Each year 30 teams battle it out to be crowned NBA champions, competing each game for the points that will take them to the playoffs and potential success. Teams all operate in different ways, deploying a range of tactics to get the win. In pursuit of this goal, players can step over the line and commit personal fouls during games. Some teams see this as a necessary part of the game, while others avoid being penalised and try to concede as few fouls as possible. So who avoids rule-breaking the most? Which team is the fairest in the NBA?
To find out, Betting.com compiled over 40 years’ worth of NBA data, combined from the NBA API and basketballreference.com. The data was analysed by each year and the number of personal fouls committed by each team. Due to variations in season length a metric of fouls per game was used to differentiate teams’ fairness.
Hornets claim all-time fairest season
|Team||Fouls Per Game||Year|
|Los Angeles Lakers||16.803||2011|
|San Antonio Spurs||17.171||2017|
|San Antonio Spurs||17.318||2011|
|San Antonio Spurs||17.402||2012|
|San Antonio Spurs||17.476||2015|
With just 16.585 fouls per game in the 2016-17 season, the Charlotte Hornets can claim to be the fairest NBA team since 1980. Their season ended with a disappointing 11th-place finish in the Eastern Conference, showing that perhaps playing fair doesn’t help the win-loss ratio.
Occupying 40% of the all-time top ten fairest seasons are the San Antonio Spurs; their 2011, 2012, 2015 and 2017 seasons all had less than 17.5 personal fouls per game. They fared better than the Hornets, with 3 of these seasons resulting in trips to conference semi-finals. Their 2012 season was a high point, narrowly losing out to Miami in the NBA finals. In their win the following year they would make an extra foul on average, making all the difference to the result.
The only NBA champions to make the top 10 in fair play is the 2020 Milwaukee Bucks side, committing just 17.278 fouls per game in their winning season.
Kings and Knicks tie for personal foul record
|Team||Fouls Per Game||Year|
|Kansas City Kings||29.210||1982|
|New York Knicks||29.210||1984|
|New York Knicks||28.790||1987|
|San Diego Clippers||28.700||1981|
With 29.210 fouls per game, the Kansas City Kings and New York Knicks tie as the teams with the highest personal foul average in the NBA, for their 1982 and 1984 seasons respectively. The teams committed 13 more fouls per game than the fairest team: the Hornets. Even in the more physical 1980s, they were 4 fouls per game higher than the league average.
The Fairest and Dirtiest of each decade
|Decade||Fairest||Fouls Per Game||Dirtiest||Fouls Per Game|
|‘80s||Boston Celtics||22.55||Kansas City Kings||27.16|
|‘90s||Houston Rockets||20.68||Denver Nuggets||24.01|
|‘00s||San Antonio Spurs||19.80||Utah Jazz||24.34|
|‘10s||Charlotte Hornets||17.97||Phoenix Suns||21.78|
|‘20s||Milwaukee Bucks||17.85||Detroit Pistons||21.52|
The correlation between fair play and championships seems strong. The Hornets are the only side to commit the fewest personal fouls across a decade and not win a championship; the Celtics (3), Rockets (2), Spurs (3) and Bucks (1) all won championships while in their fair play prime.
By contrast, it would seem cheaters really do never prosper. Each of the decades’ worst teams for personal fouls failed to secure a championship in the same decade.
Style of NBA play changes over 40 years
|Decade||Fouls Per Game|
Sport is constantly evolving, and the NBA is no different. Many fans will have noticed a growing preference for shooting three-pointers rather than driving for the hoop. Since the 1980s, personal foul averages have fallen by over 20%, with modern players making five fewer fouls a game compared to their predecessors.
The Milwaukee Bucks showed the most significant drop in their foul rate, with the fair play leaders of the most recent year making 8 fewer fouls per game on average in the 2020s compared to the 1980s.
Birds Celtics fairer than Showtime Lakers
Long held as the rivalry that built the NBA, the battle between Magic Johnson’s “Showtime” Lakers and Larry Bird’s Celtics dominated basketball in the 1980s. Bird and his team were cast as the rougher side, physically dominant against the unstoppable Lakers. The reputation is undeserved however, with Bird’s side committing fewer personal fouls per game than Johnson’s (22.55 vs 22.93 fouls per game). They may have been more physical, but they rarely overstepped the mark and broke the laws of the game.
The myth of the “Bad Boy Pistons”
One of the most notorious teams in basketball history, between 1986-92 the Detroit Pistons earned themselves two NBA championships – and the nickname “The Bad Boys”. However, their 22.99 personal foul average was just 0.24 fouls per game worse than the 1990s’ average, and 1.7 fouls fewer than in the 1980s average.