Citing a desire for better pace and flow in the late stages of its games, the NBA made some major modifications in its timeout rules for 2017-18. Most notably, it cut the maximum number of timeouts in a regulation game from 18 to 14 and altered the ratio of timeouts near the end from three per team in the final two minutes to two per team in the final three minutes.
But a stubborn and sneaky stowaway remains: the down time during instant-replay reviews that turn into unofficial timeouts while the officials on site and at the Replay Center in Secaucus, N.J., are focused on the most recent play or ruling.
Not only do these thwart attempts to keep game flow breezy, they can provide an unfair advantage to a team that already has burned through its allotted timeouts. All of a sudden, a bonus/bogus huddle opportunity drops into the lap of a coach who thought his white-boarding night was over.
“It’s an automatic timeout,” New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said recently. “That’s one of the things I have a problem with, and I brought it up in our coaches meetings. Ten seconds to go and you want to review a play, and the other team doesn’t have a timeout, so I don’t understand why they get to huddle with their coach. Basically that is a timeout.”
As you might guess, Gentry’s Pelicans team lost a game last season when the opponent got a surprise chance to draw up a play, the referees busy at the scorers’ table with a monitor and headphones.
“There’s got to be some plan where you can’t go to the bench or you have to be in the opposite jump circle or something,” Gentry said. “I don’t see how, if you’ve used all your timeouts, they’re just giving you an additional one.”
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Each season and postseason, both in the NBA and in college basketball as well, these “extra timeouts” crop up in a way that – given how most coaches think – never quite even out. Though to be honest, as Orlando’s Frank Vogel said, “It all depends on whether we have the ball or not.”
One relative recent and memorable occurrence came two years ago in Game 4 of a Cleveland-Chicago playoff series. The ball squirted out across the baseline with the score tied and 0.8 seconds left. After the video review, the Cavaliers were awarded the ball with an additional seven-tenths of a second restored.
Meanwhile, the process had taken long enough for the Cavaliers to draw up not one but two plays – one that coach David Blatt wanted to run and one they actually ran to get the ball to LeBron James after James overruled him. Blatt, moments earlier, had tried to call a timeout that Cleveland no longer possessed, which only made the review opportunity more obvious and egregious.
James hit a long jumper at the buzzer to beat the Bulls, even the series at 2-2 and generate momentum that carried his Cavs team all the way to the 2015 Finals. Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau, to his credit afterward, largely shrugged off the controversial moment, as well as Blatt’s attempt to call the non-existent timeout, which could have drawn a technical foul, and the freebie one he got seconds later.
Thibodeau, now coaching Minnesota, said recently what he said then: “The technology has been good. They want to get [the call] right.”
Other coaches, asked about the replay “timeout” while in Chicago for their annual meetings late last month, offered a range of opinions.
“You can get lucky on those, if you have no timeouts,” Charlotte’s Steve Clifford said. “But I don’t know how you’d be able to address that. If you try to make your officials the security on [keeping players away from the bench], you’re just going to get into some, to me, uncomfortable situations.”
Said Oklahoma City’s Billy Donovan: “Yes, there are times you can bring your team over and utilize it as if it’s a timeout. But you can’t count on those. And I think the officials like when the players go back to the benches, just to clear the court. They don’t want guys walking around, going to the scorers’ table, while they’re trying to get the play right.”
At the Board of Governors meeting in Las Vegas in July, after which the new timeout rules were announced, NBA commissioner Adam Silver was asked about the ersatz timeouts during reviews and the possibility of requiring players, for instance, to wait in the paint farthest from their coaches.
“Ultimately the view was if there’s a break in action, it seems artificial and silly to suggest that coaches can’t speak to their players,” Silver said. “Our teams are so smart, they’ll be sending hand signals ... I think it was just one area we decided the league didn’t need to intrude.”
Silver did mention the tweaks to the replay process the league has embraced in recent years to expedite reviews. Streamlining the time needed would erode a review’s value in installing a new play or grabbing an unofficial breather.
But they’re still there, ready to mess with pace and flow while randomly rewarding heavy timeout users.
That’s why Jeff Van Gundy, former Knicks and Rockets coach turned ABC/ESPN analyst, recommends action on two fronts.
“The first thing I would like to do is really cut back on the things we replay and review,” Van Gundy said Thursday. “I think replay is good for the officials but awful for the game. At the critical times, the most enjoyable times, we often have these lulls to go over and look at a monitor. So that would be Step 1.
“Step 2 would be, if they do go over there, wouldn’t it be great if each arena had a Cone of Silence that the five guys had to stand under? Go back to the ‘Get Smart’ days. It would drop down and all five guys on each team would have to stand under that Cone of Silence. What a great marketing opportunity for some company, and the NBA to make more money.”
Sort of like the old soundproof booths from the TV quiz shows, to prevent any extracurricular strategizing.
“Because it is sort of absurd for a team – ball’s out of bounds, they have no timeouts – [to] have a timeout that they haven’t earned,” Van Gundy said. “So I wish something could be done. Most likely, nothing will be.”