Phoenix Suns embracing NBA’s more lenient whistles with physical defense

Nov 6, 2021, 3:05 PM
Josh Hart #3 of the New Orleans Pelicans protects the ball under pressure from Jae Crowder #99 and ...
Josh Hart #3 of the New Orleans Pelicans protects the ball under pressure from Jae Crowder #99 and Mikal Bridges #25 of the Phoenix Suns during the first half of the NBA game at Footprint Center on November 02, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Pelicans 112-100. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — The start of a new NBA season can be weird as we monitor trends and such that stand out for the first couple of weeks.

The number one discussion point for the 2021-22 campaign is offense being down across the league.

Prior to Saturday’s action, the leaguewide field goal percentage of 44.7% is the lowest in 16 seasons, which is greatly impacted by the 34.3% three-point percentage, over two percent lower than last year and the worst since the turn of the millennium.

Most important of all, the 19.8 free throw attempts per game average among the 30 teams is a mark that has never been under 20.

There are a handful of theories on why this is occurring. Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams has the best one.

“Two shortest offseasons in the history of the game and everybody is trying to figure it out and I’m like … I got good walking around sense,” he said Monday. “I think that it’s real easy (to see) what’s going on.”

But beyond that, the eye test says that officials have begun the year letting defenders be more physical, especially with their hands.

This has been spotlighted the most in viral videos of Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden not getting the calls he normally does, but just watch the games and see what guys can get away with that they normally don’t.

Here’s the ever-pestful Mikal Bridges defending the Los Angeles Lakers’ Carmelo Anthony this preseason, getting all over him before earning an offensive foul call.

Melo has been drawing fouls from the midpost on those little swipes and pushes since Bridges was in grade school, but at least right now, he’s not going to get them.

Same deal here for Bridges on LeBron James in the regular season.

He even, gasp, gets an offensive foul call on LeBron!

Those aren’t even that outlandish of examples and there are plenty you’ll see each game here early on in the season.

In Tuesday’s win over the New Orleans Pelicans, Suns center Frank Kaminsky had a career-high four steals and forced two more additional turnovers. He was the first one to admit he got away with a bit in getting those.

“I think they’re letting us get away with a little bit more physical defense, which definitely helped,” Kaminsky said Wednesday. “I would like to say everything was great but there were some that definitely might have been called a foul in years past. I like the new rules, it benefits me.”

The primary league change that received the most attention was not rewarding “overt, abrupt or abnormal non-basketball moves” from offensive players.

This, however, appears to be a mindset change from officials as well. It’s on them to establish what is fair game and what isn’t. Right now, it looks like the defenses can get after it more.

“I think the defenses are going to have more opportunities to use physicality to dictate,” Williams said Wednesday.

“They’ve definitely eliminated a lot of things,” Kaminsky said. “Playing post defense is tough. In the past, you can play perfect defense for five, six, seven seconds and someone just rakes their arms through and gets a foul call and they’re not calling that stuff this year which is nice.”

Two teams prior to Saturday have defensive ratings below 100, an achievement we’ve only seen pulled off once in the last seven seasons (San Antonio’s 98.2 in 2015-16).

The Golden State Warriors are all the way down to 96.0 and the Miami Heat sit right behind ’em with a 98.6 defensive rating.

“I’m watching teams like Miami who have a bunch of grown men on the floor and all they’re doing is putting their hands on teams and they have the best defense in the league I think,” Williams said of prior numbers from Wednesday.

Suns center Deandre Ayton after the Suns’ season opener against the Denver Nuggets said it felt like a playoff game physically.

Veteran forward Jae Crowder, a man who knows a thing or two about defense in the NBA, has noticed too.

“No doubt, no doubt about it,” he said Saturday of more physicality being welcomed. “It’s definitely a balance in it, you gotta find it. But it’s more of a physical style of play throughout our whole league. As we’ve played seven games now, we definitely can feel it. It’s definitely a different style of whistle being blown out there. It’s good competition right now.”

Ditto for Bridges on both counts.

“Yeah, I get away with a little hand-checking a little bit, which is kind of cool,” he said Saturday.

“I think it’s pretty cool, it’s obviously sometimes tough where if you’re on the other end and you don’t think you’re getting calls, but I like how it’s changing right now,” Bridges added.

Williams, of course, was wise as usual with more of his answer, including the question of if this continues.

“It’ll be interesting to see if we can hold onto it,” he said Wednesday. “I’ve seen all these stats about some of the top scorers from the past few seasons, their numbers are down, percentages are down. They’re shooting a lot more contested shots because hands are on them and able to push them to places where the defense wants them to go.

“I’m not quite sure if — We typically go through this. October, November and then end of November, December we’re back to seeing what we saw the previous year so the jury is still out.”

Williams also made a strong point in wondering that if this style is permanent, what are the playoffs going to be like, when things really get rough?

Time will tell, and it’s subjective on whether or not this is good for the league. Speaking for myself personally, as a fan of defense, I’m all for it.

We’ll find out if the league is too.

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