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Data suggests NBA refs are calling fewer fouls. Nuggets coach Michael Malone hasn’t noticed, “because we never get foul calls”

If NBA referees are actually making a concerted effort to call fewer fouls, Nuggets coach Michael Malone hasn’t noticed.

“I don’t see it,” he said Tuesday night, “because we never get foul calls. I don’t really see it. I haven’t noticed a difference.”

Data shows that foul calls and free-throw attempts are down league-wide in recent weeks. The more lenient officiating has been widely interpreted as a direct response to the trajectory of offense vs. defense throughout the sport this season. Public scrutiny of the gradual erosion of defensive liberties reached a fever pitch at the end of January, after Luka Doncic and Joel Embiid delivered dueling 70-point games four days apart. Malone has long been marching in the procession of disgruntled coaches. “There is no defense in the NBA right now,” he said after Doncic’s and Embiid’s historic performances.

As it so happens, research by NBA writer Tom Haberstroh indicates that week might have been a turning point.

A rolling five-game average of points per 48 minutes peaked at 117.3 on Jan. 26, the night Doncic dropped 73. Then scoring across the league plummeted by the end of February to a rolling five-game average of 109 points per 48. The trend coincided with a 10% drop in trips to the free-throw line between January and February. According to Haberstroh, foul calls per 100 possessions were 20% lower in February than they had been in November 2023.

Malone has pointed out multiple times that the NBA rulebook has increasingly protected and favored offense over the years. But he and the Nuggets also routinely question whether that trend has been fairly applied to their franchise player, Nikola Jokic. Malone and the organization have had a number of conversations with the league about how Jokic’s uniquely methodical, yet physical style of post play is officiated. Opposing defenders, especially smaller guards matching up against him in gimmick coverages, often test their luck with the referees by ratcheting up the physicality on Jokic.

The two-time MVP has been ejected twice this season after arguing no-calls.

So from Malone’s perspective, there can’t be any discernible decline in foul calls if no fouls were getting called in the first place.

“I do know that the league and (president of basketball operations) Joe Dumars especially, former player, they’re doing their due diligence to find: OK, the scoring is getting a little bit out of control,” Malone said. “So how much do we want to kind of bring it back to allow the defense to have more of a chance? Because if you look at the last 20 years, most of the rules that have been implemented have been to favor the offense. We all understand why. This is a business. And you want to keep viewership. You want to keep people coming to the games to see the best players in the world play the game at the highest level.

“But I think it’s great to have that continued discourse, to see, ‘OK, where is the game at? Where is it going? And are we comfortable with that?’”

Entering their highly anticipated rematch with the Celtics on Thursday (8 p.m. MT, TNT), the Nuggets are ranked 23rd in the league with 18.3 fouls drawn per 48 minutes. They are 28th in free throw attempts per 48 with 20.2. While their ball-movement system doesn’t invite referees to send them to the charity stripe constantly — Denver is near the bottom of the league in drives, pick-and-roll and transition frequency — their usage of Jokic inside tells another story.

The Nuggets have the highest post-up frequency in the NBA at 8% (8.7 possessions per game), but they rank 22nd in free throw frequency on those post-ups (14.6%).

Jokic is 14th among individuals with 5.3 fouls drawn per game this season, while fellow MVP contenders Giannis Antetokounmpo (8.5), Luka Doncic (7.0) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (6.6) are first, third and fourth in fouls drawn, respectively. Joel Embiid ranks second.

“That’s normal,” Jokic told The Denver Post in November. “Seems like some guys are getting more beneficial calls. Some guys are not. And that’s normal. And some guys can say a little bit more. Some guys can’t. And that’s normal. I accept it.”

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