There’s no such thing as perfection: The NBA coaches’ challenge needs to go

A weekly dive into the NBA’s hottest topics.

The NBA needs to stop trying to be so accurate

There is a foul on nearly every possession of an NBA game. A screener moves, a defender grabs, a ball-handler travels and a rebounder shoves. You’ve got 10 people immersed in the physicality of the game, sometimes trying to gain an edge by pulling one over on referees who momentarily look away from them.

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All of which is to say: accurate refereeing isn’t a problem robots could solve. Anyone who likes watching the NBA should be thrilled that officiating is inherently subjective. It’s one of the many reasonable concessions any commercial league has to make in the name of entertainment. But the advent of the replay center and the coaches’ challenge treat discretion and personal judgment like bugs when they should be considered features. 

The early returns on the new coaches’ challenge rule, by the way? Everyone hates it. It’s just one more thing for coaches to worry about, and it’s making games longer.

Sometimes it feels like the NBA is searching for a formula to stamp out the fallibility of the human mind under pressure. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t exist. 

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/teams/houston/" data-ylk="slk:Rockets">Rockets</a> guard James Harden (13) questions his missed dunk call during the second half Tuesday night. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Rockets guard James Harden (13) questions his missed dunk call during the second half Tuesday night. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

That was on display on Tuesday, when James Harden somehow dunked the ball so hard against the San Antonio Spurs that it bounced oddly out of the net with just under eight minutes left in the fourth quarter. Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, despite his best efforts, didn’t get to challenge the call because he missed the 30-second window in which the referees were still deciding what to call Harden’s made basket. After review, they opted not to reward Harden the basket, making one in a series of mistakes that would have gone unnoticed had the Spurs not come back from 13 points down to tie the game and send it to overtime, where they won.

Houston, in response, has filed a protest to either be awarded the victory or to play out the last eight minutes again, this time with Harden’s made basket on the books — a request that ... man, let’s not even get into that right now. 

(Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Yahoo Sports illustration)

The point is this: Replay reviews and coaches’ challenges aren’t going to mitigate mistakes. They only change the nature of the mistakes that are made. More information, despite our assumptions, doesn’t necessarily improve snap judgments. It does, however, make referees look less credible — the opposite of what the NBA intended. 

Mistakes, in the dynamic ecosystem of an NBA game, are inevitable. It’s better to accept that fact than try to control it. It’s imperfect, but in this case, striving for perfection has only made things worse.

Besides, if there’s one good thing about the regular season being too long, it’s that most mistakes should naturally balance out. 

Tim Duncan may be severely underrated. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)
Tim Duncan may be severely underrated. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

Was Tim Duncan more important than we thought?

On May 16, 2017, Sam Walker, the sports editor at the Wall Street Journal, published “The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World's Greatest Teams.” 

Walker set out to find a common link between the best dynasties in sports and discovered one: player leaders. Tim Duncan, who had retired from the San Antonio Spurs a year before the book was published, was one of two NBA players (Bill Russell was the other) Walker identified as a leader who could perpetuate consistent dominance, highlighting Duncan’s high emotional intelligence and his subtle verbal and non-verbal communication style — the elongated stare, the pat on the shoulder and the quiet aside over the rousing speech.

He also discovered that after each leader retired — and many of them did not have the in-game bona fides of Duncan — their teams’ performance dropped off, even when the roster and coaching staff remained mostly intact.

In Duncan’s case, Walker couldn’t have known how right he was about to be. On May 16, an MRI revealed that an ankle injury suffered by Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors had no structural damage. Yet Leonard played only nine more games for the Spurs.

In the complicated ecosystem of an NBA team, something always happens. The Spurs had always seemed impervious to those somethings, but after Duncan retired, they came down to earth. Leonard’s injury woes got worse, and he eventually lost faith in the medical staff and demanded a trade. LaMarcus Aldridge requested a trade, and if you don’t think coach Gregg Popovich had to capitulate to keep him around, just take a look at the Spurs’ shot chart compared to the modern NBA. Their recent skid has them at 8-14 and in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since — yep — the season before Duncan’s rookie year. 

Great leaders can’t prevent ankle sprains and hamstring injuries, but they can mitigate communication issues and help keep stars in line, and inspire defensive effort, which the Spurs have been lacking as of late. The Spurs brought Duncan back as an assistant, but coaches can’t convey culture like players can. Neither he nor Popovich can sacrifice shots, money, and switch positions to accommodate teammates. The mere presence of a selfless leader can coax — and occasionally embarrass — players into buying into the team’s goals.

Players like Duncan mitigate the factors that make teams crumble. It’s not that that the problems started when Duncan retired. It’s that they stopped being solved as effectively. 

The Jazz disrespect themselves 

Disrespect is inherent to the showmanship of basketball. The game exists in a closed-loop vacuum where the level of coolness must maintain its equilibrium. All of which is to say: in order to do something cool, you have to make somebody else look uncool. Take James Harden crossing Wesley Matthews into a different stratosphere and then staring him down, for example, or the defender on the end of any poster dunk. 

In the fourth quarter of the Los Angeles Lakers’ blowout victory against the Utah Jazz on Wednesday, Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma blocked Jazz center Tony Bradley twice, and LeBron James — who had already given his shoes away to a fan, implying that he didn’t think he’d have to enter the game again — celebrated on the sidelines by jumping around on the court in his socks, which prompted a Jazz announcer to call him “disrespectful.” We can argue whether it was. LeBron posted his take on the situation on Instagram. I’d argue he was just living in the moment.

But man, did the Jazz announcers ever screw up by saying it. In the parlance of the game, the ability to disrespect your opponent is actually a compliment. It means you’re pulling one over on them. It’s Internet 101: The worst thing you can do when you’re being trolled is admit that it’s working.

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