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Misconceptions about traveling & blocking rules need to be resolved by the league

Since launching RefCalls.com a couple of weeks ago, we have been encouraged by all the positive comments from readers who have been looking for a site like this one. That’s what we thought would happen before we launched, and it’s always good to have assumptions validated. There have been a few who have stated, “What’s the point?” But there are basketball diehards like us who really think that although it may be somewhat painful or grueling to discuss, it’s in the best interests of basketball.

We want to reiterate that we are not picking on the refs. We know how difficult a job it must be. But almost every industry has some kind of evaluation method for its professionals. For example, every part of an NBA player’s skill-set, physical abilities, ability to learn, etc., are evaluated and quantitatively measured. Doctors, lawyers, politicians, professors, you name it — all of them are evaluated, and thanks to the Internet, most of these evaluations are publicly available. So how come the refs aren’t, and are given a free pass by some people when they don’t have a problem with other professionals’ reputations available for online review?

We are very upfront that we will give refs credit when they make a tough call, or that they need the help of fellow refs, or replay, to make the right call. Some people have even thought we are giving refs too much credit.

Be that as it may, one thing that has surprised us reading comments on this site — as well as other sites that discuss some of the questionable calls/no-calls that we try to bring to everyone’s attention — is the amount of misinformation out there about the rules of the basketball.

Not that we can completely blame these fans. Through our analysis, we have seen way too many times that TV announcers from whom fans predominantly learn the rules of the game are very uninformed, or ignore, the rules of the game. Many viewers who DO understand the rules at a “rulebook” level are amazed they don’t bring it up. It hurts these announcers’ credibility in these viewers’ minds. But because these types of viewers are in the minority, it’s easier for announcers to not have any motivation to be as factual and rule-based as possible.

We can understand there could be market forces in play that motivate these announcers to perhaps not want to bite the hand that feeds them. But luckily we live in a society with a free press, journalists who want to report the truth, and viewers who appreciate hearing the frank truth (one of the reasons behind Charles Barkley’s appeal on some topics). In the end, we think truth will prevail. It’s just surprising a movement like this hasn’t taken place earlier, with an emphasis on analyzing the rulebook and enforcing the rules.

If you’re still reading this post, then many of you see the game of professional basketball as an American institution, which is heartening to see since we are now live in a global and competitive world. Executives in charge of the game will come and go, and we see them as stewards of the game that needs to protect this institution, similar to how diehard baseball fans go to great lengths to protect the traditions and rules of their game.

Baseball enthusiasts want to protect the integrity of their sport — say for example when baseballs were flying out of parks several years ago on a much greater average than years’ past. Only after a complete review did they find something awry with how the balls were being manufactured (we believe). And if even one ballpark has a statistical anomaly, like when Coors Field opened in Denver and it was discovered its dry air was giving fly balls a greater chance of being home runs, baseball looked into it and started storing those baseballs in a humidor.

For long-time NBA fans, they also want to know if records that are being set in today’s game are happening on a level playing field with the players of decades past. Otherwise, how can we really compare the greatness of today’s players to the legends of the game? There are several other reasons why these same fans want the game to be officiated as accurately as possible, with one obviously being they want today’s players to be competing on an even playing field with each other so that the best team wins.

It’s not like the NBA has completely ignored keeping the traditions of the game, like when the NBA experimented with a new basketball a few seasons ago that was having adverse effects on the game, the players complaining about it, etc. The players realized the new ball was changing the game, and they wanted to go back to the type of ball that they were accustomed to playing with.

Well, the same can be said for many fans who question the “greatness” of today’s players. Fans want to enjoy their greatness, but in the back of our minds, we can’t help but ask how much of their success is due to the rules not being enforced, or the rules being unclear enough that it gives too much leeway for a ref to interpret how they think it should be enforced (or not) based off word-of-mouth interpretation, and not based on fact.

