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Enough of Coaching Challenges in the NBA

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Why the league should eliminate the new Challenge rule, and almost all reviews.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

2020 has arrived, meaning we’re nearly halfway through the NBA’s first season with Coaching Challenges. Has the ability to “toss the flag” improved officiating or our perception thereof? That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag, with a question sent to blazersub@gmail.com by Kyle.

Dave,

Can you believe the ghost call on Tolliver tonight with LeBron? We challenged it and came up empty. How can they justify that? Are challenges any good? What do you think the problem is and how do we fix it?

Kyle

Kyle is talking about this play:

...but I want to take the issue further. I think it’s time for the experiment to go back to the drawing board. Coach Challenges are more detrimental than helpful to the game; they should be eliminated.

At heart, this is a matter of time versus benefit. Games already drag, especially in the last minutes. How many times have you told someone waiting on you, “There’s 6:00 left in the fourth, but that’s at least 20 minutes real time”? Between timeouts and interminable ref reviews, this was already happening last season. Coach Challenges provide another opportunity to interrupt the action so we can wait.

Nobody is thrilled spending two minutes watching the back of referees looking at a monitor, no matter how the call goes. Honestly, it’s up in the air whether people even care that much. At all times, in all sports, all fan bases will complain about officiating. It’s part of the experience. It’s like complaining about the weather or taxes. Nobody is thrilled with those things, but the joy is in the complaining as much as effecting any change.

Blown calls are annoying. Blown calls seldom, if ever, decide the course of a season. No sport needs perfection in officiating. People want a basic sense of fairness and consistency, plus the opportunity to talk for hours on sports radio the day after a referee messes up.

To the extent the NBA lacks basic fairness and consistency, Coach Challenges don’t rectify that. It’s a pandering move. “The tide is coming in. There’s your sandcastle, here’s a teacup. Feel better now?” Not really. Challenges don’t fix bias towards marquee players, an obscure officiating feedback loop, or any nefarious shenanigans that might be going on behind the scenes. If you believe that stuff matters, the Challenge process does nothing for you.

If officiating is basically fair and consistent, then referees need permission to be human as much as players and coaches do. Over time, those human foibles should equalize, even they seem to always run against your team in the moment. Most fans, particularly casual ones, would probably take a mistake or two (randomly distributed) over adding 20 minutes to every game for referee reviews that still don’t satisfy...and that’s without adding Coach Challenges on top.

And let’s be clear: reviews and challenges are never going to satisfy completely. They happen, by definition, in moments too close to call with the naked eye, where there’s dispute as to what actually happened. Most of the time, those plays remain too close to call on video. “Zoom and enhance!” remains a meme. We don’t have the technology in place to be infallible, or to split hairs. We don’t have rubrics in place that eliminate the need for human judgment either. Fans throw up their hands after real-time calls, then throw up their hands again after replays. In both cases, correctness remains in the eye of the beholder. The LeBron-Tolliver call above looked wrong to most of humanity, but right to the refs. The latter is all that mattered, Challenge or not.

Nobody follows sports for precise-millimeter measurements or perfect officiating. We follow sports for the stories, the narratives that unite us and make us feel like we experienced something. Missed calls can be part of that narrative. They always have been. Trying to sift them out with replay, with mixed results, interrupts the narrative, taking us out of the moments that we came to see.

Imagine playing a video game wherein your shot against the Big Baddie appeared to miss, but the game took you to a blank review screen for two minutes right in the middle of the fight to determine whether it did or didn’t. Imagine that happening six times in the course of each boss battle. At some point you’d throw down your controller in disgust and say, “Either let me win or let me lose, but stop interrupting the game!” You wouldn’t care whether you hit or missed on that particular occasion, you just want to play.

That’s how we should view officiating reviews of all types, including add-on Coach Challenges. They’re bad game design; the NBA should eliminate as many as possible.

If the league continues with Coach Challenges, those challenges should replace ALL other reviews. Make the referees call the game real-time for all 48 minutes and stop using video as a crutch on every close play. Coaches get to call for one video review per half if they think the refs missed a call. That’s four stoppages per game, maximum, end of story. No more looking to see if a foul was flagrant if it’s not evident in the moment. (Those determinations can be made, and penalties assessed, later.) No more staring at a screen for five minutes trying to see whether it’s a charge or a block when nobody since the dawn of time has had a clear definition for either.

Letting fans argue after the fact is far more a part of the game—far more interactive, entertaining, and narrative-based—than trying to prevent that argument by interrupting the action during the game. I’m ready to de-emphasize Coach Challenges. If the officiating system needs to be reformed, let those reforms be comprehensive, bedrock and transparent. In the meantime, let the refs make calls, let everybody else play/coach basketball, and let’s get on with the game.

—-

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Teachers and organizers are already writing in, requesting dozens or hundreds of seats. We want to be able to provide those, as we always do, with joy and completely free for them. If you’d take a moment to follow this link to the Blazers’ site and use our promo code, you can fulfill that dream and allow us to say, “Yes” to those who ask on behalf of the kids they serve.

Here’s the info. Please click through and help now, then you can come back and read the Mailbag after!

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Please help out if you can, and Go Blazers!

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