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The NBA's protest process: How it works

Mavs hope for favorable outcome in Feb. 22 dispute, but history shows odds are slim

Considering the technology and the many ways the NBA has these days to get things right — video reviews, the Replay Center in Secaucus, N.J., last-2-minute reports and now the coach’s challenge — it seems wholly unnecessary and even a little quaint that the league still has an official protest process.

The process of protesting the outcome of an NBA game based on an incorrect ruling or misapplication of the rules does offer a final court of appeal for an especially aggrieved team.

Not a cheap one, mind you, nor anything that guarantees satisfaction. But it’s there, and every so often teams avail themselves of the process.

The Dallas Mavericks are the latest, awaiting a ruling on the protest they filed after their 111-107 road loss to the Hawks on Feb. 22. The Mavericks took issue with an incorrect goaltending call on Dorian Finney-Smith, who blocked Atlanta guard Trae Young’s drive to the basket.

A referee’s whistle blew, the ball caromed to the Hawks’ John Collins, who immediately scored. When the play was reviewed, the goaltending call was reversed — yet Collins’ put-back was counted. After the whistle.

What Dallas wanted was a jump ball with 9.7 seconds left and the score still at 109-107. What it got was a four-point gap and too little time to close it, followed by crew chief Rodney Mott’s explanation of an “inadvertent whistle.” Followed by an epic Twitter rant by Dallas owner Mark Cuban.

The amount of Cuban’s expected fine likely will be announced with or soon after the verdict on Dallas’ protest. If upheld, the teams — who aren’t scheduled to meet again this season — would need to figure a time for the Mavericks to return to Atlanta to play those final few seconds. (Cuban recently told The Dallas Morning News that he’d pass on the do-over if the game’s outcome didn’t affect his team’s playoff positioning.)

Theirs is the second protest this season, the eighth since 2010 and the 13th this century. Overall, based on the league’s best available records, there have been 44 previous game protests — with only six upheld. Just one, a Miami beef over a statistician’s error toting up Shaquille O’Neal’s fouls in a January 2008 game, has been won since 1982-83. (The Heat won the protest but lost the replay anyway.)

So how’s it looking for the Mavs on this one? John Hollinger of The Athletic, who formerly worked in the Memphis Grizzlies’ front office, wrote: “You’ve got better odds of seeing Boban Marjanovic on a mount in the Kentucky Derby than you do of seeing the Mavs’ protest upheld.”

The high bar for successfully protesting the outcome of a game — and the resulting low success rate (13.6%, six of 44) — is by design, reflecting the NBA’s views on referee performance. It distinguishes between human error and judgment vs. misinterpretation of rules, and tilts toward the integrity of its product in arenas.

Just how rare it is for a protest to be upheld was made clear in longtime commissioner David Stern’s email response to USA Today back in 2014, not long after he had stepped down from his post. He wrote: “Given the high standard of proof that a team must meet to have a protest sustained, I think our teams just decided that filing a likely losing protest was not a good use of time and resources.”

A protest process has been in place essentially since the league’s inception. The first one came from the Indianapolis Olympians in February 1952, when they complained that a game official was incompetent. No surprise, it was denied.

Here is the passage on protests that appears both in the official NBA rule book and in the league’s Constitution:

In order to protest against or appeal from the result of a game, notice thereof must be given to the Commissioner within forty-eight (48) hours after the conclusion of said game, by e-mail or fax, stating therein the grounds for such protest. No protest may be filed in connection with any game played during the regular season after midnight of the day of the last game of the regular schedule. A protest in connection with a playoff game must be filed not later than midnight of the day of the game protested.

A game may be protested only by a Governor, Alternate Governor or Head Coach. The right of protest shall inure not only to the immediately allegedly aggrieved contestants, but to any other member who can show an interest in the grounds of protest and the results that might be attained if the protest were allowed.

Each e-mail or fax of protest shall be immediately confirmed by letter and no protest shall be valid unless the letter of confirmation is accompanied by a check in the sum of $10,000 payable to the Association. If the member filing the protest prevails, the $10,000 is to be refunded. If the member does not prevail, the $10,000 is to be forfeited and retained in the Association treasury.

