Wednesday, December 29th, 2010 at 4:35 pm  |  42 responses

Links: Play On?

How the NBA should copy soccer…

by Lang Whitaker | @langwhitaker

To be honest, I’m not really sure what day today is. We had a hellacious few weeks at the SLAMDome leading into the holidays, finishing not one but two issues of SLAM at the same time (a regular issue of SLAM and a special issue, too). Closing one issue of SLAM is tough enough. As it turns out, closing two at once is ridiculous. The upside was supposed to be that we had the week between Christmas and New Year’s off. So as soon as we closed up the issues, I took off for Atlanta for Christmas, and planned on spending a few days in The A, then coming back to NYC for my week off. I was actually looking forward to having a free week in NYC, and getting a chance to do the things I never have time to do, like hitting museums or maybe a Broadway show or two.

But the day before I was supposed to head back to NYC, a snowstorm hit the city. Wifey and I got re-booked onto a flight to NYC on Tuesday morning, hoping the New York airports would be cleaned up by then. But Tuesday morning, our flight got cancelled again, and the next flight we could get booked onto wasn’t until Friday, FIVE DAYS after we were supposed to be back home. Meanwhile, my parents were leaving ATL and heading down to Florida for the New Year, so Wifey and I basically said forget trying to get home, and instead we hitched a ride to FLA with the parents.

So now I’m at the beach, although it isn’t warm enough to actually go to the beach. It isn’t home, but it isn’t being stuck at an airport either. Secondary downside: When I left NYC, I packed for three days, so I brought one pair of jeans, two shirts and three pairs of underwear, all of which is now having to last me 10 days. At this point my socks are walking around the room on their own.

Anyway, to basketball. A few weeks ago I was at the Knicks/Nuggets game at Madison Square Garden, which was somewhat inexplicably held at noon on a Sunday. (Seriously, basketball at noon on a Sunday? That makes about as little sense as canceling an NFL game because of weather.) Because the game tipped so early, I watched the game through crusty eyes, and in some ways, maybe because of the early start, I saw the game a little differently.

At one point in the third quarter, in the middle of a halfcourt set, Denver’s JR Smith found himself briefly unguarded, and he drove to the basket. Just as JR reached the rim, Amar’e Stoudemire rotated over to contest the layup. There may have been some contact, or maybe there wasn’t — it wasn’t obvious either way, and it happened right in front of me.

JR got the shot off over Amar’e. The ball caromed off the glass, hit the rim, bounced high in the air, hung around the rim without any real intent, and then, what felt like seconds after the initial shot, the ball lazily dropped away from the rim and into the hands of a Knicks rebounder. By this time, Amar’e had already turned and begun running to the other end of the floor, as every Knicks player seems to be required to do at even the slightest hint of a break opportunity.

And then a ref called a foul. On the shot. Which had literally been taken about two seconds earlier.

Whether or not a foul actually occurred is debatable, but frankly, in this circumstance, it felt like we should have moved on already. Because fouls are supposed to be called when they occur, right? This happens regularly in NBA games, and it’s always frustrating when it happens against your team. There may not be a time limit, but there is some sort of unwritten statute of limitations on calls. If someone walks, passes the ball and one of their teammates scores, the walk is not retroactively called. You either whistle the walk when it happens or you don’t call the walk at all, right?

Yet when JR Smith’s shot missed, the foul was called, even though the foul had actually happened a while before the call. And it felt like if the ball had gone in the basket, the foul wouldn’t have been called at all.

That’s what is so frustrating about the late foul call, to both players and fans: It’s a late call. This suggests some level of discretion being enacted by the officials, and that discretion can feel inauthentic because it’s not a written part of the rules.

That morning, for some reason, my mind immediately went to soccer; maybe it was because on Sunday mornings, I’m usually parked on my couch watching soccer. Either way, I thought of soccer, particularly the advantage rule.

The advantage rule, as I’ve seen it called, comes into play often in soccer games. Say a midfielder has the ball and is dribbling down the field, nearing the opposing goal. A defender comes at him and tackles him hard, knocking the ball away from him, but accidentally knocking it directly to one of the offensive player’s teammates, who is able to continue the attack on goal. In most cases, when the foul occurs, the referee would blow his whistle and call a foul. The problem is that calling the foul would stop the flow of play, and stop the attack from developing, which is why the defender committed the foul in the first place.

This is where the advantage rule comes into play. When the foul occurs, in soccer the referee has the discretion to not call the foul immediately and instead let the play develop, so as not to let the illegal play interrupt the team on the attack. The ref signals that “advantage” has been called by extending both arms in front of him, in sort of a “play on, gentlemen,” motion. If the attacking team loses the attack soon after, the whistle is blown, the foul that occurred is recognized, and the team that was originally on the attack is given the ball back.

