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Rule Changes in the NBA: How it Works and Has Worked

Beginning the 2021-22 season, the NBA will be changing its rules. Specifically, this is in response to the several crafty moves and tactics that players often employ in order to draw fouls from their opponents. In this case it is nearly always defenders. Knavery is an art, and the type of moves that these new rules will soon have classed as "non-basketball motions" are actually pretty skillful maneuvers, usually involving a shooting player jumping directly into a defender when making a shot. If performed well, they can still send off the shot while drawing their opponent into a foul in the process. After this new rule is approved, referees will be trained in how to properly officiate this change, including how to let the player off the hook if the contact is "marginal."

But what constitutes "marginal"? Is there a threshold amount of contact under which a player can get away with it every time? Is it left to the referee's discretion? These are the kind of questions that the NBA's Board of Governors have needed to iron out before the changes could be made. For changing the rules of a sport that millions know and love is no small matter, and for those (perhaps slightly sneaky) players for whom drawing fouls at the hoop has long been just another tactic, these sudden changes could be disruptive.

A Work of Refinement

Rule changes in basketball are no small matter and need the advice of sporting experts, an appraisal of public opinion and player opinion, and much interrogation of the proposed changes by the highest authorities in the NBA.

And yet, rule changes are not uncommon, and there have been many over the course of the NBA's 70+-year history. Much of this has been in response to changing realities in how the sport is played, but many rule changes are also down to a genuine desire to improve the game, even if there is no immediately glaring issue in need of fixing.

Indeed, how much a sport develops and its rules change is not a constant across the sporting world, and it does not happen to the same degree in all sports. When basketball is seen for what it actually is – a sport in which two teams attempt to shoot a ball through a hoop – it's hard to see how the rules of this relatively simple game (as all the best sports are) could change that much after they had been initially set. But change they have (often), and a constant work of refinement seems to have been undertaken over the course of the NBA's history in an energetic attempt to constantly improve the game.

To see this NBA ethos in better relief, it is worth comparing it to other sports and their attitude towards rule changes. International soccer, for example, takes a much more conservative approach towards rule changes than the NBA. Former FIFA president Sepp Blatter even once said that "Other sports regularly change the laws of the game to react to the new technology. We don't do it, and this makes the fascination and the popularity of football [soccer]."

Whether being driven by new technology or otherwise, there is no denying that the NBA does like to shake things up often. The new rule changes on drawing fouls are in that sense true to form.

Role of Technology

So is it technology that drives NBA rules changes? In the earlier quote, Blatter was talking about goal-line technology in soccer, an innovation that involves cameras directed at the goal line in order to provide immediate slow-motion playbacks to ascertain whether a ball has crossed the line and hence a goal has been scored. That technology was at its inception controversial in soccer, but similar technology in basketball has undoubtedly been the reason for several rule changes.

With improved video technology, there is simply so much more that can be seen on court. This means that penalties, which previously didn't exist because the foul which they punish was rarely visible, have now become hard rules.

The advent of such "all-seeing" technology has also led to an accumulation of detailed player data that would have been impossible to collect before. This has had an effect on the rules as far as a player's performance can be tracked more closely and trends can be identified, which lead to rule changes. The explosion in data has also had an effect on basketball betting, leading to the calculation of more accurate NBA odds.

From the Past and Into the Future

More than anything else however, new rules are created with the intention of refining and improving the game, not so much reacting to potentially negative developments. It is this positive ethos that has informed the many changes of the past, and which will inform the changes of the future.