There are about 48 average foul calls per game in the NBA, that’s around one foul per game. These include the common personal fouls, the less common technical fouls, and fouls that are called only once in a while – flagrant fouls.
Flagrants bring more controversy than others and often cause fuss and commotion when triggered. They can also result in heated tension for the players and coaches, and uproar in the stands.
A flagrant foul gets called when contact is considered unnecessary and possibly excessive towards another player, who may or may not be in possession of the ball. It’s illegal contact that could potentially harm the player. The referee can call a Flagrant 1 or 2, depending on the severity of the foul.
Because of the harsh penalties brought by a flagrant foul, the NBA always reviews them through instant replay and they could be downgraded to a common foul or technical foul. That’s decided by the crew chief of the game.
While they can simply be a result of the physical nature of the game, flagrant fouls are sometimes a dangerous outlet for the frustration of any player on the court.
When are Flagrant fouls given?
These fouls aren’t as common as some of the other fouls in basketball, but it is still given to players from time to time. Officials tend to be more straightforward in handing this out when compared to a more subtle technical foul, but critical judgment is still needed when assessing a flagrant foul.
There should be hard contact during the play and the head official must be the judge in deciding if the contact was unnecessary and/or excessive enough to be considered a flagrant foul.
Once considered, the officials must determine if it meets the criteria for a Flagrant 1 or Flagrant 2. Fortunately, today’s officials can review any play when a call is in consideration of being a flagrant foul, no matter what the original call was on the floor. Back in the day, the foul had to be called a flagrant before the officials could go to instant replay.
Flagrant 1 vs Flagrant 2
The NBA has two types of flagrant fouls: flagrant one and flagrant two fouls. Many people wrongly assume that a flagrant 2 is an intentional foul that was deliberate, but that’s wrong. The NBA defines a flagrant 1 as one where unnecessary contact was committed, whereas a flagrant 2 involves unnecessary and excessive contact. Basically, a flagrant 2 is more dangerous in nature.
While they may seem similar and often are alike in criteria, there’s a significant difference in the penalties given. This is where instant replay comes in handy.
A Flagrant 1 foul is given when unnecessary contact is committed by the player against the opponent. This can be called when a referee assesses a play as a non-basketball play involving illegal contact.
This will result in two free throws and ball possession. The free throws will be attempted by the player or their substitute. Often in an excessive contact situation, the player fouled may be injured momentarily which would take the player out of the game. In these scenarios, the substitute player is tasked to take the free throws.
A player who commits two flagrant 1 fouls in the same game will result in an automatic ejection.
The primary factor of calling a flagrant 2 is the severeness of the contact, usually any unnecessary and excessive contact above the shoulders of the player can lead to this call.
While flagrant 2 fouls are not necessarily intentional, any intentional act that is intended to harm a player can be penalized as a flagrant two foul. Just like the Flagrant 1 call, a penalty of two free throws and ball possession for the opposing team will be handed out.
However, there are no second chances here. A flagrant 2 foul means automatic ejection for the player that committed the foul.
Brief History of Flagrant Fouls
The NBA flagrant foul rule was first introduced in the 1990-1991 NBA season as an attempt to discourage excessive contact which was very common in that era of basketball.
All the excessive contact was a major risk for player health and safety. Injuries from hard fouls were much more common before this rule came out.
Now while injuries are inevitable in almost any sport, never mind a game involving giant athletes charging around on a small court, they don’t always result from simple misfortune.
The cast on New Jersey Nets guard Kenny Anderson’s left hand was not there because of a mere accident. A deliberate at worst, or careless at best foul on him by New York Knicks guard John Starks in a 1992-93 season Knicks vs Nets game was the cause of Anderson’s downfall.
A player tipped to be the best point guard since Magic Johnson, Kenny’s career was never the same after fracturing his left wrist. But dangerous fouls like this weren’t that uncommon in that era. The style of play in the early 90s is the primary reason for the introduction of flagrant fouls in the league, trying to avert injuries like this from happening while still bringing out the best talent available in the league.
