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Deadspin fixes NBA’s Out-of-Bounds Rule: Reward the defense

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Tradition has long dictated that whichever team last touches a ball before it goes out of bounds loses possession. This is... not a good rule.
Tradition has long dictated that whichever team last touches a ball before it goes out of bounds loses possession. This is... not a good rule.
Photo: Getty Images

NBA basketball. It’s fantastic!

A little too fantastic. If it weren’t such a thrilling game to watch at the top levels, we’d troubleshoot. We’d put our heads together, tweak the rules, and improve the product. But basketball is so pleasing to the eye and so stimulating to our competitive spirit that a tragic flaw has flown completely under the radar since the game’s advent. The flaw is a basic rule of the game, one of the very first rules of basketball that any youngster learns. The rule states that when a live ball goes out of bounds, the team that touched it last loses possession. This rule... is dumb.

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It’s bad for the game! It’s an ugly red pill we’ve been swallowing all our lives. I’m proposing a radical but beautiful change. It will sound outrageous at first, but I believe any honest reckoning must arrive at the same conclusion I came to: it’s simple, sensible, and just. It rewards hustle and punishes carelessness, and it adjusts game flow to align more closely with our aesthetic sensibilities.

New rule: When a live ball goes out of bounds, the team that last controlled possession… loses possession.

Period.

For those still reading, I’ll say it again: under the new rule, keeping the ball in play would be a requisite of an offensive possession. Because it should be! If the offense can’t keep the ball in bounds, they should lose it. Yes, even if the ball is last touched by a defender. Under the new rule, if the ball goes out of play, that particular possession for the offense would officially be — in modern parlance — a fail.

In exploring this change, it might be helpful to recall that the NFL confronted and finally rectified a similar problem back in 2008. Football’s “force-out” rule stated that if a receiver caught a pass while in the air and was then pushed or otherwise contacted by a defender such that the receiver landed out of bounds, the catch would be ruled complete so long as officials believed the receiver would have gotten two feet down in bounds had said contact not occurred. This rule was surely implemented with good intentions at first, possibly to discourage wily defenders from literally catching and carrying airborne receivers out of play. But there were two major problems. The first was glaringly obvious to everyone. The second felt, at least to me, like a perversion of the natural order and flow of the sport.

First, NFL officials were put in the position of making absurdly difficult judgments about the would-be landing spot of elite athletes moving at speed through the air. There was no reasonable way of getting these calls right at an acceptable rate. On occasion, an especially gross situation would occur where a receiver appeared to be drifting out of bounds on his own, only to be contacted by a defender, after which the catch was ruled complete under the force-out rule by myopic officials. In other words, the defender actually caused the reception simply by doing his job. He would have been better off just watching the play with a bag of popcorn.

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Which segues into the second, and (at least to me) far worse problem: defenders not being rewarded for making good football plays! Imagine two hypothetical passes are thrown to the sideline. Two receivers jump to attempt catches, while two defenders close in. The first defender doesn’t quite get there in time, and the receiver makes the grab and gets his feet down. But the second defender is quicker. He does get there in time, and manages to force the receiver out of bounds before he lands. This defender must be rewarded for this play!

And since 2008, thankfully, he is. The NFL finally corrected this broken situation by simply getting out of the way and letting the action on the field dictate the flow of play. Well done, NFL.

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Curiously, while basketball’s own out of bounds rule is totally different, it’s even worse, and for the exact same reasons.

First, again, there’s the extremely irritating problem of officials being forced to make virtually impossible calls, and the tedious replay reviews that often follow. And not just tedious. Pointless! Why are we forcing refs (and fans) to watch five minutes of replays to determine whether a ball grazed someone’s fingertip on the way out of bounds? Why should that matter? In football, a replay is about whether a player made a successful play or didn’t. That’s important. In the NBA, we’re talking about a ball nicking a player’s shorts as it bounces over the baseline. What does that have to do with basketball? It’s nonsense.

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Photo: Getty Images

But more importantly, why are we rewarding the team with the ball when they can’t keep it in play? If a player makes a lazy pass that a defender manages to deflect out of bounds, why do we give the offense the ball back? Punish the lazy passer! Reward the heady, agile defender! He earned it!

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Or how about when a player blocks a shot into the tenth row, electrifying the crowd. You give the ball back to the offense? That’s nuts. What fan in her right mind would see the shot-blocker’s team rewarded with the ball in that scenario and say to herself, “Oh, that’s not fair! He touched it last!” No fan at all, that’s who.

Or the scenario where a player attempting a fast-break lay-up is chased down by a determined defender who slaps the ball off the shooter’s own knee and out of bounds, thus winning possession under the current rule. The fans absolutely love this! That’s why it shouldn’t matter if the ball hit the shooter’s knee. A freak bounce off the knee shouldn’t be relevant. What matters is the fantastic play by the defender to knock the ball out of play. So give him the damn ball!

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The new rule would reward hustle plays and spectacular blocks while punishing dumb passes and clumsy ball-handling. It would put an end to those corny plays where trapped ball-handlers slam the ball off defenders out of bounds to reset possessions, and it would also have the added (and very significant) perk of all but eliminating time-sucking replay reviews about “who touched it last” at the end of games.

“Who touched it last” is for soccer, people. In soccer, scoring chances don’t come every minute. It’s a large field and it’s hard to control the ball with your feet. In basketball, the court is 94 feet long and you can hold the ball in your hands! If you can’t keep it in play, either you have done something wrong or else the defense has done something awesome. Acknowledge this! NBA teams average almost two field-goal attempts per minute. The whole game is scoring chances. There is no good reason an offensive possession should not require a team to keep the ball within the confines of the court.

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Photo: Getty Images

So what are the potential negatives of such a rule change? I can think of two, but both have simple fixes. First, rebounds. Defensive players might decide that winning possession by deliberately knocking loose rebounds out of play was actually easier than corralling the ball. This wouldn’t be fun, so batting a rebound out of play would not win possession.

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In the same vein, defensive players might decide that literally diving into passing lanes in an effort to knock balls out of bounds was a worthy gamble. This could cause an uptick in injuries, so another exemption would state that a defender could not win possession by leaving his feet to deflect a ball out of bounds unless he also landed on his feet. This exemption would obviate any extra incentive to dive that didn’t exist before the rule change. Problem solved.

Technically, the new rule would “hurt” offenses, which is a taboo in modern sports because modens sports love scoring. But this change wouldn’t affect scoring because every possession in basketball, regardless of which team has the ball, is an equal scoring opportunity. Nor is this change an arbitrary moving of the goal posts to help defenses. Not at all. Objectively speaking, it’s simply rewarding basketball goodness and punishing basketball badness.

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Yes, this is a drastic change, but aesthetically, it works. It’s sensible, fun, and highly dynamic, because it tweaks game flow to align optimally with the competitive spirit of the sport. It should have been the rule from the start. Think about it: if this had always been the rule, would you change it? Not a chance.

Change the rule!