It’s a completely sensible and logical rule, at least in the context of soccer. If the foul matters, whether in the moment or in retrospect, the foul is noted. But if it turns out that the foul doesn’t directly affect the game as it is being played, it isn’t called.

(And I used the “in the context of soccer” qualifier because there’s one major rules difference in soccer and basketball: you can’t foul out of a soccer game. If you get called for too many flagrant fouls, you can get ejected, but if just get called for hard, clean fouls, you can rack up dozens of fouls and it doesn’t matter, at least as far as getting ejected or fouling out.)

So here’s my grand idea: The NBA should adopt the soccer advantage rule. I know it’s not really an earth-shattering notion, but it would make a lot of sense in NBA games.

Legalizing the advantage rule wouldn’t really change anything, because the refs basically already play the advantage rule: As in that JR Smith/Amar’e sense, there are times when refs wait and see if they need to call a foul before making the call.

I mentioned this idea to a soccer-loving NBA writer friend, and his initial reaction was that perhaps it’s not a good idea to ask the NBA referees to use their discretion to make calls. I had a similar thought when I first imagined the NBA using this rule: Will players, coaches and fans be comfortable with asking referees to use judgment to make calls?

Thing is, the refs already do. In that situation I described above, the ref used his judgment not to call a foul when the shot was taken, and then later used his judgment to call a foul after the shot was missed.

The advantage rule could be used in situations other than shooting fouls, such as at the end of shot clocks when a team throws up an airball and the defending team takes off on a break, only to be stopped because the refs are forced to whistle the shot clock violation. Or what about when a team gets a steal and takes off on a break and the defender commits a foul to stop the break? Shouldn’t the ref have the discretion to allow the break to continue?

Is there a downside I’m missing? The one big sticking point I see in this would be that in the NBA, because the fouls are counted up, fouls in the NBA are much more precious than they are in soccer. But the more I think about it, the better I think this rule would be if it was adopted by the NBA.

Anyway, just something I’ve been chewing over in my head the last few days, as I enjoy my forced homelessness. Hope you guys have a great vacation, and catch you all in 2011.

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  • http://www.slamonline.com Ryan Jones

    A conversation we’ve been having in the Dome for years. No brainer.

  • Felix

    Lang, it seems like a good idea… It seems to me that there are a lot of calls on the floor where the foul takes away the offensive player’s chance to score… like right before they would give the player continuation… so instead of an opportunity to score, the team just takes the ball out of bounds… I know the advantage of having fouls on the opposition, puts them in the penalty, guys have to sit out with foul trouble… but sometimes, a guy gets beat, he commits a foul right before the other dude scores, its ruled a foul on the floor so they take it out of bounds, and then the other team ends up getting a stop… if the foul is called on a role player, the advantage would seem to be given to the defending team- like they’re getting rewarded for fouling… i know in rugby or soccer the player would simply be allowed to continue, playing the advantage, and score… maybe that’s what continuation is for… but it seems to me that fouling on the floor, right before the opposition is about to beat you, ends up being a “smart” foul, except in “clear path” instances…

  • http://www.need4sheed.com Tarzan Cooper

    As you said lang, refs already do this. However, im totally in favor of lettting a team go on the fastbreak after an airball on a shot clock violation. Blowing the whistle and stopping play rewards bad offense and punishes good defense.

  • tekno

    Interesting thoughts Lang. Here in Australia, our two dominant sports (Australian Rules Football and Rugby) both use the advantage rule and it seems to work quite well. Admittedly, there’s no fouling out in either game just like soccer.

    I’d be interested to see how the advantage rule affects all those times when a team purposely tries to foul a bad free throw shooting player off the ball. Do you let the offensive team play on because that’s what they want rather than having that player attempt free throws?

    Anyhow, hope you and the missus get back home safely. Happy holidays.

  • http://www.slamonline.com jake Appleman

    I think then we would need a taped recording of the British announcer from Fifa to play over the loudspeaker so that the non-soccer inclined fans could have a clue. In sum, I think it’s a good idea and I’m up for it.

  • Sam

    What about intentional fouls at the end of close games, where it clearly benefits the offensive team not to have a foul called? I’m from the UK and follow both sports, and I don’t think it would work in basketball as the two games are just too different.

  • http://slamonline.com tealish

    This new rule is interesting, but would COMPLETELY change the end of games.
    Fouling on purpose to stop the clock. It’s advantageous to the winning team to not accept the foul and the time stoppage.
    So are end-game fouls completely thrown out the window now?

