TrueHoop: Stu Jackson

When instant replay shows too much

June, 9, 2010
Abbott By Henry Abbott

With just under 40 seconds left in Game 3 and the Celtics down five, Lakers big man Lamar Odom had apparently rebounded a missed Paul Pierce free throw. But as Odom came down with the ball, Boston guard Rajon Rondo dashed onto the scene and inserted an arm. The ball spurted out of bounds.

Odom raised his hands in a gesture that said “it wasn’t me!”

Which is how it was called. Yet ... the referees exercised their right to review the play, to see if in fact the ball may have gone off Odom. The referee crew reviewed the video, as did the enormous audience watching on television.

In real time, nobody in the arena was certain about anything, but in slow motion it was plain as day. The ball was off Odom.

But only, as everyone at home saw clearly, after Rondo fouled Odom by pulling his hand off the ball.

The referees could not, by rule, call that potentially game-changing and obvious foul. Instant replay is their silver bullet to avoid the embarrassment of everyone at home knowing far more than they do, but they are limited in their use of it, and are only allowed to review the call that was made. The call that was made was out of bounds. Video showed that call would rightly go the Celtics’ way -- the ball had gone off Odom. The foul that was obvious to millions would be ignored. Celtics ball.

Laker coach Phil Jackson says he knew that the instant replay rule was always going to invite this kind of trouble: “Those are the things that we questioned immediately when they brought in the rule, if you're going to see a lot of things happening now on this type of thing where if it's a 3-point play, a guy might have stepped out of bounds and no one saw it and he comes back in and now you're looking at is it a 3-point shot or not, and you miss the fact that he stepped out of bounds, what are you going to do to rectify the fact the officials missed a call? So they made the decision that we can't do that, we can't make the adjustment.”

The league's executive vice president of basketball operations Stu Jackson acknowledges what he called a clear foul by Rondo, but defends the system where such a foul can not be made via video review -- which is used only for simple tasks such as who touched the ball last, whether the shot clock had expired, or whether a player stepped on the 3-point line. More complex issues like fouls are not part of the system, by design.

"Judgment calls are not part of the system," he explains. "Once you begin reviewing judgment calls, which in basketball there are many, you put yourself on a very slippery slope in terms of what could be reviewed, and ultimately the number of reviews that could take place that would make it unweildly.

"We anticipated that in some instances we would have a situation like we had with Rondo and Odom, but the decision was made to keep the system narrow, and excluding judgment calls. As it stands right now, under certain instant replay triggers, for instance by example, a made basket at the end of the period, if you have a trigger and it's reviewed, the system does allow you to review whether or not the clock expired, whether the field goal was called correctly as a 2 or 3, whether or not the shooter committed a boundary line violation, whether or not the 24-second clock expired, it also allows you to determine whether there was an eight-second backcourt violation. But it just does not allow for you to review matters involving judgment calls, or subjective calls."

Jackson says there have not been, to his memory any recent similar situations where a replay showed a clear foul that had not been called.

Phil Jackson can see no way around changing the rule. “Rondo grabbed his arm and pulled his arm off the ball,” says the coach. “So you know, they can't make that adjustment with the replay, but it's a foul after they haven't called it. … Those are things I think the Rules Committee will have to discuss during the offseason, and we'll come back and probably refine it and tune it up a little bit better.”

Jackson points out that the first step in getting the rule changed would be for league's instant replay committee, which first met last July, and will meet again next month. Of note is that one of the members of the committee is Celtics GM Danny Ainge. (Others are Maverick coach Rick Carlisle, Thunder GM Sam Presti, Rockets GM Daryl Morey and Sixers GM Ed Stefanski. Former Clipper coach and GM Mike Dunleavy and former Cavalier GM Danny Ferry were also on the committee last summer, but as they're not in the NBA currently both will be replaced.)

"I can tell you that the committee has not," says Stu Jackson, "entertained the notion of reviewing judgment-type calls."

Odom isn’t appealing to the league, the rules or anything else. He envisions a different solution to prevent this issue next time. “I was mad at myself” he says. “I have to be a lot stronger with the basketball. Make my space. You have to do it with your elbows a little bit, to keep guys off you. That’s the way it is.”

Who is Steve Nash's nemesis?

Does he have one? Is there someone who really gets to that guy? Makes him livid?

Isn't he too Canadian for that? Isn't that part of the Nash charm? When he's not smiling don't we assume he's at least being reasonable?

(Is seven questions too many to start an a blog post? Was that eight?)

I doubt Nash has a Nixon-style enemies list. But if he does, I'm thinking Stu Jackson must be somewhere on there.

In an interview with the CBC's Peter Mansbridge, transcribed on the Canadian blog (get it?), Steve Nash talks about when the Grizzlies left Vancouver: 

I think the Vancouver situation is unfair and I think Vancouver deserves a team. It's one of the premier cities in the world and in North America. I think the team was unfairly taken and I think the commissioner would probably agree with that -- at the time it was probably difficult for him to feel that way, but they had one general manager in the history of the franchise and they never succeeded.

I think the city deserved another chance -- another general manager, some fresh blood, an opportunity to succeed, and see how the fans and corporate sponsors responded. I thought that the fans were great considering they were a losing franchise, perennially so. It's a shame and I think all of the players feel that way. 

This isn't talk you'll often see players talk about in print, but it's something people do grumble about, quietly.

