SAN ANTONIO – No game in The Finals has been decided or even tilted dramatically in the final seconds by the use of the NBA’s replay rule. But some day that will happen, at which point we know these things will happen:
- The officiating crew will huddle, then move as one to the sideline. The crew chief will don a headset to put him in communication with the broadcast truck outside the arena, and all three refs will watch and re-watch a series of slow- and regular-motion video clips, sometimes zoomed to the brink of graininess.
- Fans, players and coaches will simultaneously focus their gazes on the video screens in house.
- Players will gulp water, towel off and catch their breath while coaches pounce on the moment to call out a play, offer some advice and do otherwise timeout-ly things.
- If the replays support the home team’s side of the disputed play, home fans will amp up their noise in hopes of influencing the refs down below. If the video evidence looks to support the visitors, the joint gets quieter.
- ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy will sneer at the whole process, saying that the correct call was obvious from the start. He’ll do this whether he’s working the game for ABC/Disney or whether he’s on a weekend getaway in the Alps.
- Folks at home, remote in hand, feet raised, will glance at the time and realize how soon that morning alarm clock is going to go off. They too will get antsy.
- The people at NBA HQ in New York’s Olympic Tower will smile, satisfied that the game will be adjudicated correctly and that there will be less work waiting in the morning in terms of appeals, error reports and cranky feedback.
That last item, you should know, carries enough weight to trump everything else on that list when it comes to current and future usage of “instant relay review triggers,” as Rule No. 13 of the official NBA rulebook calls them.
Just the other day in Miami, as the 2013 Finals started, NBA commissioner David Stern reaffirmed his support of the rule and talked of broadening it. It’s one of the agenda items for the league’s competition committee when it meets this week in San Antonio.
“Everyone with a smart phone can see it, everyone at home can see it, and everyone who is sitting with the scoreboards that are going to be the new toy of our arenas that give a great view [can see it].” Stern said. “But the poor officials don’t really see it that way. It’s discordant to us. The idea is to have the game decided on its merits.”
Players, coaches, referees and NBA sages contacted for this story also landed overwhelmingly on the side of getting calls correct. Many suggested tweaks, but the bottom line for all was accuracy over elapsed time or any other objection.
“You’re stopping the flow of the game and you’re lengthening the game,” coach and broadcaster Hubie Brown said. “Pretty soon it’s going to be like baseball, where it never ends. But coaches and players do not want to have a game lost because somebody blew a call, either on an out-of-bounds play or a bad call.”
The last two minutes of games, in which plays such as Brown mentioned bring action to a halt, turn the spotlight on replay in a way that’s not always enjoyable. There is a delay. There is what sometimes appears to be indecision being played out in front of the world. But the alternative seems unthinkable to many.
“Hey, c’mon, they’re all big inside of two minutes,” Brown said. “If they have enough cameras on the game, they will pick up where the mistake was.”
Said Indiana forward David West: “You’d rather they have as many opportunities to get it right as possible. Especially this time of year. The biggest thing is, you don’t want to leave anything out there. They try to get rid of the human error, have as many camera views as possible. If it’s not your ball, you don’t get it.”
Miami guard Dwyane Wade smiled and admitted that he welcomes the occasional unscheduled timeout. “I’m cool with it,” he said. “Give me a little break.”
But the objective is much greater than that. “This game is so fast. With the naked eye, sometimes things look like something but it’s not,” Wade said. “If it doesn’t go your way, at least you feel better knowing you got some different eyes on it. Sometimes you think, ‘It didn’t go off me,’ but it grazed your leg on the way out and you just didn’t feel it.”
Brown would like to see the players on the court herded to their respective foul lines to prevent replay-time strategizing or rest. Stern said he gets e-mails from friends suggesting that fans would vote thumbs-down because of the time delay.
“And honestly, I say we have asked the fans, and they say it’s absolutely worth the delay,” the commissioner said.
Or as Stu Jackson, senior vice president of basketball operations, said: “If you don’t go, you’re always going to be subject to situation where you say, ‘Yes, they knew they were right. That’s why they didn’t go to replay — only to find out seconds later on the broadcast, or worse yet the next day, that they were wrong.’ Then everybody loses in that case.”
Van Gundy has been a vocal critic of the review process. One in particular drew a chuckle from Bob Delaney, the longtime NBA referee who, now retired, provides insight for NBA TV. Late in an East semifinals game between Miami and Indiana, a ball went over the end line. The crew went to replay.
“The original call was that it was Miami ball. When in reality, Dwyane Wade touched that ball,” Delaney said. “And Jeff says he thinks the referees got it right and ‘I think they know they have it right.’ But Jeff has the capability [on the announcers' monitor] to see it before the referees even see it. So he waits until he sees it, then says, ‘Yeah, they got it right. But I don’t know why we have to wait for them to go see it.’
“Well, Jeff, it wasn’t until you saw that it was confirmed that you were so adamant we should not go over to the side.”
Delaney laughed. “I love Jeff’s terminology: ‘That’s an obvious call.’ Yeah, when you’re sitting there with a replay it’s obvious. It’s easy when you’re sitting in the stands. It’s easy from my couch — I haven’t gotten a call wrong yet. But it’s hard when you’re running around out there on the floor.”
There are problems with it, no doubt. Sometimes a replay of a boundary call will reveal an uncalled foul smiling back at the referees. That’s a judgment call that — as the rules currently are written — cannot be reviewed or overturned.
Delaney wanted that point to be clear to fans: The referees only enforce the rules they are given. The competition committee and the Board of Governors are the ones who will restrict or, more likely, broaden the use of replay and its triggers — up from two when it started in 2002 to 13 now — in the future.
Where is that future taking everyone? Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver talked about the advantages of off-site replay reviews, similar to what the NHL does (plays are replayed in the league office, with game officials notified by phone).
“An off‑site review would potentially speed up the process,” Silver said. “In addition to the noise and the complication, you have an official trying to talk to a producer in the truck calling for a particular replays. … If you have a group of officials in a broadcast center somewhere, location could almost be anywhere in this day of age of digital media, there wouldn’t be that delay which officials need to walk over, turn the monitor around, put the headphones on, call for the replays. You could have off‑site officials looking at multiple monitors at once.”
Perhaps the league will consider an NFL-type challenge system. Then again, with enough triggers, the need for a coach to challenge what most likely, by then, would be a judgment call might be unnecessary.
Still, the NFL — thanks largely to the pace of its games — has taken replay use to its highest point.
“There’s very little talk about NFL officiating because every one of their calls is confirmed or denied up top,” Delaney said. “There [was] a Super Bowl a few years back where there were eight overturned calls. Well, if we didn’t have replay, at the end of that game people would all be talking about the officiating. But because they have replay and they get the calls right, there was no conversation about officiating.”
No conversation about the officiating? A lot of diehard NBA fans would have to find a new hobby. As for the ones grumbling about their bed time, the best suggestion might be: Take naps.
“We can’t have it both ways,” Delaney said. “We either have to be willing to say we’ll take a delay in the game in order to have the call right – and quite honestly, that’s all referees want – or we won’t. I don’t see where this delay causes that big of a problem. We’d be writing a lot more articles about bad calls than we will about delays.”