Upon receipt of a protest, the Commissioner shall at once notify the member operating the opposing team in the game protested and require both of said members within five (5) days to file with him such evidence as he may desire bearing upon the issue. The Commissioner shall decide the question raised within five (5) days after receipt of such evidence.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver is the final authority on protests. But the procedural work is handled by Byron Spruell, President, League Operations, and his office.

They’re the ones who needed only a few days to deny the Rockets’ protest in December. That was filed after Harden dunked the ball so hard, up 13 in the fourth quarter on Dec. 3, that it snagged in the net and got ejected back out. It happened in an instant, the refs missed it and, since no whistle was blown, did not trigger a replay.

Then the officiating crew denied Houston coach Mike D’Antoni’s request to challenge, ruling (incorrectly) that it came too late.

But the NBA ruled that San Antonio’s overall 22-point comeback to win in double overtime, and the time to do so, argued against the Rockets’ game-determining claims. The league did discipline the referees for not allowing D’Antoni’s challenge, which came during a Houston timeout rather than a game-mandatory break.

Of the other major U.S. team sports, Major League Baseball’s protest process is best known — and woven into its history. (Think about the “Pine Tar Game,” between the New York Yankees and Kansas City Royals in 1983.)

Baseball doesn’t have a great batting average of successful protests either — in fact, because most of its protests are lodged during play by an aggrieved club that ultimately wins the game anyway, many never get officially lodged. Basketball moves faster and protests only come after the final horn, by which time all other replays and arguments have been exhausted.

The NFL? No official “protest machinery” is available to the teams to dispute results with which they disagree. Probably because the New Orleans Saints still would be pounding on the commissioner’s desk over this or this.

The Dallas Mavericks’ version of the Saints’ post-elimination angst was Cuban’s stream of vitriolic posts on Twitter in the wake of his team’s defeat.

While 13.6% of NBA protests have been upheld, requiring replay of some portion of the games in question, only 4.5% (two of 44) flipped the outcome, with the protesting team coming away with a victory.

The first was in the 1952-53 season, after the Philadelphia Warriors lost a November game to the Milwaukee Hawks. The Hawks only had four eligible players left due to disqualifications but were incorrectly allowed to substitute in a fifth, en route to a 78-77 double-overtime victory. The protest required the teams to travel to Pittsburgh in March to play the entire game again. And this time, the Warriors won 72-69 in overtime.

The second reversed outcome occurred in 1982-83. On Nov. 30, 1982, the Lakers beat the Spurs in double overtime after a botched ruling near the end of regulation. That’s when L.A. guard Norm Nixon, his team up 116-114, faked a free throw that had players from both teams jumping into the lane. The referees called for a jump ball, the Lakers got it, and Nixon scored a tying basket.

NBA commissioner Larry O’Brien ruled that the refs simply should have made Nixon shoot his free throw over. When the final seconds were replayed before an April meeting, San Antonio hung on to win 117-114.

Because months can pass between original affront and protested remedy, life goes on, teams change and players move. That was the case in 1978-79, when the Nets protested its Nov. 8 loss to the Sixers. New Jersey complained that three technical fouls were called on coach Kevin Loughery and forward Bernard King (two is and was the maximum, triggering ejection), resulting in too many free throws for Philadelphia.

By the time the teams could replay the final 5:50 of the third quarter and the entire fourth, the teams had executed a trade. Harvey Catchings and Ralph Simpson went from Philadelphia to New Jersey, swapped for Eric Money and Al Skinner. So all but Skinner played for both teams in that one game.

In the “Shaq protest” in 2007-08, Stern ruled that the final 51.9 seconds of overtime of Miami’s Dec. 19 loss in Atlanta be replayed because O’Neal only had five fouls, not six, after the scorekeeper’s error put him out. That meant the big man still could compete when the teams properly finished the game on March 8.

One snag: The Heat had traded O’Neal to Phoenix on Feb. 6. So a protest lodged because Shaq was taken off the floor resulted in a replay in which Shaq no longer was on the floor.

And since Shawn Marion was sent to Miami as part of that deal — and had played for the Suns in Dallas on Dec. 19 — he wound up officially playing two NBA games on the “same night” for two different teams. (The final 51.9 seconds, though replayed on March 8, were technically recorded as completing the Dec. 19 Heat-Hawks game.)

That’s even more rare than an NBA protest getting upheld.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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