If you’ve watched much preseason basketball over the past week-plus, you’ve likely seen a trend that has frustrated players, coaches and fans alike.
There are way too many whistles.
As is the case each season, the NBA released points of education last week, pushing referees to correctly enforce rules regarding freedom of movement on the perimeter, freedom of movement in the post and traveling. With players and teams adjusting to a tighter whistle, foul calls especially have gone through the roof.
Well, for most teams.
They have played only one game so far — hardly enough to establish a trend — but the Milwaukee Bucks are currently an outlier when it comes to fouling. While the other 29 teams have averaged 28.4 fouls during the preseason entering Saturday — up about five per game compared to the average of the past few years — the Bucks committed just 12 fouls in their preseason opener against the Chicago Bulls. That number could have been lower, too, but the Bucks purposely took a foul in the second half to substitute Khris Middleton out of the game.
“There’s going to a be a lot of fouls called this year with the new rules, so we’ve just got to be more aware as a team and as individuals,” Bucks guard Sterling Brown said.
That one-game foul total is fewer than any regular- or postseason Bucks game from last season, when Milwaukee ranked 26th in fouls per game. Keeping fouls low is a point of emphasis for Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer and it’s something he hopes his team can continue at 7 p.m. Sunday when it takes on the Minnesota Timberwolves at Hilton Coliseum in Ames, Iowa.
“It’s something that’s important,” Budenholzer said. “I think when you do it in drill work it’s not just talk. There’s something you’re doing that’s hopefully helping them then go out and play more fundamental defense still being really good. Just doing it in a way where we’re trying to reduce the free-throw rate for our opponent.”
In four of Budenholzer’s five years as a head coach in Atlanta, the Hawks ranked in the top seven teams in the NBA in terms of limiting their fouls per game. During the Hawks’ 60-win season of 2014-’15, Atlanta committed the fewest fouls in the league at 17.8 per contest.
Being aggressive and smart on defense is something that permeates every aspect of Bucks practice. Budenholzer and his assistants constantly are pushing simple, fundamental practices that they want their team to absorb as second nature.
Following Friday’s practice, D.J. Wilson, who is nursing a right hamstring injury, got on the court for extra work. Part of that included work on his perimeter defense with assistant coach Charles Lee constantly calling out where Wilson’s hands should be, which one should be up and how he needed to move.
That’s the kind of thing the Bucks have worked into drills as much as possible. As mundane and simple as the drills may get, Budenholzer plans to continue doing them throughout the season. He recognizes players may get sick of doing the same exercises over and over, but the important thing is that the fundamentals they emphasize sink in.
“It’s been a big emphasis during training camp – show your hands and don’t foul when you’re playing defense,” guard Pat Connaughton said. “To be able to keep our hands active and make sure that we’re able to use our hands to deflect balls and do different stuff, too; not just not to foul, but to be active on defense. I think Coach has really tried to hammer that into our brains.”
In addition to drills, Budenholzer asks his video staff to pull double duty. He has some of them doing the thankless job of refereeing scrimmages during practice — and encourages them to be willing whistle-blowers. In the film room, Budenholzer shows video cuts of practices and games to his players to point out situations where they either played defense well or did something wrong.
Following Wednesday’s preseason opener against the Bulls, Budenholzer had plenty of positive clips to review with his players, especially when it came to playing defense without fouling. He hopes that will still be the case after Sunday’s contest against the Timberwolves.
“If you’re just touching on it and talking about it and emphasizing it, it just kind of starts to sink in,” Budenholzer said. “Hopefully, it’s just a lot of little things that add up to us being smarter.”