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A Rant Against NBA Replays

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Replays are not always the fairest way for NBA referees to correct calls.

Detroit Pistons v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers suffered one of their more heartbreaking defeats against the Washington Wizards last week. For those who missed it, Portland was up by 21 at one point. They squandered their lead and the game came down to the final play. Wizards power forward Markieff Morris caught the ball on a kick-out, stepped out of bounds, and then hit the game winner. The refs missed the call but the play wasn’t reviewable so the bucket counted. It was a disastrous conclusion that the team didn’t deserve.

The natural reaction to such a massive mistake is to support more replay review. The referees stated they would have changed the call if they could’ve reviewed it. If replay had included plays like this one, the call would have been corrected and the Blazers almost certainly would have won. The game’s outcome would have been more fair.

But I find myself feeling very differently and, even after a moment like this one, I’m skeptical of the benefits of replay. Replays claim to make the game more fair but the overall accounting is more complicated than it might initially seem.

In development economics, the role of social norms is critical. Laws and regulations can never be completely enforced. As a result, social norms about what is acceptable fill in the gaps around the written statutes, largely determining how markets function. What’s interesting is that sometimes these norms can be more nuanced, and therefore more effective, than strictly enforced rules.

The same could be said of basketball. Referees aren’t robots so they can’t see the bam-bam plays with enough speed and clarity to enforce each rule to the letter of the law. As a result, referees developed certain norms governing how the game was called. Some of these norms are more effective and more fair than a strict adherence to the rule book.

Take an out-of-bounds call for example. Every sport needs a boundary. Without one, conflict could be avoided and the fundamental competition and struggle inherent in sport would be difficult to create. Once there’s a boundary, you have to decide what to do when the ball leaves the area. You also need to incentivize players to keep the ball in play so they don’t intentionally punt the ball when they’re at a disadvantage.

The answer to this conundrum is obvious. Whoever causes the ball to go out-of-bounds loses possession. The rule book makes this more concrete by placing the blame on whoever touched it last. However, “whoever touched it last” and “whoever caused the ball to go out-of-bounds” are slightly different.

Imagine this hypothetical. Jusuf Nurkić is on defense. He’s got great rebounding position but Marquise Chriss swipes at the ball from behind as he catches it. Chriss had no real shot at the offensive rebound and was out-of-control as he flew by. We’ve all seen plays like this a hundred times and the refs almost always give possession to the defense.

That makes sense. Nurkić was in total control of the floor. There was no real skill or precision in Green’s attempt. It was more of a chaotic flail than a calculated maneuver. The defense did everything right and deserves possession because the offensive player is the one who caused the ball to go out of bounds.

If this happens in the last two minutes of the game, a slow-motion replay might reveal that the ball glanced off Nurkić’s fingernail before heading out-of-bounds. Enforcing the letter of the law, the referees award the ball to the offense. But did that call reversal really make the game more fair?

Consider another hypothetical. Damian Lillard is dribbling down the sideline. Patrick Beverly aggressively tries to cut him off. There’s a little contact but no clear foul and the ball goes out of bounds. The refs award possession to the offense and play continues.

Again, this makes sense. It’s tough to be sure if there was a foul and the risk of handing out phantom fouls along the perimeter is too great to guess. At the same time, it doesn’t make sense to penalize the offense so they shouldn’t lose the ball. The fairest solution is to give the offense possession and move on.

But a slow-motion replay shows that ball came off Lillard’s wrist. It also shows that Beverly bumped his arm in the process. They can’t call the foul and instead give the ball to the defense. Did that call reversal make the game more fair? Would calling the foul really make the game better? Do we really want more foul shots and players in foul trouble?

In both cases, the norms capture the intention behind the rules better than the rules themselves.

But what about when someone strips the ball off someone’s knee? Or when someone is falling out of bounds and throws the ball off an opposing player? They caused the ball to go out-of-bounds but don’t they still deserve possession? How do you distinguish between those plays and someone swiping at a rebound from behind?

The distinction lies in the player’s control. A player purposefully and skillfully throws the ball off an opponent to keep possession of the ball. Excellent defenders look for opportunities to strip the ball off players’ legs while ball handlers protect the ball and attempt to avoid these situations. They aren’t random and chaotic like a swipe or a collision.

The game should value intentional plays and minimize randomness. To do so rewards players for skill and effort and enhances competition by ensuring players determine the outcome of the game.

This distinction between intentional, skilled tactics and random, chaotic events is a blurry one. I’m sure many of you can think of hypothetical situations that don’t clearly fall into either category. However, a blurry line doesn’t mean the distinction doesn’t exist and, as I’ve shown, applying rigid rules to complex situations doesn’t always achieve the intention behind the rules themselves.

Relying on norms to navigate these gray areas is often preferable. It’s not a coincidence that what a player can control and what a referee can see are similar. When refs see skill they reward it. When they see randomness and a call isn’t clear, they rely on norms to determine the fairest outcome.

Of course, there are times when the referees simply miss a call. In those situations, replay corrections do make the game better. The point is that replays provide a mixed bag. Even if the system improves accuracy, it doesn’t always promote fairness. Since fairness is the ultimate goal, the benefits of replays are diminished.

The costs, on the other hand, are significant. The delays are long and occur at the most exciting moments of the game. What’s worse, replays undermine the emotional reaction to critical plays. If there’s a deflection at the end of the game and the ball goes out of bounds, everyone’s reactions are tempered by the knowledge that the play will be reviewed. This robs the game of some of its emotional power and interrupts the flow.

Perhaps some system can be developed that avoids the negative aspects of replay while still achieving the benefits. This would have to correct missed calls without overriding effective norms and maintain the flow of the game. I’m skeptical this system can be achieved. In the meantime, I’ll be hoping for fewer replays, even when a blown call costs my beloved Blazers a game in a tight playoff race.