The NBA season kicks off Tuesday with a change to the league’s replays review system. This year, referees will no longer be reviewing out-of-bounds appeals during the last two minutes of a match; coaches will need to use their challenge on these calls. The update was approved on a one-year trial basis, i.e. subject to further review.
Maybe the setting is perfect, and no one will complain. But probably not. Last Thursday, the MLB rules came under attack after the Dodgers-Giants’ five-game NLDS ended on a blown, non-revisable control swing call. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin on Monday called a lengthy criticism “embarrassing” after Pittsburgh beat the Seahawks on Sunday night football. Tomlin’s comments came on Monday because the overtime game ended just after midnight EST, nearly four hours after kick-off.
Now it’s the NBA’s turn to strike the balance between receiving calls and ending games within a reasonable time frame. The growth of sports betting has made accuracy more important than ever, while viewers’ ever-shrinking attention spans mean time is still of the essence.
In an interview, NBA executive vice president for basketball strategy and analysis Evan Wasch said the length of the game was not the main reason for management’s decision to change. The key factor was how the game felt, both for the players and the fans.
“Basketball is supposed to be a smooth, fast-paced game,” he said. “It’s not supposed to get bogged down in constant shutdowns.”
In the playoffs last summer, it was too often the case. Wasch said there were two Western Conference Finals games in which the final two minutes took over 20 minutes in real time. These are the last two longest minutes his department has recorded in its database of more than ten years.
“The data identified out-of-bounds calls as an area that could potentially be fine-tuned,” he said. These calls accounted for a third of reruns and more than half of all the time spent watching. There was also the problem that under the microscope of frame-by-frame slow motion, OOB calls often went against the spirit of the rule. For most of a game, if a defender slips the ball away from a ball player, the offense usually retains possession. But in key cases, reviews can show that a fingernail or a thread from an offensive player’s shorts grazed the ball last.
“However, you want to cut it – survey data, audience, fan satisfaction – all of that would indicate wanting to have a better feed in the last couple of minutes,” Wasch said. “So both from a basketball point of view and from a fan point of view, this is a really important initiative for us.”
As for the potentially injured player, Wasch said concerns had been raised by some teams and part of the conversation, but said it was not a determining factor in rule-making.
Trainers will now have the ability to challenge OOB calls at the end of the game. Wasch said fans might see even fewer challenges this year, as coaches can keep their one request only so that this late and questionable call never happens.
The NBA’s campaign to streamline its TV shows has been going on for years now. In 2017, he reduced the number of timeouts that coaches could call in the final minutes, resulting in a shortening of the final two minutes of play by more than 10%. For its part, the NFL has lightened its commercial burden. Meanwhile, MLB and tennis tournaments have tested the pitch and serve clocks, as each sport competes with the endless social feeds that are constantly enticing.
Whether the new system holds up or not, the NBA remains focused on refining its product, using the development G League to test the changes. Since 2019, the G League has experimented with achieving a single, multi-point free throw as a way to cut down time, although Wasch said it was unlikely to be brought to the NBA in the near term.
In keeping with the league’s current focus on flow, adopting rules to prevent players from making mistakes to stop a quick break seems more likely. In the G League, this type of foul results in a free throw and possession of the ball.
“This is something the competition committee is very focused on,” Wasch said. “We’re going to look at one more year of data in the G League as this rule is applied and see if there is a corollary rule that we could put in the NBA in future seasons.”