What Is A Technical Foul In Basketball?

By Max Kesler


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referee making technical foul hand signal

Wherever there’s competition, there’s always going to be heat; and where there’s heat, there’s bound to be disagreements, or worse, fights.

If only there was some way to give out warnings and penalties to players or even coaches whenever they cross the line…

Well, good thing there is – not the common personal fouls where players have clear contact with each other, I’m talking about technical fouls, calls for behavior that can instigate ruckus.

What exactly is a technical foul?

A technical foul, or simply “T”, is a type of foul that violates certain rules commonly due to unsportsmanlike conduct. Unlike personal fouls or flagrant fouls, they do not concern illegal physical contact made during play, but result from other infractions, often away from the ball. They can not only be called on players, but also coaches and fans.

Some examples of technical fouls are:

  • Spitting
  • Baiting or taunting an opponent
  • Trash talking
  • Kicking the ball
  • Disrespecting a game official
  • Excessive timeouts
  • Hanging on the rim
  • Fighting

Hang on, doesn’t “fighting” constitute illegal physical contact, and thus should be considered a personal foul? Well, not really. Fighting is a special case and it isn’t just another form of illegal contact being made during the game, because it’s unrelated to the flow of play. Besides, common sense should tell you they’re not in the same category!

Why do technical fouls exist?

Referees getting on players’ necks players can lead to frustrations ending up in technical fouls which can impact the game by getting key players out of the rotation. Each player and coach should be held accountable for their actions, that is why technical fouls exist.

This allows the referees to manage the game by disciplining and controlling both the players and coaches in and out of the court. It can be handed out to players, bench personnel, or even to a fan in the crowd.

Video examples of technical fouls

Probably the fastest way to get a sense of technical fouls is to watch some calls being made. First up, here’s an NFHS high school basketball official walking through technical fouls that might not be obvious to the untrained eye:

The NBA also sees its fair share of technical fouls, and sometimes the referee calls seem a bit harsh. This video shows the worst technical foul calls of the 2020-21 season. It includes calls being dished out for bouncing the ball out of frustration after a point was scored, and Montrezl Harrell of the Washington Wizards yelling ‘and one!’ because they couldn’t understand how the ref didn’t call a foul.

What is the penalty for committing a technical foul?

Players and coaches are given two chances of obtaining a technical foul.

The penalty for the first one depends on the level of play. In American high school basketball (NFHS), the penalty is two free throws and possession for the opposing team. In college basketball, the penalty is either one or two free throws (depending on whether the technical foul was deemed as “Class A” or “Class B”), with play resuming from the point of interruption. In the NBA, the penalty is one free throw for the opposing team, with play resuming from the point of interruption.

But it’s committing the second technical foul that really stings. The second technical foul results in ejection from the game, where they must leave the court and head to their respective locker room immediately. It all depends on the referee to read certain situations and make the appropriate call to keep the game under control.

Unsportsmanlike vs Non-unsportsmanlike technicals

The NBA further distinguishes between unsportsmanlike and non-unsportsmanlike technical fouls. While they are both technical fouls, “non-unsportsmanlike” carry much lesser penalties and don’t count towards a fine, ejection, or suspension.

Here are some examples of when a referee may call a technical foul, and whether they would be deemed unsportsmanlike or non-unsportsmanlike:

Improper Conduct (unsportsmanlike)

The most common fouls called in the NBA are due to improper conduct inside or outside the basketball court. These may be players cursing or showing intemperate force towards a referee, a coach walking into the court while the game is going on a player taunting, or any intentional excessive force like a punch, unnecessary shove, or elbow.

These kinds of acts can result in a simple technical foul and can even escalate into ejection from the game if decided by the referee in charge. When a fight does break out, it is first reprimanded by giving technical fouls because this is completely prohibited in the NBA. Ejections commonly happen afterward, and hefty fines can be handed out to the players and/or coaches involved in the altercation.

Thankfully, fights rarely happen these days compared to the 80s and 90s era, since the NBA has been controlling its players with preventive officiating and larger fines.

Excessive Timeouts (non-unsportsmanlike)

One of the other reasons for getting a technical foul is calling for excessive timeouts. Each team has a maximum number of timeouts and when a player or coach calls a timeout even if they don’t have any left, a technical is given.

