Every few years, David Stern galvanizes the NBA -- its players, its fans -- with a controversial rule change. It’s like clockwork. There was the new dress code policy in 2005, which elicited comments like "Now you can’t wear your chains to the gym" (T.J. Ford) and the ever philosophical "If you don’t wear a suit to school, will the teacher think you’re a bad kid?" (Allen Iverson). There was the new synthetic basketball in 2006, debuting to such rave reviews as "Feels like one of those cheap balls you buy at the toy store" (Shaquille O’Neal). The years 2006 and 2007 also saw a crackdown on player complaints to officials, something the league has returned to this season.
Anecdotally, the increased emphasis on technicals has been readily observable. Players have been whistled for seemingly nonexistent infractions- pointing to their elbows to indicate missed fouls, running away from refs to eschew gesturing altogether, or doing nothing at all.
And all this brings us to …
THE CLAIM: The NBA’s insistence on penalizing minor infractions with technical fouls has had a noticeable impact on league play in 2010-2011.
It’s impossible to fully isolate the underlying factors behind technical foul calls. For insistence, we can’t say for sure if players are actually complaining more. We can’t comment too confidently on the nature of the complaints themselves. However, we can analyze trends in a more general sense.
At base, any technical foul is a result of two disparate forces: a player's tendency to complain (or more generally, misbehave in some way) and a referee's tendency to penalize the player for it. We can't dissociate these two tendencies, but we can investigate the combined effect of the two.
This Year vs. Every Year
This first graph depicts the number of technicals the average team has picked up per season, since 2003-2004. 2010-2011 is indicated as a projection, assuming that the current rate of technical fouls continues through the end of the season.
There’s no doubt that technical fouls have been called with increased frequency this year. Through 497 NBA games, 348 technicals had been issued, equating to a rate of 0.7 technical fouls per game. That’s the highest rate the league has seen since 2007, when David Stern last cracked down on excessive complaining.
From an overall perspective though? The rate isn’t that shocking. If the current pace holds, each NBA team will, on average, be whistled for around one to two more technicals than they’ve been accustomed to over the past half-decade. A more thorough look at the relatively negligible league impact follows in a bit. But first, what do we make of the claim that the stringent T policies are simply temporary, a one- to two-month measure?
2006 and 2010
If you remember back to 2006-2007, the NBA enacted a similar heightened technical policy. The league specifically promised to penalize players who complained about calls to referees. Some criticized it as the NBA's equivalent of the automatic "arguing balls and strikes" ejection. If you glance back at the first chart, you'll notice that the league had experienced a precipitous drop in called technicals just one season prior.
The NBA remained true to its word. Casual fans observed in the season's early months that players were being T'd up for minor violations; the infamous Tim Duncan-Joey Crawford ejection occurred in 2007 as well.
But league-wide opinion holds that after a few months of the newly stringent rules, the NBA backed down from its frequent whistling policies as the 2006-2007 season progressed. Was this actually true? And might we see something similar in 2011?
One thing stands out immediately: as bad as some say we have it now, November (and October) 2006 blew November (and October) 2010 out of the water. Even with a sizable drop in technical foul rates in December, 2006 still easily outpaced what we've experienced in 2010.
The truly strange aspect is, of course, the February bump. The league did indeed appear to call fewer and fewer technicals as the season progressed through January, but the technicals returned with a vengeance in February. Why? It's tough to say, and really, the possibilities are abundant. Maybe the NBA noticed the decline and restated its case to officials. Maybe players started complaining more. In any case, it's clear that the NBA didn't just get rid of its strict technical rules later in the season as many suggest. If we see an increase in technicals in February 2011, the story becomes that much more intriguing.
As mentioned earlier, the technical foul data hasn't transcended the boundaries of normal, year-to-year fluctuation. We can measure the impact of increased technicals from a team efficiency standpoint quite easily.
In 2009-2010, 741 technicals were called over 1,230 games. If the current rate holds, there will be around 861 technicals issued over 1,230 games in 2010-2011. That's a difference of 120 technical fouls. If we assume the average technical foul shooter makes 85 percent of his free throws (the median shooter among the league's top 30 foul shooters is annually right at this mark), that's around 100 points. If you pass out those 100 points evenly to the league's 30 teams, and then distribute that amount over a season's worth of possessions, you get an increase of 0.0004 points per possession. So it's clear that the real impact of increased technicals is simply the heightened ejection risk. If someone like Dwight Howard begins to draw routine suspensions, then any analysis needs to be revisited. But I'll believe that the NBA is willing to limit the minutes and games of its upper tier superstars when I see it.
VERDICT: In a historical sense, technical foul rates in 2010-2011 aren't nearly as aberrant as they appear anecdotally. Jury's still out on the final impact of increased techs as star players reach suspension benchmarks, but for now, their impact is likely overstated.