Hopefully our Web site will be a catalyst in fostering this conversation so that responsible change can take place to bring a focus back to the rules, ultimately leading to a pure appreciation of the athleticism and beauty of the sport we enjoy, without an underlying skepticism that a part of its foundation may have cracks that have been ignored.

As you know, before we post some of the content that features a particular violation that wasn’t called by the ref, we take very seriously that our intrepretations should be fact-based because we are most likely going to be questioned about it. So naturally we refer to the rulebook in detail to make sure we can back up our assessments, not off what we hear announcers say, or what may be understood anecdotally. The rules are the rules, similar to our Constitution and laws being one of the pillars of our society.

The NBA rulebook is actually very detailed in many different aspects, and is downloadable at http://nba.com/officiating for all to read. It’s fairly dry and not the most compelling read, but at least it’s there and easy to find.

Here are a few examples of misconceptions and misunderstandings of the rules we’ve come across:

1) The first example is the problem with missed travels in the league. We’ve gone to great lengths to explain the problem with missed travels in the NBA based off what the rules allow a ball handler to do. You can read more details in our special report at “How many travels refs miss per game, and the reasons why.” But just a quick summary, here are the net takeaways:

The rulebook is clear that only two steps can be taken after “completion of a dribble,” which is interpreted very differently by some people. We hear all kinds of references, from former NBA refs to announcers to coaches, that a “gather step” or “gathering the ball” is allowed while dribbling. The problem is the word “gather” is not in the NBA rulebook as it pertains to dribbling, only “completion of a dribble.”

So the big question is, “What constitutes completion of a dribble?” That’s where the problem starts.

Many announcers and fans think that the dribbler should be allowed to “collect” the ball (for lack of a better word) before their next step while dribbling, but this concept is not in the rulebook. As we’ve seen through the years, though, even this concept is very vague. For example, as a player I could take my time gathering or collecting the ball as I bring it into my body, or I could switch it from one hand to another, all to buy me time while I sneak in a step or half-step before my first official step. It becomes a major concern when players can manipulate what they do with their hands on the ball to sneak in a half-step or a step, which can give them a huge advantage over their defender, especially given how quick some of the players are these days.

If you look at most of the other rules in the rulebook, its terms and concepts are quite definitive, taking out much of the subjectivity so that referees have a standard and aren’t prone to how they think the rule should be enforced (with a few exceptions), and the same should be said for “completion of a dribble.”

Most people would think that “completion of a dribble” is when the dribbler gains control of it, like when the hand makes contact with the ball after it bounces off the floor, and hasn’t bounced off one of his fingers accidentally. There are 7 clauses in the rulebook related to when a dribble ends, and none of them seems appropriate for previous examples we’ve featured on our site when a player penetrates into the lane to get a slight, yet significant, advantage over their defender.

The provision that we looked at the most is “when the dribbler permits the ball to come to rest while he is in control of it.” This obviously wouldn’t apply in the case of a player penetrating past a defender, as we’ve referenced in recent blog posts, since the phrase “when the dribbler permits” gives the dribbler too much leeway for HIM to decide when he wants the ball to come to rest in his hand, even to the point that he takes a couple of steps before he permits it to come to rest. Obviously this provision doesn’t apply to what we’re talking about here

And “come to rest” conveys that the dribbler is not continuing to move forward with the ball like on a drive to the basket. This provision seems to be intended for those situations where the dribbler himself also stops (“come to rest”) with the ball in one or both of his hands, say, if he wanted to stop with the ball before he goes out of bounds.

The six other clauses in the rulebook regarding “completion of a dribble” don’t apply to the scenarios we’re focusing on here, either. So let’s look at the definition of a “dribble,” which defined in the rulebook is “movement of the ball, caused by a player in control, who throws or taps the ball to the floor.” To many people reading this provision, the dribble would be complete once the dribbler has the opportunity to tap it down immediately if the ball is on his fingertips.

Even the rulebook is clear in other parts that a dribbler can’t bring the ball to “a pause” and then continue to dribble. That word “pause” is crucial, and makes it clear that there is no leeway for the dribbler to “gather” the ball like several “experts” cite.