This usually occurs towards the end of the game when a player may abruptly call a timeout to save a possession, not knowing they have already run out. This gives the opposing team the chance to shoot one free throw and gain possession afterward. Players should always be aware of how many timeouts they have left to avoid this kind of mistake in any crucial situation.

Delay of Game (non-unsportsmanlike)

A technical foul may also be given to players or coaches who hinder the game from resuming by, for example, interfering with the ball after a made field goal, leaving a jersey untucked, or any other interference with gameplay that prolongs the continuation of the game.

Too many players on the court (non-unsportsmanlike)

Another common mistake that could lead to a technical foul call is having too many players on the court. There should only be ten players playing, five from one team and five from the other.

For some reason, there are still many instances of having more than ten players on the court at the same time which would lead to a technical for the team exceeding the five-maximum requirement.

Hanging on the basket (non-unsportsmanlike)

When you get to the NBA, dunks are bound to happen in a game. Players love to show off their high jumping abilities and freakish athleticism. However, there are many instances where players can get a technical from dunking, like if they hang on the rim for a certain amount of time.

This may not sound like a violation, but it may be perceived as an unsportsmanlike move. Players are not allowed to pull themselves up nor hang on it when dunking unless they are doing it for their own or another player’s safety.

Fines and suspensions for technical fouls in the NBA

During the Regular Season

How many technical fouls can an NBA player have in a season? As many as he wants, provided that he pays all the hefty fines that come with it, and adheres to the game suspensions being handed out after the 16th technical foul call, this is called the 16 technical fouls rule.

This rule provides a 1 game suspension after piling up 16 regular-season technical fouls. The player is fined and suspended 1 game upon receiving 16 technical fouls in the regular season. And then again at 18, 20, 22, and so on and so forth every two technical fouls incurred.

The first 5 technical foul fines would cost $2,000 each, the next 5 would be $3,000 each, the 5 after that would cost $4,000 each, and the 16th technical foul would lead to a 1 game suspension and a $5,000 fine. Each additional technical foul after the 16th would mean a $5,000 fine and a 1 game suspension for every other technical foul committed. Obtaining 2 technical fouls in a game would mean an ejection, and that would mean another $2,000 fine. Another $2,000 fine for each subsequent ejection would follow.

During playoffs

By the time the playoffs start, the same rules apply but the stakes are now higher with lesser room for errors. The first 2 technical fouls called would result in a $2,000 fine for each foul, the 3rd and 4th foul would lead to a $3,000 fine each, the 2 after that would cost $4,000 each and the 7th technical foul would generate a $5,000 fine and a 1 game suspension.

That one-game suspension can be very crucial for a team fighting for a championship in a deep playoff run. Just ask Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green who was suspended during Game 5 of the 2016 NBA finals against Lebron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers – a game which really shifted momentum in favor of the Cavs.

But Draymond’s suspension came was due to another reason. His suspension was a result of committing a flagrant, which brings us to the next topic.

Technical Fouls vs Flagrant Fouls

Whereas technical fouls typically relate to acts unrelated to basketball play, flagrant fouls are called when there is unnecessary and sometimes excessive contact (that could lead to injury) while the ball is in play.

As for flagrant fouls, these can be divided into two types, Flagrant Foul Penalty 1, meaning unnecessary contact committed by a player against an opponent, and Flagrant Foul Penalty 2, which is unnecessary and excessive contact committed by a player against an opponent.

Both will result in two free throws and ball possession for the opposing team but the only difference with Flagrant 2 is ejection from the game for the player who committed the foul. Committing two Flagrant 1 Fouls in a game can also lead to an automatic ejection.

Draymond was suspended during the playoffs due to the NBA’s three-point repercussion system which was implemented in 2010 where each Flagrant foul is awarded a point: 1 point for Flagrant 1 Fouls and 2 points for Flagrant 2 Fouls. Once a player exceeds a total of 3 points during the playoffs, this will result in an automatic one-game suspension. A player who exceeds the 5-point total will face an automatic two-game suspension. The NBA can still impose a fine and/or suspend any player who commits a flagrant foul at any time during the Playoffs regardless of whether the point levels discussed are reached or not.

Players with the most technical fouls in NBA history

Speaking of Draymond Green, you may think that the 3-time NBA champion tops the list of the players with the most technical fouls in NBA history, but he’s far from number 1 in this aspect of the game.

