Nylon Calculus: No free rides? Traveling violations are way up


A few weeks ago, league officials reportedly informed teams that referees would be paying close attention to traveling violations during the 2017-18 NBA season. Specifically, referees would be focusing on the foot that had been established as the pivot and ensuring that it remains planted before the player’s next move. Teams have only played about a handful of games thus far, but such renewed emphasis on the rules has already had an impact.

The following chart is based on turnover statistics from NBA Miner, which has parsed play-by-play data stretching back to the 1996-97 season. Overall, the number of traveling violations per game has risen this year:

Through October 24 games, the average team has been called for 1.7 traveling violations per game, up from 0.8 last season. If it maintains this level for the rest of the year, it would mark the first time that it’s been above 1.0 since 2013-14 and the first time that it’s been above 1.5 since 2006-07.

The same observations apply even when we account for increased pace of play. Between last season and this season, traveling violations have risen by 0.9 per 100 possessions. The league is currently at a comparable level to the 2006-07 campaign, when the average team was called for 1.7 travels per 100 possessions.

A few recent games have underscored the heightened emphasis on the rules. The Oct. 19 game between the New York Knicks and the Oklahoma City Thunder (their first matchup since the Carmelo Anthony trade) featured nine travels. Enes Kanter was called for three. Although a couple were fairly straightforward violations, one example in the post, where he subtly tapped his pivot foot, seemed to reflect tighter officiating than in recent years (and drew a smile from Steven Adams, who was guarding him). Courtney Lee had a similar travel behind the 3-point line right in front of the referee.

The following day, around the same zone as Lee’s turnover, D’Angelo Russell and Caris LeVert committed their own violations. In the opening seconds of the Brooklyn Nets – Orlando Magic game, Russell received a pass with his back to the basket right below the 3-point line. As he turned to face Elfrid Payton, who was defending him tightly, he shifted his pivot foot and was called for a travel.

LeVert erred in a different way several minutes later. Preparing for a drive behind the arc, he faked right and moved left, shuffling his feet in the process. Like Russell, he eventually finished with two travels in a game that saw eight total violations.  

On the same night across the country, TJ Warren was charged with three traveling turnovers, including one that occurred high above the 3-point line as he swung the ball away from Alex Caruso. Devin Booker had a pair of his own. In the more notable case, he caught the ball near the restricted area while Corey Brewer was guarding him. He pump-faked, tried to get around his defender and illegally inched his feet toward the rim. The Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Lakers combined for eight travels amid the 262 points that they collectively scored.

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Overall, in the first 54 games this season, eight games had total traveling violations of five or more. By contrast, in 2016-17, there were 31 such games altogether. We’ve already seen four games at the extreme end wherein traveling violations exceeded seven — a higher total than any contest last year.

As the season progresses, and players adjust to the new norm, it’s likely that the numbers will stabilize in at least some form. Perhaps it’s also possible that, if game flow is adversely affected and tighter rules enforcement faces a backlash (as Erik Spoelstra wondered), referees may dial down their calls. At this stage, though it’s hard to tell how things will unfold, it appears all but certain that traveling violations will be higher than in recent seasons.