In sum, it’s clear a “dribble” doesn’t allow you to manipulate the ball the way you like to get control of the ball — it has to be when the ball has come back off the floor, the ball has touched the dribbler’s hands, and the player has the opportunity to dribble it again without pause — meaning it has touched his hands and hasn’t deflected off one of his fingers as it came off the floor.

Our suggestion is for the NBA, after a healthy open debate among fans, sports journalists, etc., make a decision if they want to change the language in the rules to:

a) make it more clear that many players can get away with what they’re able to get away with now, or
b) make it more what many fans have interpreted for years from the rulebook, and what players from decades’ past had been following before it evolved to its current state.

We obviously advocate option #2, with revised language reading something like, “A dribble is complete when the ball is touched by the dribbler’s hand and he has immediately demonstrated that he is in control of the ball by either dribbling the ball again, or has the ability to manipulate the ball to pick it up, move the ball to another hand, pass it, or shoot it.” Something like that.

2) Confusion about a defender’s feet needing to be “set” in a block-charge situation

We’ve all heard many announcers reviewing countless replays after a controversial block-charge situation pointing out if a defender’s feet were set before an offensive player went into his upward shooting motion. It sounds like a very objective thing to look for, which is great. Unfortunately our research of the rulebook shows that there is nothing in it that explicitly says a defender’s feet need to be “set,” but instead uses more open terms, and probably for good reason.

There is mention that a defender needs to be in a “legal defensive position” or “legal guarding position.” We looked all throughout the rulebook for a definition of these phrases, or any of these keywords as it pertains to a block-charge situation. Well, these terms are not defined either!

The closest thing we could find is the following section “Guarding an Opponent,” which also doesn’t resolve it.

In all guarding situations, a player is entitled to any spot on the court he desires, provided he legally gets to that spot first and without contact with an opponent. If a defensive or offensive player has established a position on the floor and his opponent initiates contact that results in the dislodging of the opponent, a foul should be called IMMEDIATELY.

It does say “established a position,” with the key word being “established.” That can be an unclear term that can be interpreted many different ways, and appears to be by many people, depending on who you talk to. It could mean “both feet are on the floor and are not moving,” which is fine.

But we’ve seen countless times where a player seems “established” to us, but their heel may be raised off the floor, or their entire body is set (but one of their feet is sliding just barely), and they are not called for a blocking foul. With this different interpretation, it can be argued that a player can be “established” even if one of their feet is moving slightly.

The rulebook even supports this premise where it states:

If an offensive player causes contact with a defensive player who has established a legal position, an offensive foul shall be called and no points may be scored. A defensive player may turn slightly to protect himself, but is never allowed to bend over and submarine an opponent.

Notice how it says, “A defensive player may turn slightly to protect himself.” Not only does it allow the player to be able to move, but doesn’t restrict how that movement should occur, like if the feet move while he is turning slightly to protect himself.

Another part of the rulebook in “Guarding an Opponent” contradicts how some refs are interpreting the rule in these situations and how many announcers explain it. It states:

A player may continue to move after gaining a guarding position in the path of an opponent provided he is not moving directly or obliquely toward his opponent when contact occurs. A player is never permitted to move into the path of an opponent after the opponent has jumped into the air.

The phrase, “A player may continue to move after gaining a guarding position” gives even more leeway to the defender to be moving slightly, like their feet. And with the phrase, “A player is never permitted to move into the path of an opponent after the opponent has jumped into the air,” it is highly arguable that just because a player is moving their feet doesn’t mean they are moving into their path. Their entire body could already be in the path, and their foot is just slightly moving for whatever reason.

We have seen many times when a player’s feet are moving when a shooter is making an offensive move, like shooting, but the defender isn’t penalized [see video example below], so where did these misconceptions come from? And it has nothing to do with the location of where it happens it on the court — there’s nothing about these provisions that define where on the court it applies, like right around the restricted area, etc.

