Referees to focus more on offensive player fouls, freedom of movement this season

Ball handlers driving the lane then using their off-arm to push off and create space for a shot. Defenders holding up pick-setters to slow their roll to the rim. Traveling. Players making grand gestures after a foul call.

All of that and more will be the focus of NBA referees — what the league calls “points of education” — heading into the 2020-21 NBA season. Here are some videos from the league about what officials will be looking for.

Please see below for Part 2 of the 2020-21 Points of Education video (narrated by SVP, Head of Referee Development & Training Monty McCutchen), which provides examples and guidance regarding Freedom of Movement (Perimeter and Post), and Respect for the Game: pic.twitter.com/gnAGwfXItB

— NBA Official (@NBAOfficial) December 9, 2020

Of course, the video examples are fairly clear-cut — defenders wrapping up cutting offensive players with both arms, obvious travels, etc. In the real world, and at NBA game speed, the calls are rarely obvious and fall more into a grey area. The officials need to draw clear lines for what is and is not a foul; it frustrates players and coaches when they are unsure where that line is located.

Here are the areas of focus from the videos.

• Offensive player initiated contact on-ball. These are things like a player driving the lane using an off-arm to create space or jumping into a defender to create contact. While these have always been penalties, they have not been consistently called over the years.

• Offensive player initiated contact off-ball. This is players away from the ball pushing off a defender to create space so they can receive the ball.

• Defensive clutching/grabbing off-ball, also called freedom of movement. This was a point of emphasis back in 2018 and again last season, and it was an area where teams and coaches struggled to adjust. The goal was to stop defenders from clutching and grabbing guys trying to cut to slow them down — to allow freedom of movement — but players had been getting away with it for so long it was engrained. For example, often the player setting a pick out high is held by a smaller defender on a switch, just enough to slow the roll man so help can arrive — expect more of those calls. Same with a smaller player wrapping up or grabbing a bigger player in the post on a switch.

In the past couple of years players have become more subtle, but there is still clutching that goes on uncalled, and this year officials will be on the lookout for it and will try to call it more consistently.

• Traveling. The league is not changing call your father hates — players still get a gather and two steps on drives to the rim. This is a holdover point of education from last season, when the league cracked down on players shuffling their feet, or moving their pivot foot, before dribbling; or, taking more than two steps after the gather on offense. That focus will continue this season. And your father will continue to complain about James Harden’s stepback.

• Respect the game. This technical is never popular (even when deserved), but expect more calls from officials who feel players are being too demonstrative and showing them up after a foul call. It’s a tough line to walk in an emotional game, but referee and player relations are strained and at near an all-time low, and this is part of it.

There are certainly moves by players — a sprint to the other end of the court, throwing up their arms — designed to show up officials ( and rile up fans, when there were fans in the building). We’ve seen players complain about obvious calls. Referees have felt for years the league has let players go too far down this road of disrespecting them without consequences (fines). However, referees are not always good about engaging players and hearing their concerns. If a player is respectful in tone and body language, there needs to be a conversation, not just a referee putting up his/her hand like a stop sign.

This also has to be situational. A player throwing a fit over a foul on a second-quarter jumper might warrant a “respect the game” technical. However, a player angry about a call on a drive to the hoop in the final minute of a close game has to be given room to vent (and that is not always the case). It’s an emotional game and nobody should want to take that emotion out of it.

Both sides need a little less ego and a little more conversation, and I’m not sure if this emphasis on respecting the game will help with that.