  • doyouwantmore

    Union bosses might have given an order to deliberately delay snow-removal in NYC. Good old teamsters!

  • dma

    The refs already do this when they want to call a technical foul. For example, a team will take a shot, complain about a foul instead of getting back on D, instead of calling the T right there, the refs let the other team finish their fast break and then call the T.

    And good luck getting the players and coaches on board, let alone fans that despise the super-star rules already.

  • http://www.need4sheed.com Tarzan Cooper

    I agree with tealish.

  • http://www.stonesthrow.com Michael NZ

    I like it, but, as you say… too subjective game by game, ref by ref? Or does that already occur with the late calls? It does. To draw the rugby analogy again, there can be huge differences in how long the advantages go depending on the referee – so perhaps if the NBA defined the rule with regards to how long to let it run, then yeah maybe it could work. Either way, Dick Bavetta’s head just exploded.

    @tekno: unrelated note, but I notice you left cricket off your dominant sports list. Ahhhh, The Ashes? Yeah, I’d have left it off too, ha.

  • http://slamonline.com/ Tzvi Twersky

    I don’t really mess with futbol like that, but is this like a penalty in hockey, where the play continues as long as the team that was fouled still has the puck and is on the attack?

  • http://twitter.com/BeezKneezy LA Huey

    @tealish, I’ve hated that teams can basically break the rules to their advantage like that. I feel like they should treat in-the-penalty fouls like clear path to the basket fouls.

  • http://www.ebay.com Tariq

    Sounds good to me. I’m also in favor of Nemanja Vidic playing for the Nets.

  • Oli

    @tealish: i’d love to see teams trying to foul shaq or dwight not letting them get rid of the ball (advantage rule) all while not committing flagrant fouls
    seriously, as lang already mentioned, the biggest problem is that nba players can foul out of games. however, considering how often i’ve heard tv announcers say that this rule should be done away with because “the best players should decide the game” or “people pay to see the best players go at it”. so, i like this idea.
    while we’re at it: why can’t there just be one foul shot counting two points (after an and-one, counting one). that’s what i’d like to see changed as well. watching dwight shoot one is tough enough, let alone two. especially considering he often takes more than the allowed 10 seconds (which actually was called in a game a short while ago)

  • will

    I think that a foul is a foul and should be called with no influence by the ball going in or out. That said I completely agree with tarzan on the shot clock thing, that is so frustrating

  • http://www.ebay.com Tariq

    Yeah the thing is that in soccer, sometimes calling a foul would actually penalize the guy who got fouled. With the JR/Amare example, why wouldn’t the ref just call a foul as it’s committed? If it goes in, it’s an AND1, if it doesn’t, two shots. I think this just shows refs’ indecisiveness.

  • http://www.stonesthrow.com Michael NZ

    FIBA let that shotclock thing go don’t they? The NBA has got to get onto that.

  • 4thqtrhero

    It’s a terrible idea.

    “There may have been some contact, or maybe there wasn’t — it wasn’t obvious either way, and it happened right in front of me.” – lang

    ” Which had literally been taken about two seconds earlier.” – lang

    Now you (lang) weren’t as close as the ref but weren’t sure if there was contact. one mississippi. two mississippi. and in that time frame you want the ref to a) decide if a foul was commited b) decide if there is advantage and finally c) call advantage.
    Ref’s jobs are hard enough, don’t add to it.

    Oh and for all those people who don’t know much about cricket or the Ashes, think of Australia as the Bulls. Champions and then they got old and people retired to be replaced by the likes of Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler. I can’t wait until a Derrick Rose figure comes to save our team.

  • Felix

    It would be funny if the delayed call Lang witnessed was really a result of the ref waiting to release a fart before blowing his whistle or something… human error

  • Yann Blavec

    I’m french, I watch a lot of soccer (which we call football, here, even in France) and I think the advantage rule is good to the game.

  • Addam

    I would like to add that the also NBA shouldn’t average 80 or so commercial breaks during games.

    I find that too often I change the channel during the commerical and end up loosing interest during games.

    Live NBA games feel like a trip to McDonalds with all the stupid giveaways, mascot stunts, and overall crap that is designed to distract fans from the fact that the game is being paused so people at home can be bombarded with US Army and cell phone ads.

  • Yann Blavec

    @Addam : Word.

  • Paps

    Should take away the offensive players ability to draw unnecessary fouls. The no call plays where an offensive player jumps, flops, leans into a defensive player to draw a foul. If the defensive player actually fouls or is ‘tricked/faked’ into committing a foul that’s fine but when he is standing there or running along side the offensive player and is whistled for a foul for just being there it makes it bush league. IMO.