As you can see, many of the words in these provisions are irrelevant for the block-charge cases we’re talking about since the defenders aren’t moving toward an opponent or into their path — they’re already there! It just so happens that only a small part of their body is moving, which shouldn’t be the entire focus of the analysis, and can’t according to those words.

But for some reason the culture among TV announcers as well as in the NBA itself has allowed for these misconceptions to perpetuate. It’s time that the league make the rulebook more definitive if “established” means no part of the body (like the feet) can be moving like we have heard pontificated so many times during broadcasts. However, if they do that, they will have to address other parts of the rulebook that allow movement, as well as all of the calls in the video above where the defender was deemed to be legal by the charges they drew from the offensive player, even with one of their feet moving or sliding.

If they come out and say it’s okay for a player’s foot to be moving during a block-charge situation, of course, many fans and announcers will be surprised and may be a little embarrassed that’s what they have been interpreting all along is not the rule. It could be a little bit painful for the league to admit this after letting this misunderstanding continue all these years, so they have an incentive not to do anything and hope no one starts talking about this.

However, we think the league can position it as a natural extension of making things consistent throughout the rulebook without revamping lots of other sections. Then the next task will be getting all of the refs to interpret these situations the same, as well as hopefully educate the announcers, many who have played the game, to convey to their viewers that the rule has been amended and will describe it accurately when it happens in a real game.

We should note that we’ve seen online at NBA.com references to “feet” needing to be “established,” which infers feet needing to be “set,” but the actual rulebook doesn’t specify “feet” needing to be established, just that a “legal guarding position” has been established. It may sound like the same thing, but really isn’t based on how some refs are interpreting it (we believe correctly) but many others are not.

These misconceptions are just two of several we’ve uncovered in the game that is contradictory with what the rulebook allows, and we’ll be publishing more of our findings and analysis over the coming weeks.

  • JumboJet

    I think they should just change the rulebook to reflect the game as it is played today. I personally like the way the game is played today with fast penetrating players and defenders who have to show the guts to stand there and take a charge. Just because the rule was something else at one point, doesn’t inherently make it better…just imagine watching basketball without a 24 second clock or the 3 second rule.

    My issues with the way basketball games are called isn’t that the ref’s aren’t following what is written in the book, but the fact that they at times don’t seem to call the game fairly to both sides. I have often wondered if there is some truth to that or if that is just some fan bias on my part. I am just hoping your site can help prove that notion though.

    • RefCalls-TopFlops staff

      There’s a book called “Scorecasting” that was published earlier this year that we recommend you checkout. You can go to Scorecasting.com for more info. They discuss the potential bias you ask about. I think they have come to the same conclusion that we are getting independently, which is the refs aren’t really biased toward one team over another, but they did detect some bias for the superstar players in comparison to the ‘normal’ NBA players.

      • JumboJet

        Actually, that sounds pretty good so I’ll be checking it out. Still though, I like fancy youtube video’s and the increased visibility you will no doubt bring to the unfair calls. Hope to see more from your site.


    Keep it up, this site is great. Only thing that I don’t really like is that in the videos lately you have been leaving the the ‘judgement’ of the calls/plays up to the viewer. I liked it when you said if it was the right decision or not.

    • RefCalls-TopFlops staff

      Thanks for the compliment. We’ll try to do more of that.

  • Sehnsuchtben

    great site guys. this discourse is entirely legitimate and needs to be had. it’s not in the interests of the NBA for it to be had publicly. I think they have tightened up some of the officiating over the last two seasons, especially this season, but that is primarily regarding technical fouls. It’s a players league though, and there is one set of rules for role players, and another for stars and especially superstars. I have often wondered what the ‘official’ policy in the NBA front offices is regarding this. things like Wade getting an extra step on his spin move, or Lebron being allowed 3 or 4 steps when finishing. I think consistency is the key here. anyway, keep up the good work.

