At least twice in 2017 game-winning buckets have been scored by players who appeared to have stepped out of bounds immediately prior to sinking their shots. The NBA’s replay rules have a big dumb hole that makes these kinds of plays unreviewable, and therefore uncorrectable, but that may not be the case for much longer after the league announced Saturday that changes could be coming down the pike.
ESPN’s Royce Young is reporting that the NBA’s competition committee will take up the issue at its scheduled meeting in March:
The competition committee will look at a number of solutions to such a situation, [NBA spokesman Tim Frank] said. If any change is made, it would not be implemented until the 2018-19 season. It is also possible no changes will be made.
It’s not such an easy fix. The NBA just this season cut down the number of time-outs available to teams in the final minutes of games, for the express purpose of overhauling the halting, staccato rhythm of most close finishes. Putting in an automatic review process could undo some of that effort, by subjecting fans to any number of close call reviews. Or giving a challenge flag-type trigger to coaches could allow coaches to substitute review challenges for time-outs down the stretch. Any potential change carries a range of potential unintended consequences, which is why the rule going unchanged is still a distinct possibility.
But the current rule surely blows. In order for a play to be reviewed for a ball-handler stepping out of bounds, it has to be blown dead and the player ruled out of bounds. But forcing refs to err on the side of stopping play sucks: they could wipe out a potential winning play out of pure caution, and nobody tunes into NBA games to watch a referee stare into a little TV monitor at the scorer’s table. The rule is unwieldy and impractical, and has only gone unchallenged because there haven’t been a lot of plays of this type since the 2002-03 season, when the NBA added limited review. The use of instant replay has been steadily expanding ever since; the fact that such a goofy rule is still on the books all these years later is testament to how infrequently this scenario has presented itself.
The screwy thing is, play did stop following Antetokounmpo’s bucket; referees should at least be given the latitude to use an unrelated but conveniently timed stoppage to review the very last thing that happened, whether it drew a whistle or not. If Derrick Stafford and his crew had had that option, it’s likely the dumb out-of-bounds replay loophole wouldn’t come up again this season. As it is, a March discussion by the league’s competition committee will mean roughly bupkis to the Thunder; for a team trying to recover from a crummy start to the season, and in a top-heavy Western Conference, that’s a loss that might sting as much later on as it does today.