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The NBA’s Challenging Problem

The challenge system has evolved over recent years, and coaches want to see it change one more time this offseason.

Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

The NBA’s challenge system remains one of the league’s great mysteries on any given night.

Ambiguous language, time wasted staring at a monitor, officials huddling several times, and a general sense that you never know exactly why it’s taking so long as a team of officials in Secaucus, N.J., the NBA’s review headquarters, gather around televisions to aid in decisions.

This past Wednesday at the Board of Governors press conference, commissioner Adam Silver was asked if there had been any discussion on tweaks to replay or take fouls, two things that would fall under the purview of the league’s competition committee.

“In terms of replay,” Silver started, “I know around the league there are some teams who feel that, if you have a successful coach’s challenge you should be able to get another one. We’re always trying to balance that against the issues of the stoppage in play and taking away what makes this game so great — that is, the flow.

“So that is something I’m sure that we will look at again this summer. I don’t necessarily anticipate a change there, but we’ll look at the end of the season and see what the data’s telling us.”

Silver isn’t wrong. There are some teams that do feel if you challenge a call and win said challenge, you should be able to keep it for later use.

“They do it in the NFL, right?” now-former Sacramento Kings interim coach Alvin Gentry said when asked about the possible rule change.

They do indeed do it in the NFL where a coach is given two challenges to begin a game, and if they win both challenges then they’re given a third to use.

“I don’t see any way that it’s been a detriment to the game there,” Gentry remarked.

In the NBA, it’s quite different. Once you use your challenge, that’s it. Doesn’t matter what part of the game you use it in. Win or lose, it doesn’t matter. Once you use it, you lose it.

“I just think if you win a challenge, I’m not real sure why you wouldn’t have another challenge, and especially one that you may have to use at the end of the game on a very close call,” Gentry said.

The language of what you can and cannot challenge also is something coaches have brought up as an area that needs fine-tuning.

“I’m hopeful that we can just have an ironclad list of rules that we know are there,” Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams said. “I’ve been in way too many situations where a rule or a concept within the challenge will come up that I’ve never heard before. I feel like I’m on a golf course and I need the usher, the guy in the clubhouse to come out and explain to me if I can move a leaf.”

“Yeah, well, good luck with that one, OK?” Gentry joked when told about Williams’ preference of seeing the challenge language become more streamlined.

“I’ve been in situations where they say, ‘You lose the challenge but you get the ball.’ And you go, ‘Oh, OK.’ But you’re not real sure why.”

It’s never good when coaches at the top echelon of the sport are unsure what can and cannot be challenged, or even if winning a challenge means they truly won the challenge. We’ve even seen instances this season where a play was challenged and something earlier in the sequence took precedence. Namely, during a game between the LA Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers on Feb. 25th, as the two teams were locked in a close battle with under a minute to play.

Robert Covington deflected a LeBron James pass, and the ball appeared to hit the baseline thus meaning the ball should be awarded to the Lakers. However, the Clippers challenged the play because they thought that James was standing out of bounds at the time he made the pass, thus James was out of bounds before Covington’s deflection went out of play.

Ultimately, the Clippers won the challenge because officials determined that James was in fact out of bounds with the ball in his possession prior to Covington deflecting it out of play. But it was also a loophole that most people didn’t know about at the time, including James himself.

But some of the Clippers’ staff did know about it, as coach Tyronn Lue pointed out.

“(Assistant coaches) Shaun Fein and Jeremy Castleberry were like, ‘We can challenge it.’” Lue said to reporters after the game.

Eventually, the Clippers won the game by one single point, and that play definitely altered the course of things. But that specific review took over seven minutes of real time before a decision was made. That amount of time is hard to justify for reviews, and it was hardly the first instance this season of a review taking a lengthy period of time. A review with seven minutes to go in the Oklahoma City Thunder and Cleveland Cavaliers game on Jan. 22nd took over five minutes.

If the review process could get more streamlined from a time constraint aspect, perhaps there’s a way to introduce the possibility of extra challenges for coaches into the course of games, but only if the time it takes to review was used in a better way — i.e. use the challenge as part of a mandatory timeout.