  • mavsfan

    Once again great job guys. One of my major problems with the NBA has always been a) several rules are very subjective and b) foul calls, unlike in other sports, directly lead to points on the board. This has cause a major credibility problem for the NBA but they refuse to do anything about it. On travel calls we’ll have to agree to disagree sometimes. I tend to interpret the rule giving a little more leway to the dribbler, but it does point out how subjective the rule can be. on the Block charge rule though, THANK YOU. I have yelled at my TV multiple times because some anouncer said something about a players feet not being set. I also at on point in my life had reason to look up the rule specificly and was dismayed to find the “legal blocking position” has no definition. It drives me crazy and is one fo the biggest problems in the NBA. Keep it up guys.

    • mavsfan

      Just to clarify, the way I see interpret the comming to a rest clause is: When the ball comes back into the players hand after a dribble, the player may imediatly bring the ball into his body or to his other hand i.e. gather the ball to control it. The way I see it, the ball doesn’t come to rest during this time so it is legal under the rules. If a player palms the ball or holds it then it has come to rest so it s a travel. Different interpretations of the same rule is not condusive to avoiding ref controversy.

    • RefCalls-TopFlops staff

      Thanks for the compliments, mavsfan! And it’s unbelievable the NBA hasn’t approached these announcers to correct them. Makes us think that the refs are interpreting it the same way (the feet being “set”), which they appear to be since that often times tends to be the only criteria they’re looking at.

  • Fishbelly

    I’ve had enof of the bad calls, it stops me from watching

    I started a page like yours some time ago pointing out the ref mistakes too

  • dcwarrior

    One that I never understood is the “holding position” – why is it OK to have the sumo match in the post, with the offensive player backing down and the defender trying to hold position?

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  • chuck

    Great endeavor towards accountability. Along with the ‘traveling’ as it relates to ‘steps’ and ‘control of the ball’, there are at least two other types of traveling that are hardly ever called. One type is when a player holding the ball changes the pivot point between the heal and ball of the foot thereby translating across the floor. Another type of traveling happens when a player catches a pass while in motion and comes to rest with his/her feet landing on the floor at different times. The first foot to be placed on the floor after having caught the pass is the pivot foot, but many times, the player chooses the second foot to land as the pivot foot.

    I would love clarification on one of the plays that Reggie Miller made famous; the jump-into-the-airborne-defender play. I suppose it’s viewed as a penalty against the defender for having ‘left his feet’. But the reality is that the offensive player causes the contact.

  • bball fan

    Another thing that becomes quite annoying at times is this notion that some calls are not supposed to be made at certain times — especially during the last few seconds. How many times have we all heard announcers say something like “no, they are not going to call that foul at this stage of the game” ?

    Consistency is a great equalizer and what makes things fair, but anytime so much money is involved, it’s probably naive to expect Etan Thomas to get (or not get) the same calls that LeBron gets (or doesn’t get).

  • Georgehoppper11

    It seems to me the lack of referee accountability is likely to create an opportunity for some to exercise improper influence over the game. Think about it… Sports Illustrated quotes refcalls.com as reporting there are 80-100 missed calls per game. Suppose those missed calls are not distributed evenly to both teams but instead 60% favor one team and 40% favor the other. That’s potentially 20 more opportunities for one team. In a close game, this difference probably ensures the team with the higher number of favorable missed calls will win. This is ideal from the perspective of those trying to influence the games because the favorable treatment will likely go unnoticed given the sheer number of missed calls overall. Now consider how much money is at stake on the outcome of the game (gambling) and it seems to me you both motive ($$) and means (exploitation of muddy officiating) for outside influence on the refs.

    It would be really interesting to see a breakdown of a large number of games showing the % of missed or wrong calls grouped by which team was favored in each missed call. The results could be correlated against a variety of other factors, for example simple won/lost or home/visiting stats, or more subtle factors such as game 7 won/lost stats. If there is a high degree of correlation, it may be an indicator of nefarious outside influence.