The imperfect process of 'getting it right'

May, 14, 2014
5/14/14
12:13
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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Doc Rivers was so incensed by a video review result Tuesday night that he advocated for the abolishment of the structure itself:

“Everybody knows it was our ball," he said. "I think the bottom line is they thought it was a foul and made up for it. In my opinion let's take away the replay system.”

Doc was referring to a hotly debated play wherein it appeared as though referees judged according to the spirit rather than the letter of the rule (or a letter, sent out afterward). With Los Angeles leading 104-102 and fewer than 13 seconds left, Matt Barnes made contact with Reggie Jackson in such a way that Jackson lost the ball out of bounds. The review awarded the ball to the eventually victorious Thunder, even though Jackson was the last to touch it.

While it would be irrational to do away with replay review solely because it was so controversial on a given night, certain calls provide examples of why it should go. The NBA’s foray into retroactive reffing has been clumsy at best. Their copycatting of a cumbersome NFL judicial process doesn't work for a free-flowing sport in which teams often exceed 100 possessions in a single game. Replay review adds to the entertainment-trolling effect of late timeouts while leaving people no less angry.

Now, I can’t render a judgment here on whether it should have been Clippers ball on the aforementioned Barnes play, whether Chris Paul’s hand hit Russell Westbrook’s arm or whether Paul was fouled by Jackson. The problem with replay is the presumption that much of what happens out there fits under a binary of "right versus wrong."

The truth is, we struggle to agree on what the truth is, making a mockery of our attempts to stop a fast game in search of it.

Replay review is an object lesson in perfect being the enemy of good. I am sympathetic toward how the NBA got on this path of “getting it right,” though. Good intentions paved the road. NBA officials and fans want the game to be fair, for merit to win out. Nobody wants to see a team lose something they've fought for on account of a bad judgment call by an older guy in skin-tight beige.

More calls than we’d like to admit exist inside a buffer zone known as "borderline." This is further complicated by how the game is broader than whatever specific call is made. There can be a defensive foul whistled on the perimeter as an even more egregious offensive foul happens near the basket. Once you go back in time to legislate fairness, you’ll find a series of overlapping injustices. There’s an absurdity in reviewing an individual play here or there, as though that sanitizes the messy process of reffing.

Take the play that incensed Rivers. It appeared as though Barnes fouled Jackson (uncalled), leading to Jackson hitting the ball out of bounds. The refs are theoretically supposed to review the play as though the foul they see on replay did not happen. Fouls are not reviewable, but other details are. Because most ref controversies usually redound to, "Was that a foul?" the time-consuming review of other details does little to placate angry fans.

So, is it in the spirit of fairness to call the ball out on Los Angeles because Oklahoma City was fouled? Or would that be an irresponsible flouting of rules because all that matters is that the Thunder touched it last? Either way, people are going to be angry.

Perhaps you would argue that the NBA should fix the narrow interpretation problem by retroactively assessing fouls, but that would also be problematic because, on many potential foul calls, there is no simple truth. Did a defender objectively go "straight up" during contact? Was the hand part of the ball on that block? You’re lucky if the correct answers are clear.

And as a matter of fairness, why should the calls at the end of a game matter more? How fair is it that a late call will be subject to intense scrutiny, whereas a missed call in the first quarter stays missed? That’s a justification for holding up every play of the game for review, which would be fine if we didn’t, you know, have a game to play.

Oh yes, the game -- that exciting, transportive event that hypnotizes us with its frenetic action. Basketball just isn’t football, a sport predicated on pregnant pauses. It’s more like the international football, a game fueled by a steady run of beautiful play. There's a Heisenberg's uncertainty principle issue with subjecting basketball to intense review. The more closely we review the game, the more that process morphs and distorts the game we love -- probably to one team's advantage and another's disadvantage, based on which squad prefers a slowed pace.

For years, time in a basketball game was linear. The game kept moving forward without middle-aged men taking breaks to squint at a video monitor and influence the future with rulings on the past. Now basketball's linearity is regularly violated and it produces a discordant effect, like a CD skipping.

The NBA has demonstrated interest in offsite video reviews, which should at least somewhat expedite what has become a slog of a process. While that's preferable to the current state of affairs, would it be so awful to just return to a 1990s state of allowing all calls to stand, under the idea that it mostly evens out over a series? Basketball's signature play might be when Michael Jordan fouled Bryon Russell and got away with it. We're not poorer for the permitted imperfection.

Unfairness happens, and while refs should aspire to fairness in the moment, athletes, coaches and fans will always have to cope with what Rivers felt Tuesday night. Someone is likely to have an understandable gripe after every close contest, regardless of how many replays the NBA incorporates. Smothering the game with reviews won't excise the feeling of having been painfully wronged -- it could make the game boring though. The encroaching process of review stands a better chance of harming what we enjoy than mitigating what frustrates us.

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