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On the Use of Replay Review in the NBA

Let me start by saying that I believe the NBA's use of replay to review calls during games is reasonably effective. It has taken some time, but it is now at a point where it accomplishes its goal in most cases. There are always going to be tradeoffs with the use of instant replay, the most obvious and unavoidable being the time it takes and the interruption to the flow of the game, but by and large, replay works as it is intended in the NBA.

However, as long time readers are aware, I'm a big believer in the Law of Unintended Consequences, and as always while the intentions here are good and largely achieved, there are a few unintended consequences along the way as well.

It's worth remembering the evolution of the use of replay in the NBA. Like an army general fighting the last war, the NBA's policy has been to codify the specific situations in which replay is allowed based on glaring mistakes that were made without the benefit of replay. After the 2002 playoffs featured several buzzer beaters that weren't, the NBA instituted replay for the first time for the 2002-2003 season, exclusively to review end of quarter shots. As other glaring mistakes have been made, other reviewable situations have been added to the list.

In fact, there are a couple of instances of added replay situations that tie directly to the Clippers. In 2007, Cuttino Mobley was fouled during a three point attempt in the final seconds of a three point game against the Houston Rockets. It was ruled a two pointer on the court and Mobley was awarded two free throws, but replays showed that Mobley was clearly behind the three point arc. Unfortunately, determining the number of free throws was not among the list of reviewable situations at the time and the play stood despite the fact that everyone who had seen a replay (that is to say, everyone except for the refs) knew it was wrong.

In 2008 playoff game between the Pistons and the Magic, current Clipper Chauncey Billups, with Detroit at the time, took an inbounds pass with 5.1 seconds left in the third quarter, dribbled up court, futzed around a bit, and eventually hit a three pointer. Unfortunately, the game clock had paused at 4.8 seconds for some unknown reason. Replays with a superimposed clock indicated that the shot should not have counted, but clock malfunctions were not on the list of reviewable situations at the time. That particular game was in Detroit, creating an obvious opportunity for Orlando fans to cry foul.

Both reviews of three pointers and clock malfunctions were added to the list for the 2008-2009 season, and a few more have been added since. The NBA's official list of situations reviewable by instant replay has now grown to 11 (that's correct, the list goes to 11.).

The problem with enumerating just the specific situations that can be reviewed is and always has been that it severely limits the use of common sense in these situations. It's obvious why the NBA has taken this approach -- to simply allow officials to use instant replay as they see fit is a slippery slope that could invite inconsistent usage at least and abuse at worst -- but it has limitations. As always, the current system is only as good as the situations that have been enumerated, and given that we've moved from one situation (end of quarter shots) to 11 in the course of a decade, it's obvious that the replay system will once again prove inadequate at some point and another situation will be added AFTER a blown call impacts a significant game.

But there are other unintended consequences surfacing at this point as well.

The Clippers have now been involved in two games this season that were almost determined by the use of replay. In their January 11 game against Miami, two separate out of bounds plays were reviewed in the final minute, and in both cases the ball was awarded to the Heat. Had LeBron James made his free throws in that game, Miami would have won in part thanks to replay calls.

Wednesday night against the Mavericks, replay was utilized three times in the final 20 seconds, twice to determine who had last touched the ball on an out of bounds situation, and once to determine if the ball had hit the rim to reset the shot clock. Each of the last two calls were massively important. The officials awarded the ball to the Mavs with 15 seconds left, allowing Dallas to take the lead on Jason Terry's three. Then they awarded the ball to the Clippers with 4 seconds left, allowing LA to win the game on Chauncey's own three.

In each of these games, in each of these situations, I believe that the referees made the correct call given the parameters of their authority in replay reviews. But here's where the law of unintended consequences comes in.

I am completely convinced that there are dozens of calls in every NBA game where the referee determines what he believes is the proper outcome of a call, as opposed to the exactly correct call. For instance, amid a scramble for the ball, if there was probably a foul committed by the defender and the ball ends up going out of bounds, referees will often award the ball to the team that originally had possession without calling a foul. As Chick Hearn used to say "No harm, no foul." There was no turnover, it doesn't impact the game much, it wasn't an obvious foul, keep playing.

There's no doubt in my mind that is exactly what referee Kevin Cutler was calling Wednesday night when he signaled Clippers ball after Billups and Jason Kidd struggled near the sideline. Billups had control, Kidd didn't tie him up, Kidd probably committed a foul, the ball went out of bounds - the 'right' call (in Cutler's mind) is Clippers ball. Unfortunately, the 'right' call is not necessarily the 'correct' call where replay review is involved. Determining which player touched the ball last is on the list; determining if a foul was committed is not. The ball was clearly off of Chauncey - and just as clearly, Kidd had committed a foul. But with no leeway to issue a foul call retroactively, crew chief Bill Kennedy did the only thing he could and signaled Mavs ball.

There's another unintended consequence of replay. In real time without the aid of replay, when a defender knocks the ball out of a player's hands, the ball is usually determined to be off of the defender. Unless the ball ricochets off the offensive player's knee, or there's a obvious subsequent bobble of the ball, the original team retains possession. And that's as it should be - player from team A has the ball, defender from team B slaps at it, it goes out of bounds, team A is awarded possession. HOWEVER, if you were to watch every such play in super-duper slo mo, to determine exactly, precisely, definitively which player touched the ball last (that is to say which player's cells were last in contact with the basketball before it went out of bounds), I'm convinced that the calls would be overturned in a significant number of cases. About 96 percent of a basketball game (that is 46 of 48 minutes) is officiated in real time, with a set of rules, some of them unwritten, that everyone is relatively comfortable with. When replay technology is inserted into that final 4 percent, it can change the way the game is called.

I'm not really advocating for anything in particular here. The Clippers actually walked away from both of these games with wins, which is good. Had they lost the Dallas game in particular, that replay review of the Billups-Kidd play would have stuck in my craw. But they won, so yippee. (I'm sure Dallas fans feel that the final review of the Mo Williams out of bounds should have resulted in Mavs ball and a Dallas win.) The fact that the final 60 seconds of Wednesday's game took over 20 minutes is the collateral damage of using replay - if you want to avoid terrible calls that affect the outcome of games, you're going to have to accept some delays. I would like to see more common sense inserted into the process. For instance, I'm not completely clear on why officials are allowed to review flagrant fouls with the use of replay, but aren't allowed, in the case where a review is underway already, to determine that a common foul was committed. Yes, it's a judgment call, but ultimately aren't these all judgment calls?