  • benno

    Dumb, dumb, dumb – for one its called football, because they actually use their feet – Secondly, Play on is used in FOOTBALL because it is giving them an advantage to score, and in football is decided by one goal a lot of the time, but in basketball, one bucket 5 mins into the game will not have a massive effect on the game!!!

    If it ain’t broke don’t fix it!!!

  • http://bulls.com airs

    this wouldn’t work, at all. say the knicks did get on that fastbreak, but amar’e missed the layup. the ref would then blow his whistle and bring the ball back the other way so JR can shoot his free throws? and amar’e gets a foul call? that just seems like an even more prolonged disruption of a game that’s supposed to run swiftly and smoothly

  • Yann Blavec

    @ airs exactly the same argument as Michel Platini (LE michel platini)

  • http://bulls.com airs

    and although i don’t agree that the ref should have discretion on allowing the play to continue after a clear path foul, i am totally for that airball after the shot clock idea.

  • http://all33sports.blogspot.com heat4itALL

    YES! i hate when that happens. refs always wait to see if the shot is made it is SOOO annoying. especially for superstars like Kobe. when he airballs they usually call a foul as if to say “kobe never airballs, there must have been a foul somewhere”. let’s change this! the rules have evolved immensely over the years. i would also like to see something done about flopping. the refs are getting better, but we need some sort of rule revolution.

  • http://passionsports3.blogspot.com heat4itALL

    YES! i hate when that happens. refs always wait to see if the shot is made it is SOOO annoying. especially for superstars like Kobe. when he airballs they usually call a foul as if to say “kobe never airballs, there must have been a foul somewhere”. let’s change this! the rules have evolved immensely over the years. i would also like to see something done about flopping. the refs are getting better, but we need some sort of rule revolution. (sorry double post, wrong website on the first one)

  • http://twitter.com/rpravato Ryan

    Buy more underwear dude.

  • http://www.stonesthrow.com Michael NZ

    I’d forgo any and all other changes if it meant LESS F@#KING TIMEOUTS!!!! Media timeouts, officials timeout, full timeout, 20 second timeouts… Gah.

  • dimon

    i agree with michael.
    the nba needs to reduce the timeouts or speed things up. it can be annoying at times. they stretch 48 minutes to almost 3 hours.

  • tekno

    @ Michael NZ: Uh… the Ashes…what Ashes…They couldn’t possibly be playing a 5 test series in Australia could they? They couldn’t be. I mean, the ACA couldn’t be dumb enough to schedule a meaningless ONE DAY series against Sri Lanka just before it as part of it’s preparations could they? As well as a two test series on the slow, low bouncing pitches of India just before that? No…surely the Ashes don’t start until sometime next year…

    …No, I’m not bitter or anything. Gah. Go the Spurs!

  • Theedit

    A foul in basketball is far more tactical than in any other sport, so it should be called when it happens. Because there are so many stops in a game I don’t have a problem with a foul stopping the play.

  • http://slamonline.com the underrated one

    as for the soccer rule, that would almost COMPLETELY eliminate the the standard “foul your opponent at the end of games when ur down”

  • http://slamonline.com Ben Osbonre

    Belated thanks for this column, Lang. I love this idea for basketball.

  • hoodsnake

    Bad idea

  • minikidd

    hey Lang, i play ball in Denmark, Europe, a country where soccer is by far the main sport… I’ve actually played in a game where the ref used the “advantage-rule”, even though it’s not a part of the rulebook… the problem was that my team was down in the 4. qrt. and we wanted to stop the clock.. so you can see why I don’t like the idea..

  • Cizzo


  • http://tudobola.blogspot.com/ Edu

    Lang, the only downside is the foul counting – not calling the foul to a certain oposite player in a fastbreak, for exemple, could be more of a factor than the sure bucket. But like in soccer, you can make up for that – just calling the foul on that player AND counting the basket (of course it would not be an and one). In soccer, the ref can even punish the fouling player in a situation like that with a red card, if the fould was hard enough, for example.

    Would perfectly fit in basketball.

  • Chava

    I just want to mention that in soccer you could get booked if you get too many clean, hard fouls, the ref signals some of the different spots on the pitch where the player has committed fouls, and proceed to show him the yellow card, also when the advantage rule is on, and the play ends (even with a goal)m the ref could book or eject the defender if he considers the foul was hard enough, this could be applied to basketball, for example if a defender tries to stop a break but the offensive team manages to get the bucket, the ref could still call the foul but not an and-one…