The introduction of the rule didn’t bring an immediate end to the roughness on the court (The foul on Kenny Anderson being a case in point) but it played a significant part in instilling some discipline into the game. Today, the league is safer, with some people even arguing that the game is ‘too soft’.
Penalty for committing a flagrant foul
During the regular season
The NBA applies penalty points for each flagrant foul issued to a player. One flagrant 1 foul is equal to one penalty point and one flagrant 2 foul is worth two penalty points.
Once a player accumulates more than five penalty points during the season, they will get an automatic suspension on their upcoming game. Flagrant fouls also include high monetary fines, and possible suspension, at the discretion of the NBA Commissioner.
Example 1: Lebron James elbows Isaiah Stewart
On November 21, 2021, during the matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and Detroit Pistons, Lakers’ forward Lebron James and Pistons’ center Isaiah Stewart were fighting for positioning after a free throw. In the process, James hit his left elbow against Stewart’s eye, causing blood to spread all over his face.
An inflated scuffle followed where multiple players and personnel from both sides had to prevent Stewart from rushing James on at least three occasions.
This eventually ended with James getting a flagrant 2 (for the elbow) resulting in ejection and suspension days after the incident. Stewart also got ejected after getting two technical fouls for unsportsmanlike conduct during the melee. He was suspended for two games for his excessive response of chasing James on the court multiple times. This was only the second ejection of James’ 19-year career.
Example 2: Grayson Allen sends Alex Caruso flying
More recently Milwaukee Bucks guard Grayson Allen, committed a hard foul on Chicago Bulls guard Alex Caruso. In the third quarter of that game, Caruso got out on the break and went hard to the rim and in mid-air, Allen came flying in to try and block the shot but ended up grabbing Caruso’s arm instead.
The foul was understandable, no 3 and D player like Allen would allow easy buckets on his watch, but it was very dangerous and excessive given the circumstances. This incident sent Caruso crashing to the floor with no way to brace himself, leading to a broken wrist evaluation right after the game.
Keeping Caruso out of the Bull’s line-up for 6-8 weeks. This is the result of the unnecessary and excessive contact that was given, and this is precisely why the NBA introduced flagrants for. There is no place for these kinds of fouls in basketball, and that’s why Allen was immediately ejected for his flagrant 2 foul and faced suspension for his following game.
The Bulls organization can argue that Allen deserves more punishment for what he did but these were the penalties handed out to the Bucks’ guard.
During the Playoffs
It’s a little different in the post-season, because now only three penalty points are required to earn you a one-game suspension.
Example: A costly Draymond Green suspension during the 2016 NBA finals
Arguably the most controversial suspension handed out in the history of the NBA playoffs was given to Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green, during their astonishing run in the 2016 NBA Finals where they were up 2-1 against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Green managed to get tangled up into a double foul with Lebron James of the Cavs in Game 4 of the finals. The Warriors won the game but Draymond’s foul was escalated to a Flagrant 1 foul, and keep in mind that he already had 2 penalty points.
This meant he had to sit out in game 5 of the NBA Finals, which helped the Cleveland Cavaliers come back from a 3-1 deficit and get that elusive title.
Grayson Allen and Draymond Green are just some of the few players who just play too hard sometimes. The same reason you might hate on them is the same reason you might love to have them on your own team. The fact that they are men who love to instigate everything and happen to have the game to back it all up makes them highly controversial.
Fouls are always going to be a big part of basketball, whether it be a good or a bad call. There may be times when we always blame the referees for calling too many fouls and making the game look softer, but they are just doing their job.
The refs as well as the hefty fines and costly suspensions keep the game in order. Basketball is a very competitive sport, so they need to do their jobs and maintain a fair and orderly matchup.
Some may also say that the addition of flagrant foul calling has made the NBA game too soft in recent years. They point at certain flagrant foul calls as evidence. But in retrospect, this rule can protect players from getting injured from any unnecessary contact.
Fewer injuries mean more players available on a nightly basis and having the best talent available on the floor, not on the sidelines due to injuries caused by harmful contact by an opposing player. Having the best players on the court is what is best for the game and the fans. And at the same time, it reduces the risk of players suffering career-defining injuries in the way Kenny Anderson did.