Links: Play On?

by December 29, 2010

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.