Recently TrueHoop started up a series called HoopIdea to gather ideas as to how to make the game of basketball, as it appears in the NBA, better. So far, meaning after a couple posts, the focus has been on making the end of games better. My idea is a little more wide-ranging.
If you ask most NBA fans what they dislike about the game, my guess is that there would be two common responses: too much ‘superstar’ play, and inconsistent refereeing. One of those things is, at this point, essentially tied into the infrastructure of the NBA as a business, and so changing that would be difficult and it’s unclear if it would really improve the game at the level of the general fan. Instead, I think the NBA should get rid of referees.
This sounds a little radical, but I don’t think it is. Look at the quote from Henry’s link above:
We want a purer form of basketball. When you play a pickup game, the game flows continuously. No one is trying to get the other team in foul trouble. No one calls a timeout. Defenders don’t worry about the restricted area, or try to take charges. No way. Players try to make plays.
And that’s what we want, right? The NBA game is a far different beast from what most people play every day simply because there are referees present. They draw a charge from a guy who already passed the ball (or try to). The rules/emphasis were changed this year, but the presence of referees invented the rip-through simply to get foul shots after a reach-in. Beyond all the stuff that goes on in the game simply to try and draw fouls, there’s the inconsistency in the calls. Is there anyone who likes blocks/charges? A charge this quarter is a block next quarter, and good luck getting a charge called on anyone who makes over $10 million a year. Then there’s Tim Donaghy, and games like this. To a certain extent, it doesn’t even matter if games are fixed or not. Sometimes it feels like there are three ways a game can turn out for your team: it can be a blow-out, the refs can cost you the game, or the refs can nearly cost you the game. And that makes it tough to enjoy the NBA.
So instead, the NBA can play the game the same way everyone else does: players call fouls. There are a few objections that I could see being raised, so I’ll address the ones I can think of (and let me know what else might go wrong in the comments). The first is a lack of impartiality. As much as people might think the refs are biased, at least they don’t play for one of the teams. Obviously players are going to call fouls in their own interest. On the other hand, this is true in pick-up games as well, and it hasn’t caused the whole system to collapse. Players calling their own fouls works for two main reasons that I can think of, and they would both apply to the NBA. First is the respect issue. Guys don’t call weak or phantom fouls because they’re macho. You don’t have to go so far as ‘no blood no foul’, but in most games I’ve played the threshold for a foul is higher than in an NBA game, and the threshold for a non-shooting foul is way higher. Which isn’t to say that we’re more manly than NBA players, but more that we’re there to play basketball and a certain amount of contact is to be expected. If you take a little bump in the course of running around and call foul, you will attract glares (and I imagine some unkind words if you’re playing in some places). If it’s shameful for us, how bad will it be for guys who have millions of people watch them trip over their own feet and then try to call the other guy for a foul?
On the other hand, some guys like to win regardless of what other people think of them. Which leads to the second reason the no-ref system works, which is the game theory aspect of calling your own fouls. If you call something weak, the other team is going to start calling weak stuff at the other end. This might continue briefly, but usually people want to play basketball and so you get back to a normal game pretty quickly. Alternatively, after a weak call that player quickly finds out what a ‘real’ foul feels like. There are a variety of ways that players have for reining in a guy who is mucking up a game, and this actually provides a critical advantage for players over refs: players have repeated interactions with each other and will be responsible to each other whereas refs are only responsible to the league. When you have to interact repeatedly and there’s a threat of retaliation, you have to keep in line. When refs call the fouls, they just have to explain themselves to the league and then they can go back to making fans, and players, unhappy next game.
So, let’s assume that eliminating refs can work in theory. How about practice? Well, we want to keep player safety intact, so the first issue is that we don’t eliminate officials from the court entirely. There would be people on or near the court who could break up a fight, for example. There could be a couple of officials who run around the court to handle time-outs, shot clock violations, and other timing issues. There would still be scorekeepers and instant replay officials. Perhaps there would be someone in charge of handling potential flagrant fouls. But players would be solely in charge of calling fouls and moving violations (double dribble, traveling, etc).
How would fouls work? I think they should be a mix of the NBA and pickup systems. There needs to be a foul-out system, but the number might change from six. Maybe it can be tested in the D-League. Foul shots, on the other hand, are only awarded for fouls committed in the act of shooting. Otherwise the fouled team gets the ball out of bounds. This will make it harder for losing teams to catch up, since they can’t foul to regain possession, but I don’t see why that has to be a crucial part of the game. Instead you might see winning teams fouling intentionally to run time off the clock. For this reason, all intentional fouls will result in a single free throw and the fouled team retains possession. So if the losing team inbounds and then has someone slapped at or bear-hugged just to run clock and make them inbound again, instead they get a foul shot and the ball. This should also cut down on the hack-a-Shaq strategy, which no one likes and also slows down the game.
What happens when there’s a disagreement? When I play, we usually use a possession arrow system. One teams starts with the ball, the other team starts with the arrow. If there’s a disagreement over a call, ball goes to the team with the arrow and the arrow goes to the other team. However, I think NBA teams would start to game that system as a way to gain possession late in the game. Instead, we would go to the other pickup standby – shoot for possession. If a player calls a foul and the other team disputes it, the player who called it shoots for the call to stand. Since those calls should be roughly 50/50 situations, the shot will be taken from a place with roughly a 50/50 shot of going in. I don’t know exactly where that is, since the shot would be undefended, but I’m guessing the three point line or farther outside. This system could also potentially be gamed, by having your best shooters always dispute fouls, but in the worst case it rewards good shooting ability and that seems ok to me. The location of the shot could also be adjusted to make it more difficult if it came to that.
The ‘shoot for it’ system would also apply to levels of disagreement – if someone calls a foul and says it was intentional (not flagrant, intentional), the other team could disagree that it was intentional. Then the player who called it would shoot for it. If he missed, there would still be a foul but not an intentional one (no free throw awarded). If someone claimed there was an intentional foul and the other team thought there was no foul, the shot would decide the whole thing. It would work similarly for shooting fouls; you could argue that the guy wasn’t in the act of shooting, or that he wasn’t fouled. That gives an incentive for players to challenge everything about a ‘big foul’, but remember that they can only get away with that so often before the other team gets back at them. Flagrant fouls would be separate and I think it would be best if they were handled by an official. Players would call the foul and ask for a judgment. Flagrant foul decisions would not be subject to dispute. Players could also call for instant replay in certain situations similar to the way it works now (who knocked a ball out of bounds, if a shot was a three or not), but not for fouls.
I think this system has a lot of promise. We know it can work, because people play with it every day. It has the potential to eliminate most the fouls that happen at the end of games and bogs them down. It should eliminate or at least drastically cut back on flopping and the ticky-tack stuff that fans don’t like. Players wouldn’t stand around behind a play to stare in disbelief at the ref. And I think it will add a new level of entertainment for fans. Remember how much Pistons fans loved Bill Laimbeer and how much everyone else hated him? You would get that kind of feeling again, but for players who called cheap fouls. Imagine if Kobe called all those fouls he wants to have called when he shoots his fade-away over two guys. Right now he can only glare at the ref the whole way back downcourt, which I saw last night. Under the new system he can call the foul and watch as the other team (and all their fans) explode with disbelief. Then the other team can decide if they want to shoot for it or not. If the challenging team missed the shot (Rasheed Wallace would trademark his catchphrase and buy a new house), Kobe would go to the line amid a chorus of boos directed squarely at him and not a referee. And the next time he went for a shot, he might catch a Garnett. I don’t think that kind of thing would happen often, but when it does it would be great theater.