He ranks 20th all-time in this list with 131 technical fouls, and keep in mind that he is still playing, and he can still move up the list. Ahead of him are some notable stars like Shaquille O’Neal with 150 technical fouls at #16, the late Kobe Bryant with 166 technical fouls at #13, and ex-Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki with 199 Technical Fouls at #6.

Keep in mind that these numbers were mostly due to the longevity of the career of these star players mentioned, with each player having spent more than 19 seasons in the NBA.

The top 5 on this list are some of the most notable “bad boy” type of players in the history of the game:

5. Dennis Rodman (212)

Starting with number 5, (surprisingly didn’t go number 1) the five-time NBA champion Dennis Rodman with 212 Technical Fouls. He was known to be the NBA’s poster child for bad behavior, on and off the court.

4. Gary Payton Sr. (250)

At number 4 is “The Glove” himself, Gary Payton Sr. with 250 Technical Fouls. This guy could have been called “The Mouth” for all the talking he had done during his playing years, chirping with players, coaches, and referees for most of his career.

3. Rasheed Wallace (317)

Number 3 on the list goes to the guy who set an NBA single-season record with 41 in the 2001-2002 season and the NBA career leader in ejections with 29 total, Rasheed Wallace. This guy allotted a total of 317 total Technical Fouls during his 16 seasons in the NBA.

2. Charles Barkley (329)

Second, on the list goes to the 1993 NBA Most Valuable Player, Charles Barkley with 329 Technical Fouls, just three short from being number one.

1. Karl Malone (332)

And at number 1 on the list with an NBA record of 332 Technical Fouls, two-time NBA Most Valuable Player, 2nd all-time in NBA scoring, “The Mailman” himself Karl Malone. Malone is here partly due to the longevity of his career. He, like many other players on this list, played in a very tough era of the NBA. He also used to recklessly elbow players.

In the 1991-92 season, Malone elbowed Isiah Thomas horribly. Isiah Thomas had to take 40 stitches after the incident. Malone was a very physical player, his style of play made him pick the most technical fouls and 2nd most personal fouls in NBA history. Which makes perfect sense on why Karl Malone is number 1 on this list.

Notice how the top 6 players are all retired. Well, it might not be long before Russell Westbrook enters the record books for the wrong reasons since he’s already close to committing 200 career technical fouls.

Has basketball become too soft?

Talking about how the game has gone soft is a very popular and controversial topic. You hear everyone say it, both players and fans. Saying how the older generation was tougher and that things did not come as easily back in their day.

A lot of players now get criticized for being soft, but when you look at the history of the NBA, you’ll see that it was the league itself that made the game softer and not its players.

Today’s players can’t play a hard style of basketball, even if they wanted to. They just aren’t allowed to due to the softer foul calls and unnecessary ejections from the game.

But you can’t really blame the league for taking the necessary precautions in avoiding another group of “Bad Boy” Pistons, or another “Malice at The Palace” incident, which is arguably the most horrific day in NBA history where players and fans were literally throwing punches inside the arena. A very disturbing and unpleasant sight, leaving dozens injured and children crying.

This game greatly affected the NBA’s reputation, which made David Stern (NBA Commissioner at that time) hand out several fines and suspensions to the players of each team involved. This whole incident started with some chirping, a little pushing, and trash-talking between the players. It made sense that soon right after, the refs became quicker to call technical fouls to avoid any escalation and diffuse any heated situations right before it turns into something big.

You can see in today’s games that fouls are called more often, technical fouls are easier to get, while a flagrant foul 2 now could be considered a normal foul back in the day.

Some may say that the referees today may need to keep their egos in check. NBA fans want to see the best players of each team grind it out inside the court, but how can that happen if a pompous referee ejects the likes of Joel Embiid or Kevin Durant for merely talking trash to each other.

We want to see these grown men work and just hoop it out, we don’t like seeing these stars getting thrown out just before halftime. But I guess it’s just part of the evolution of the game of basketball. As someone once said, “All great changes are preceded by chaos.” This, and all the other changes that have been made to the game make up the basketball that we all know and love today.

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Written by Max Kesler

Max Kesler, a Philly native, is the chief editor at HoopsBeast. He has covered the game at NBA and NCAA levels. He hopes to see his beloved 76ers win a championship soon.

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