“I think the reason they wouldn’t do that would be the time that they’re adding to the game,” Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault, who coined the poetic phrase “competitive empathy” prior to an early November game, said before his team’s regular season finale.

“But in reality a lot of those challenges would happen during mandatories (timeouts) if they happened earlier in the game, so it wouldn’t change the overall duration of the game. They don’t want to add a bunch of time to the game because of the fan experience, and that’s understandable. But I think that would be a low-cost proposition, and I think the goal would be to operate within that constraint, you know?”

Mandatory timeouts take place twice in each regulation quarter of play, meaning there’s up to eight mandatory timeouts in a game. And with those timeouts ranging anywhere from 2:45 to 3:15 in time, it should be more than enough time to have referees on the floor and officials in Secaucus complete a replay review. Even a lengthy one. While the exceptions have been noted, the vast majority of replay reviews don’t take nearly three minutes.

“You want to not make the games three hours, but at the same time you want to get the calls right,” Daigneault said before adding, “And as many calls right as possible so that the two teams that are on the court are the ones determining the outcome of the game.”

As for Gentry, he’s confused as to why the challenge and review system takes so long in the first place, citing the fact that the league has a host of tools at their disposal and still haven’t figured out how to make things operate faster.

“I think there’s a way that they can probably get to the bottom of a challenge a lot quicker,” Gentry said. “I’m not real sure why it takes so long. You look at it, they’ve got all this equipment in Secaucus, and all of these TVs and all of these big screens and all of these people watching. To me, the decision can be made by the time the refs walk over to the table.”

Some coaches would like to see things taken a step further on the challenge front. Lue is in favor of what could be seen as a radical idea. He’d support the NBA allowing coaches to challenge a play even if they’re out of timeouts, so long as they haven’t used a challenge before or haven’t gotten one wrong during the course of the game.

“I think if your timeouts are out, and you didn’t use it, you should still have your challenge,” Lue said.

Perhaps it’s a crazy idea. After all, if you lose a challenge the cost is that you end up losing a timeout. So what’s the penalty for a team should they get a challenge wrong but they were already out of timeouts? A technical foul would make some sense. But is that the right and fair solution? It’s hard to say. Then again, a team who calls a timeout when they’re out of timeouts gets assessed a technical foul and loses possession.

There might not be a clear way to make Lue’s preference become reality, but it’s an interesting one. The G League allows teams to advance the ball late in games even if they don’t have a traditional timeout at their disposal. They call it the “Reset Timeout,” so teams can advance the ball to half-court in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter in order to run a late-game possession. That might seem radical, but it’s made the end of games more exciting.

When discussing his thoughts on everything, Gentry iterated that he’d possibly like to see another step taken.

“I guess the other thing I would say is that sometimes it’s not the things that you challenge, it’s the things that are not called that need to be challenged.”

That brings us back to the James-Covington play on Feb. 25th, and the seven-minute review that ultimately awarded the ball to the Clippers. On that play, they reviewed something that didn’t get called but only because something else did. So could it be possible to challenge a play in which, say, a ball went out of bounds but wasn’t called, and thus a team scored? Or what about a missed goaltending violation?

Another scenario could even be if a player stepped out but it wasn’t seen, which is exactly what famously happened during a Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets game in January 2019. During a tie game late in overtime, Kevin Durant saved the ball while clearly standing out of bounds. The end result was a Stephen Curry jumper for the lead. Eventually, no harm really happened because James Harden hit a game-winning 3-pointer shortly thereafter. But it’s a situation you’d like to see prevented from ever happening again.

The list of possible triggers could be endless, but clearly coaches around the league would like to see some modifications to the challenge system.

Would games last longer? It’s honestly hard to say. Maybe not if reviews take place during the window for mandatory timeouts. Maybe they would if coaches are so successful with their challenges that each game sees four combined challenges possible. There’s still a lot to discuss, as Silver said would be the case this offseason.

But one thing is certain: coaches would like to see something change. And the biggest thing, so far, is keeping your challenge should you win your first one.

“That would be a smart thing to do,” Gentry noted.

We’ll see if the NBA agrees.

You can find Justin Russo’s daily content on the LA Clippers by subscribing to his Patreon feed, and you can also follow him on Twitter at @FlyByKnite.

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