The NBA season tips off Tuesday with a change to the league’s replay review system. This year referees will no longer initiate reviews of out-of-bounds calls during the final two minutes of a game; coaches will be required to use their challenge on such calls. The update was approved on a one-year trial basis—i.e., subject to further review.
Maybe the tweak is perfect, and no one will complain. But probably not. Last Thursday, MLB’s rules came under attack after the Dodgers-Giants’ five-game NLDS ended on a blown, and unreviewable, check swing call. Monday, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin called a lengthy review “an embarrassment,” after Pittsburgh beat the Seahawks on Sunday Night Football. Tomlin’s comments came Monday because the overtime game ended just after midnight eastern, nearly four hours after it kicked off.
Now it’s the NBA’s turn to find the balance between getting calls right and getting games over in a reasonable amount of time. The growth of sports betting has made accuracy more important than ever, while viewers’ ever-shrinking attention spans mean time is always of the essence.
In an interview, NBA EVP for basketball strategy and analytics Evan Wasch said game length wasn’t the main reason for leadership’s decision to make a change. The key factor was how the game felt, to both players and fans.
“The game of basketball is meant to be a free-flowing, fast-paced game,” he said. “It’s not meant to be bogged down with constant stoppages.”
In the playoffs last summer, that was too often the case. Wasch said there were two games in the Western Conference Finals in which the last two minutes took more than 20 minutes in real time. They were the longest final two minutes his department has tracked in its decade-plus database.
“The data identified out-of-bounds calls as one area that could potentially be refined,” he said. Those calls accounted for a third of replays and more than half of all time spent reviewing. There was also the issue that, under the microscope of frame-by-frame slow motion, OOB calls often went against the spirit of the rule. For most of a game, if a defender swipes the ball away from a ballhandler, the offense generally retains possession. But in key instances, reviews can show a fingernail or a thread from an offensive player’s shorts graze the ball last.
“However you want to cut it—survey data, viewership, fan satisfaction—all of that would point to wanting to have better flow in the last two minutes,” Wasch said. “So, from both a basketball perspective and a fan perspective, this is a real important initiative for us.”
As for the potentially aggrieved gambler, Wasch said that concern was raised by certain teams and part of the conversation, but he said it was not a determining factor in setting any rules.
Coaches will now have the ability to challenge late-game OOB calls. Wasch said fans could see even fewer challenges this year, though, because coaches may hold onto their one request only for that late, questionable call to never arise.
The NBA’s campaign to streamline its telecasts is now years long. In 2017, it cut the number of timeouts coaches could call in the final minutes, which helped shorten the final two minutes of gameplay by more than 10%. For its part, the NFL has cut its commercial load. Meanwhile, MLB and tennis tournaments have tested pitch and serve clocks, as every sport competes with the unending social feeds that constantly beckon.
Whether or not the new system sticks, the NBA remains focused on refining its product, using the developmental G League to test out changes. Since 2019, the G League has experimented with making a single free throw worth multiple points as a way to cut out dead time, though Wasch said bringing that to the NBA is unlikely in the short term.
In line with the league’s current emphasis on flow, adopting rules to prevent players from fouling to stop a fast break seems more likely. In the G League, that type of foul results in a free throw and possession of the ball.
“That’s something that the competition committee is very focused on,” Wasch said. “We're going to look at one more year of data in the G League as that rule is applied and see if there's a corollary rule we could put in the NBA in future seasons."