Sports

NBA Coaches Shouldn’t Be Able to Challenge the Refs. Players Should Be.

This tweak to the new replay rule would only make the games more entertaining.

Draymond Green yelling at a ref.
Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors arguing with referee Zach Zarba during Game 1 of the second round of the 2019 NBA Western Conference playoffs at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California, on April 28.
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

NBA games are going to be different this season, and not just because everyone switched teams over the summer. The league has approved a new challenge rule that allows coaches to trigger video reviews of contentious calls. They will get one challenge per game, and it can only be used to dispute personal fouls, out-of-bounds calls, and goaltending violations. Unlike the NFL, there will be no flags involved; a coach will initiate a challenge by calling a timeout and “twirling his/her finger toward the referees.” It’s bad news for people who hate game delays but great for those who’ve always wanted to see what it would look like if Gregg Popovich sassily ordered a round of Fireball.

A version of this rule has been used in the G League for two years, and, as the saying goes: If it’s good enough for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, then it’s good enough for the Golden State Warriors. It is also being implemented on a one-year trial basis, so the NBA can rethink matters if courtside TV monitors catch fire due to overuse this season. And they might!

Given that frequent stoppages plague modern basketball, the decision to add more interruptions will assuredly be an unpopular one. Even with the 2014 addition of a centralized video review hub in Secaucus, New Jersey, the NBA’s current system still relies heavily on live officials huddling around scorers tables to examine replays. This new rule may be limited to one challenge per team, but in terms of expediency, it’s still a stutter-step in the wrong direction.

What’s really annoying, though, is that the league made a key mistake in implementing this rule: Coaches shouldn’t be the ones who challenge plays. The players should have that responsibility.

This minor tweak would immediately result in shorter interruptions. Rather than wait for a coach to call a timeout before issuing a challenge (which is a mandatory first step under the new rule), a player who is already on the court would be able to instantly alert the officials. Even if it only saves a few seconds per game, a player-triggered challenge would at least involve people whom the fans paid to watch. In its current iteration, reviews will be distracting side-plots starring coaches and referees, and no one wants to see more of those supporting cast members.

The goal of this rule is to improve accuracy—so it’s ridiculous that the burden of challenging a call should go to someone standing on the sidelines. It’s like having people who only watch movies on airplanes vote for the Academy Awards. Coaches routinely miss on-court action, as evidenced by the countless postgame press conferences where they claim to have missed contentious plays. Sure, coaches may be feigning ignorance with such claims because controversial calls went their team’s way, or they may be trying to avoid criticizing the officials. But they are also blanket admissions that a coach’s view is far from perfect.

Many future challenges are going to hinge upon fingertips grazing a wrist. Wouldn’t the person to whom those fingertips belong know more about them than a guy who’s standing 50 feet away? Consider what happened during Game 3 of the 2019 Finals, when venture capitalist (and Warriors part-owner) Mark Stevens shoved Toronto guard Kyle Lowry from the comfort of his courtside seat. It was a huge, calamitous moment, but at least one person at Oracle Arena missed it. The next day, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr told reporters, “I have not seen the play. I didn’t see it last night.” If you can’t spot a Silicon Valley dweeb pushing an opposing point guard, then there’s no way you can be trusted to determine whether a ball bounced a half-centimeter over the line.

Basketball players are experts at calling fouls. Pickup games depend on it; there won’t be a learning curve for the pros. Now, I know that pickup calls are often baloney, but that’s the beauty of replay. If LeBron James is apoplectic about a call, he can back it up by requesting a challenge. Otherwise, he’ll just have to accept it and move on. Hey! We just solved complaining in the NBA. Is there anything this rule tweak can’t do?

Having players challenge calls will only make the games more entertaining. Imagine the kinds of arguments teams will have after a benchwarmer goes rogue and loses a challenge. How many times will the Warriors have to physically restrain Draymond Green from asking the refs to review a clear blocking foul? A lot, is my guess!

The NBA made the mistake of following the NFL’s lead when they should have looked to a sport that actually uses challenges effectively. Tennis’s Hawk-Eye system works well on its own, but the experience is made seamless and compelling thanks to the players’ ability to request its use immediately. They’re the ones for whom everything is at stake, and the same is true for players across all sports.

Basketball isn’t football—so why copy it? The NFL fetishizes the top-down structure of its teams, and coaches assume responsibility for even the most abstract aspects of the game. (“I’m building a culture here!”) Player autonomy is severely limited, and so the thought of handing red flags to the guys in pads seems crazy. But as anyone who has ever pulled for an Andy Reid–led team can attest, football coaches aren’t all that great at challenging plays. Since 1999, only 38 percent of regular season plays have been overturned after a coach called for video review. They’ve had their chance, and they’ve blown it (62 percent of the time). Could players do any worse? I’d love to find out. Anything that makes Bill Belichick feel a smidge more helpless and out of control is objectively good for society.

The NFL may be too stuck in its ways to change, but there is still time for the NBA to admit it made a mistake. Isn’t that what the challenge rule is all about?