conversation turned to “Has the pendulum swung too far toward offense?” with how the game is officiated and what can be done.

Everything feels different right now.

Since the All-Star break, both scoring and free throws have been down around the league — we saw the 76ers beat the Knicks 79-73 this week. The median score of an NBA game post-All-Star break is 111.4, which is 3.45 points per game fewer than before the break. Marc Stein, for his substack, worked with stats wizard Justin Kubatko and found scoring overall is down 3.88 points per game post-All-Star break.

At the heart of this is the fact that free throw attempts are down. Games are seeing 5.2 fewer free throw attempts after Feb. 1 compared to before, according to Seth Partnow, writing for Dunc’d On Prime.

Wednesday night, in separate games, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Charlotte Hornets didn't take a free throw for the first three quarters of a game, something Tom Haberstroh reported at The Finder as he dove into the free throw drought.

Something has changed. Granted, everything in the above paragraphs is circumstantial, but we've reached the "preponderance of the evidence" threshold. The eye test suggests referees are allowing a little more physicality. Ask players and others around the league, and the sense is the line for what gets whistled for a foul has moved, at least a little, to something closer to the physicality allowed in a playoff game (though not all the way there).

Stein asked an NBA official about this, and they echoed what NBA VP Joe Dumars had said previously.

An NBA spokesman, when I lodged a formal request for comment, told The Stein Line on Monday that there has been no directive from the league office to referees to call games differently. The league's position, then, is that we have witnessed a statistical anomaly over the past few weeks.

The reaction of everyone around the NBA to that?

Harden Gif
Harden Gif

Whatever has been happening may become more official and permanent. The NBA's competition committee has already started discussing potential rule tweaks — or, different interpretations of the existing rules — to allow more physicality on defense, something Shams Charania of The Athletic reported. However, that is for next season, not this one, according to the report.

Sure. There's no way it started already.

The idea that the pendulum had swung too far in favor of the offense was a legitimate and popular one around the league early in the season, as scoring was at record highs. The expectations were that change was coming.

It appears to have come faster than expected.