NBA players are fouling out less often and other interesting facts you didn’t think you wanted to know about fouling out

In his Wednesday Bullets, TrueHoop’s Henry Abbott posed a question:

Help me out, if you can: Do players foul out less than they used to? Seems like it used to happen all the time. Now it seems so rare. I can’t tell if that’s really a trend, or just an artifact of a childhood watching Steve Johnson, king of six fouls.

I wish I could’ve just ignored that, but I couldn’t. My curiosity wouldn’t let me.

So, after a considerable amount of time with Basketball-Reference’s Game Finder, I have some answers.

In short, players do foul out less than they used to. In long,* well, let me guide you through some of my findings.

*Why is that phrase not used? Is there any way to make it catch on?

Methodology

Basketball-Reference’s Game Finder dates back only to the 1986-87 season, so that’s as far as my data goes.

The charts I use refers to each season by a single year. For example, this season is 2011.

Because of expansion, the lockout-shorted season of 1999 and this year being only about a quarter through, I use foul outs per game, rather than foul outs per season. That way, each season is on a level playing field.

Fouling out headed out of style

Between the beginning of the 1986-87 season and Tuesday, 1,144 different players fouled out 11,197 times. But those numbers are hardly evenly distributed over the past 25 years.

Henry was right. Foul outs per game are down 43.3 percent from 1986-87 to this season. And players are fouling out more this season than any of the last three seasons!

The solid blue line represents the actual year-to-year figures for foul outs per game. The dotted red line represents a linear trend line for that data.

Sheet 1
Sheet 1

Why is this happening?

As a believer in Occam’s Razor, I wanted to start with the simplest explanation. In this case, I wanted to know whether players are fouling less. If they are, that would explain why players are fouling out less.

Again, I use fouls per game, rather than fouls per season, because of expansion, the lockout-shorted season of 1999 and this year being only about a quarter through, 

The solid blue line represents the actual year-to-year figures for foul per game. The dotted red line represents a linear trend line for that data.

Sheet 2
Sheet 2

This makes sense. Fouls decreasing through the years probably has something to with players fouling out decreasing.

But why players are fouling less?

My first, and really only guess, was pace. If the pace of the league has decreased over the last 25 years, there would be fewer possessions, and therefore fewer fouls.

The solid blue line represents the actual league-wide pace. The dotted red line represents a linear trend line for that data.

Sheet 3
Sheet 3

Again, this makes sense. Fewer possessions, fewer fouls, fewer foul outs. I’m sure fewer fouls has something to do with fewer players fouling out. But that’s not the whole story.

As I said above, foul outs per game have declined 43.3 percent in the last 25 years.

In that same span, the league’s pace has declined a mere 8.7 percent, and fouls per game have declined just 11.8 percent.

To illustrate this, I created foul outs per game plus, fouls per game plus and pace plus. I set the average foul outs per game, fouls per game and pace for the last 25 years each at 100. Then, I adjusted each season’s value for all three measures accordingly.*

*This model is similar to OPS-plus and ERA-plus for baseball.

Foul outs per game plus is in gray. Fouls per game plus is in red. Pace plus is in blue. Solid lines are actual numbers, and dotted lines are the linear trend lines.

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Sheet 4

The rate of decline for fouls per game and pace are pretty well in tune. In fact, I believe the decline in fouls per game is almost directly tied to pace.

But what about foul outs per game? They’ve declined significantly more rapidly than fouls and pace.

Why?

Conspiracy!

Let me preface this section by saying I don’t believe there’s a conspiracy to reduce the number of times players foul out. But with anything in the NBA that doesn’t quite stack up, isn’t there an obligation to invent a conspiracy?

As you can tell by the above chart, although fouls outs were trending downward, they really have sunk since 2007. What happened that year? The Spurs beat the Cavaliers in the Finals:

Stern and network executives downplayed the league’s declining TV ratings, insisting there is still plenty of demand for NBA-related content through other forms of media.

San Antonio’s recent four-game sweep of Cleveland finished with a record-low 6.2 television rating and 11 share on ABC.

Could the NBA have instructed referees to try to prevent players from fouling out to improve television ratings? After all, fewer people will watch games if star players are stuck on the bench.

The reason I don’t buy that theory – besides the biggest reason: conspiracies are difficult to pull off because few people can keep a secret – is although Finals rating were down, playoff ratings were trending upward. The low Finals rating were more likely due to an unpopular matchup than a larger problem with the NBA.

And Drew Gooden was the only player to foul out during the Finals. The lower ratings certainly can’t be blamed on that. So, I doubt the NBA saw any cause to scheme about preventing players from fouling out.

The real reason

Part of the reason I offered the conspiracy theory was because I’m low on more realistic ideas. I wish I had something of substance to write here, but I just don’t know.

One thought: players are playing fewer minutes per game now than before and are therefore less likely to get into serious foul trouble. But glancing at last season and 1986-87, that wasn’t the case.

The only guess I have left: I think coaches too often sit players who are in minor foul trouble early. Obviously, that makes the player less likely to foul out. But I don’t think the lost playing time is worth minimizing the risk of fouling out. Has this strategy grown favor during the last 25 years?

I’d love to hear suggestions about what’s causing this trend.

In the mean time, as long as I had all this data in front of me, here are some more foul-out facts.

By position

Here’s a breakdown of the percentage of players at each position who fouled out in the last 25 years:

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Sheet 7

Fouling-out superlatives

In games players fouled out, they averaged 12.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.8 blocks in 29.3 minutes. Here are the extremes:

Leaders since 1986-87

Here are the 25 players who’ve fouled out the most the last 25 years. Shawn Kemp might be solely responsible for slowing the decline of players fouling out.

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Sheet 5

For the record, Steve Johnson fouled out 25 times since 1986-87. But he only played half his 10 seasons since then. I have no record of how many times he fouled out his first five years.

Annual leaders

Johnson makes an appearance in the final chart, which displays the leader(s) in fouling out each of the last 25 years:

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Sheet 6