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Ask Donnie: Q&A with NBA Director of Officials Don Vaden

POSTED: Jan 15, 2014 9:53 AM ET
UPDATED: Jan 16, 2014 3:10 PM ET


NBA Officiating News, Rulebook and Referee Operations

Have a question about NBA refereeing or a playing rule interpretation? Send your questions to Donnie Vaden (, the NBA's VP of Referee Operations and Director of Officials. If your question is selected, we'll post it on with Donnie's answer. Questions that are not in regards to NBA playing rules or a generic question about NBA Officiating will not be considered. Questions such as those concerning specific calls in games, the game or playoff schedule, player statistics, will not be considered.

Here is Donnie's latest Q&A:

Q: I am running a basketball course in my school in England. How many officials run an NBA game? Is it eight, comprising a referee, two umpires, a shot-clock operator, two scorers and two timers? -Pete

A: Technically speaking, an NBA game is officiated by only the three referees assigned to the game. While integral to game administration, table personnel are not considered part of the referee crew and are actually team employees (referees are league employees). A typical table lineup consists of a game-clock operator and shot-clock operator, the official scorer, the scoreboard operator and three to four statisticians, who gather the play-by-play information we use in boxscores, and for team and player stats on There are other personnel at the court-side table, such as communications and security staff, but I think this list is what you're after.

Q: Why don't NBA officials work the way they do in other leagues, such as the NFL and MLB? -Mike

A: Interesting question. The short answer is that the game is different.

Unlike football and baseball where, in a way, the action comes to the game officials (e.g., home plate umpires are situated behind the plate to call incoming balls and strikes and football linesmen are positioned near the line of scrimmage to watch for off-sides, offensive holding and false starts), basketball is a fluid game and our referees have to go to the plays. So we developed mechanics to do that.

In the NBA, NBA D-League and in most college conferences, three referees work the entire floor, rotating through three positions depending on where the ball is or where it moves to. The three positions are the lead (on the baseline), the slot (on the weak side during half-court play, typically positioned near the free throw line extended) and the trail (on the strong side during half-court play, typically positioned just outside the on-ball matchup).

Referees rotate from position to position, following the movement of the ball. For example, when the ball swings to the weak side, the slot becomes the trail, moving outside the play, and the trail becomes the slot, moving down toward the free throw line extended. If there is a change in possession and the ball starts heading toward the other end of the court, the trail runs up to become the lead under the opposing basket, and the lead follows the play to become the trail outside the play on the other end of the floor. In this way, we ensure effective coverage over the whole court.

Q: Hello. If Team A takes a shot and the ball hits the rim and bounces into the back court without Team B touching the ball, and Team A then recovers the ball, is it a backcourt violation? -Anthony

A: This would not be a backcourt violation. Once the ball hits the rim, it is considered a loose ball. If Team A were to regain possession in the backcourt, there would be no violation since they did not have possession in the frontcourt after the ball hit the rim.

Q: Growing up, in youth league basketball, the following backcourt violation was called time and time again: Player B inbounds the ball to Player A on his team, who brings the ball up the court and crosses the center line. Player A is then pressured, and he tosses the ball back to Player B, who is now near, but not yet across, the center line. To avoid a backcourt violation, Player B jumps from behind the center line, catches the ball midair, and then lands on the other side of the center line. This was always called a backcourt violation in youth league, but it seems to never be the case in the NBA. What is the correct call? -Andrew

A: The play you described is a backcourt violation in the NBA. Once a player with the ball establishes a position in the frontcourt (that is, he has two feet and possession of the ball over the line), the ball may not be passed to a player in the backcourt. A player is considered in the backcourt until he establishes a frontcourt position. So if Player B took off from the backcourt, caught the ball in the air and landed in the front court, it would be a violation. But I do disagree that this violation is not called when it occurs. We miss very few backcourt violations because it's a relatively straightforward call to both avoid (for players) and to make (for referees).

You might be interested to know that situations like this are covered in the NBA Referee Casebook (which you can find here [PDF]). This particular play is covered on page 6, example #14.

Q: Two players try to save the ball as it heads out-of-bounds. Player A is inbounds when he hits the ball back toward the court. The ball deflects off Player B (who is on the opposing team) while he is still inbounds, and then it hits player A, who is now out of bounds. Who is awarded possession? -Jose

A: The ball is still in play until it touches Player A, who is out of bounds. The ball would then be awarded to Player B's team.

Q: I am a writer for a basketball blog and an administrator on the Facebook page NBA Talk. One of the fans on the Facebook page asked a question that I have never considered before, and I couldn't find the answer in any of the NBA officiating literature.

When a non-shooting foul is committed by a defensive player after the ball has been advanced past the half court line, an inbounds is used to continue the play with the shot clock being reset to 14 seconds if it has already reached 13 seconds or lower.

The original time allowed for the offense to advance the ball past midcourt was ten seconds, until the NBA moved to the eight-second hard count. Thus, the 14 seconds would be a full shot clock minus the time allotted to advance the ball past mid court. But because the amount of time allowed to advance the ball was shortened from ten seconds to eight, shouldn't the reset of the shot clock on a non-shooting foul be 16 seconds? If not, what was the league's reason for changing the amount of time for one action but not the other? -Ibrahim

A: Great question.

As you note, the 14-second shot clock reset on non-shooting fouls has its roots in the old ten-second rule. The idea was that since players on a new possession in the backcourt had ten seconds to cross midcourt and 24 seconds to make a play, they should be granted another 14 seconds (24 -- 10 = 14) to run a play when fouled without free throws. That seemed fair.

But when the Competition Committee changed the rule in an effort to speed up the game, granting players only eight seconds to cross midcourt instead of ten, they decided that resetting the shot clock to 16 seconds (24 -- 8 = 16) would be counterproductive to speeding up the game. Since teams had shown that 14 seconds in the front court was plenty of time to run a great play, they left the reset at 14.

Q: Is it a carry if an offensive player dribbles the ball above his shoulder if he has his hand on top of ball?

A: The carry rule concerns a player placing his hand under the ball, effectively "carrying" it from one point to another. There is no rule concerning how high or low a player can dribble the ball.

Q: I have never commented on rules I thought were a little ridiculous... but when you are fighting for a rebound under the basket and the ball drops in your hand [after a made basket], and you are then called for a tech? l can only imagine how this will affect close games. -AB

A: Fair question. Here's why this rule was implemented and some clarifying information about how it is enforced.

Last year, the league noticed that players on the new defensive team after a made basket were frequently redirecting the ball, either to referees or just away, with the effect of slowing down the new offense's opportunity to inbound quickly. Over the summer, the Competition Committee decided to address what it deemed an unfair act by more strictly interpreting the Delay-of-Game rule and penalizing a team/player for holding or redirecting the ball to delay an inbound.

But not all contact with the ball after a made basket is deemed illegal.

Contact (and in particular, hand contact) with the ball that is accidental or unavoidable is not considered a delay the game, provided that the player involved does not hold the ball or otherwise redirect it. When training players and referees on the new interpretation, we said that if the ball were to unavoidably fall into a player's hands after a made basket, he should treat it as a "hot potato" and just let it drop to the court to avoid a call.

However, if a player were to either seek out contact with the ball or, when the contact is accidental, hold or redirect the ball in some way, then a delay of game would be called. To ensure consistent application, it was decided that the rule would apply even when the contact appeared to speed up play, for example, by tapping the ball to the opposing team.

After a brief adjustment period in the preseason, players adopted the rule easily and most appreciate the effect.

As a reminder, when a delay-of-game is called, a team is assessed a warning on their first offense and a technical foul following a previous delay warning.