The NBA Needs to Fix Instant Replay

I know the Lakers won the game; I know the focus should be on other things right now. And trust me, it will be, as the regulars here at Silver Screen & Roll have some more great material already in the works, recapping last night's game further and figuring out what it means going into Game Four. But in the meantime, I think this is something important that needs to at least be mentioned.

I also know that I'm a Lakers fan, and that people will be quick to point out that I wouldn't be complaining if things had been flipped. I can tell you that is entirely untrue. Sure, I'll admit that I tend to write on pro-Lakers topics. It's not that I can't ever see things the other way; it's just that when my team gets a "lucky break," I take what I can get. I figure more than enough goes against my team, and when something benefits us that perhaps shouldn't, it simply evens things out. More than that, I mostly figure that it's the role of others to point out when something is unfair; I don't think the victor should have to be brought down by that. So when something unfair favors the Lakers and I don't say anything, it's because I see it as everyone else's job to point it out; it's my job to focus on and enjoy the win.

But on this one, I think I can confidently tell you that I would say this regardless of which side I was on. Because I love the NBA's new rule that lets the referees review the most important calls so they can make sure to get them right— but the rule has one tragic flaw that I believe absolutely must be fixed. Preferably, before another minute of basketball is played.

Surely you've all guessed which possession I'm referring to. With 40 seconds left in the game and the Lakers up five, Paul Pierce made a layup and "earned" a trip to the line for a chance at a three-point play. He missed, and Lamar Odom grabbed the rebound. Rajon Rondo, however, fought him for the rebound, and the ball went out of bounds. The refs called Lakers ball, but decided that the call was iffy enough to review.

Here's where it gets controversial. Lamar Odom was very obviously the last to touch the ball before it went out of bounds. However, it was also very obvious that the only reason the ball went out of bounds in the first place was because Rajon Rondo clearly fouled him, ripping one arm off the ball and causing Lamar to lose control of it.

Unfortunately, the rule makes no provision for this circumstance. It allows the play to be reviewed only with regards to who touched the ball last; it cannot be used to call a foul after the fact. (For the record, this is a Good Thing; viewed under the scrutiny of slow motion replay, most NBA possessions will show a foul somewhere.) This presented a dilemma: Under no circumstance is giving the ball to Rondo and the Celtics "getting the call right"; and yet, to say that Rondo touched the ball last is simply incorrect. The only possible way to get the call right is to acknowledge the foul, but the rule does not allow that.

Here's the thing: I love that rule. I see it as the NBA recognizing that the officials don't always get everything right— and more importantly, that getting the call right is important. I want them to get the call right; that matters to me. But last night, the rule screwed the Lakers. The rule was created to make sure the right call was made; last night, it accomplished the precise opposite of that.

That needs to be fixed.

Before I go any further, let me be clear on this: This blown call did not cause the Lakers to lose the game (obviously, since they won); had they lost, I would still insist that this call was not to blame for the loss. This call went against us, but we had a couple go in our favor, too. Championship teams fight through it and find ways to win, regardless of the form of the adversity they face. No, this is not about complaining about how something negatively affected my team. This is about making a suggestion to make a good thing better, so that we get this right in the future, regardless of who is playing.

So here it is: the solution, in my mind, is simple. The problem was that the rule didn't allow for the foul to be acknowledged, so that's what needs to be fixed. No, I'm not saying the ref should be able to call the foul he sees in the replay. That would be a horrendously bad idea. What I'm proposing is that when the outcome of the play is clearly and directly determined by a foul, then the call should simply go the other way. So in this case, because Lamar Odom's losing control of the ball out of bounds was clearly and directly determined by Rajon Rondo's foul, the ball goes to Lamar and the Lakers. It's that simple; it gets the call right, it stays true to the spirit of the rule (to make the right call), all without going to the point of calling fouls based on instant replays.

The key to this addition to the rule is the phrase "clearly and directly determined by." This means that a call cannot be affected simply because the replay reveals a foul somewhere else on the play. So if Lamar Odom grabs a rebound and then fumbles it out of bounds of his own accord, and at the same time, Kevin Garnett takes out Jordan Farmar with running kick to the groin (because we all know he wouldn't try such a thing on someone like Kobe or Pau Gasol), the play is unchanged. If the refs missed the Garnett foul in real time, oh well; can't call it now. And since that foul did not clearly and directly determine the outcome of the play — that is, it had no effect on Lamar Odom's rebounding and subsequently losing control of the ball — it cannot contribute to reversing the out of bounds call. Only fouls that clearly and directly determine the outcome of the play can be used in determining who is awarded the ball as a result of the review.

The rule should explicitly state this. That way, the ref doesn't have to put his neck on the line. That way, he isn't forced to choose between the technically correct call that completely violates the spirit of the rule and negatively impacts the game, and the "good call" that is technically the "wrong call."

And I'll say this: I thought the officials made the wrong call tonight. Yes, the way the rule currently exists, that is technically the only call he could make. Technically. But everyone watching knew that the technical interpretation of the rule completely violated the spirit of the rule, on every level. Everyone watching knew the rule was intended to help refs make the right call, and instead it forced them to overturn the right call in favor of the wrong one. Not a single person in that building, or watching on couches across America, would have blamed him for saying, "You know what? I know what the letter of the law says, but in this case, that's just wrong, and I'm going to stick to the intent and just make the right call."

And here's how you can test whether it's the right call: Had he called it Lakers' ball, no one could have argued the call. Not one person would have had any grounds for argument or complaint. They wouldn't have a leg to stand on. Because the end result was that Rondo was rewarded for fouling Lamar Odom, and that just isn't right. And that's how you know that calling that one Lakers ball would have been the right call.

But it's not fair to the refs to put them in that position. I absolutely love the replay rule; I love that refs get the chance to make the right call, when they're not absolutely certain. But if the rule forces unreasonable calls like this one that negatively impact the game and that directly violate the very spirit in which the rule was written, then it's no good to us. We'd be better off without it.

I guarantee you that this is not the last time that a replay review of an out of bounds play will show that a foul determined the result of the play. The league needs to fix this rule, so that the referees can still make the technically correct call, without stomping all over the intent and spirit of the rule and negatively impacting a game.


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