That one GM, the person Nash is blaming for the failure of basketball in one of the world's greatest cities is Jackson, who left the Grizzlies to join the NBA. Jackson's exact title there is something boring (executive vice president of basketball operations), but in practice he's the High Priest of Handing Out Suspensions and Fines.

It was Jackson, in fact, who announced the suspensions of Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw that many felt cost the Suns a trip to the Finals in 2007. At that time, Nash said he was too disgusted to even talk about it.

And, for good measure, it's probably also worth pointing out that the Grizzlies -- eager to establish a foothold in the Canadian market -- had the third overall pick in the 1996 NBA draft. That draft featured a future two-time M.V.P., a young man who grew up in British Columbia, and has since become clearly the best Canadian basketball player ever. In hindsight, selecting Nash would have been ten times smarter than anything else Jackson could have done with that pick.

But, in keeping with conventional wisdom at the time, Jackson took Shareef Abdur-Rahim third for the Grizzlies, while Nash was selected 15th.

I don't think many people blame Jackson for not knowing Steve Nash would become, you know, Steve Nash. But Steve Nash always knew who he was, and he might be a tad sore about it. 

The fallout from L'Affaire Rondo continues. Has Joe Johnson officially emerged from his slump? Are we ready to classify Denver as a "defensive juggernaut"? Is Carlos Boozer a good fit in Detroit?

Brad MillerMatt McHale of By the Horns: "The ruling is a rather predictable cop out, considering that the league hates to admit when officials make huge, game-changing mistakes, especially in high-profile playoff games. David Stern would sooner confess to being the Batman than acknowledge that his referees sometimes err, or that those errors might actually swing the results of important games ... Look, I'm not calling for a fine, or a suspension, or for a redo of the final two seconds of Game 5, or even an admission that, had the correct call been made, the game might have ended differently. I just want consistency. I simply want a league that has spent the last few years trying to outlaw blows to the head that can injure or endanger its players to stand by their supposed mission statement and say, 'Oops, we goofed. Won't let it happen again.' That's it. Is that really too much to ask? According to Stu Jackson: Yes. However, you can probably expect closer officiating scrutiny in Game 6. Game 5 was edging close to 'let 'em play' status. I doubt you'll see that tonight."

Joe JohnsonBret LaGree of Hoopinion: "After [Joe] Johnson's 1-6 start from the field to open Game 5, his eFG% was down to 37.5% for the series. From that point forward, Johnson made five of nine shots (one three-pointer included) and went to the line 15 times. He'd attempted 17 free throws through four games of this series. Johnson didn't go to the line 15 times in a game all season. Or last season. Or the season before that. Or ever in his NBA career. So maybe we should hold off on declaring Joe Johnson back until he makes at least half of his shots in a game rather than scoring his points in a thoroughly atypical and likely unrepeatable fashion."

Denver NuggetsJeremy Wagner of Roundball Mining Company: "We have seen Denver play pressure defense from time to time during the regular season, but never for entire games and never for multiple games in a row. This team has come alive in the playoffs and they are playing defense that I feel confident saying has never been seen in Denver. Maybe someone from the ABA days can correct me, but the exceptional teams of the mid 1980's never locked down like this team has ... So there you have it Nuggets fans.  Denver dominated this series and won easier than even the most optimistic fan thought possible. The Nuggets averaged 24.2 more points per game that the Hornets and I believe have proven themselves a team to be taken seriously for as long as they remain active in the playoffs."

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(Photos by Elsa, Scott Cunningham, Doug Pensinger/NBAE via Getty Images)

Robert Horry, Amare Stoudemire, and Boris Diaw are all suspended for Game 5. It's a total downer for basketball fans everywhere, and it truly seems to reward the Spurs for a ridiculous foul.

But it's not hard to understand, when you consider how we got here.

The league has had grave PR trouble at various times in the past (mostly because there's some racist seeming notion on the part of ticket-buying fans that when basketball players do things that other athletes also do, like fight, or party, they're in dire need of taming). When that trouble gets serious enough, it really hurts the bottom line, and nowhere does it say that leagues like the NBA will never have real financial trouble. With some bad decisions, it can happen. Ask the NHL.

One of the bigger NBA PR problems of recent years was fighting (oddly, a feature in hockey, but whatever) which used to happen quite often. So the league took some serious -- even draconian -- steps to prevent it. One of those anti-mayhem rules was that no NBA player should ever leave the bench during an altercation, and if they do, they are instantly suspended, with, essentially, no questions asked.

There were some growing pains as everyone got used to the rule, including a dreadful year when the Knicks lost a shot at a title because of it. The urge to join the fight, and to protect teammates, can be strong. The rule has snared venerable stars like Reggie Miller and Charles Barkley. But eventually, just about everyone caught on.

And, in part because of that rule, the NBA no longer has a chronic fighting problem. It worked. This rule helps many dozens time a year, when little sparks fly on the court and don't become big fires -- because the few players on the court can't muster the energy to make that kind of trouble alone. And, the three referees on the court can typically keep a lid on two pissed off players. Twelve rushing in to help the two -- that's much tougher.

At the same time, the league is always trying to dispel the notion that everything is subjective, and they hold all the power to arbitrarily decide this or that. Even though that's true in these cases, the league, largely in response to fan criticism, has tried to make clear and enforceable rules where possible. The get-suspended-if-you-leave-the-bench-rule is one of the clearest and most enforceable. You don't want to be suspended? You stay on the bench. Are there any players who don't know that?

Every rule has counterexamples that make it look bad. Speeding laws seem necessary, but does the government really not want police cars, ambulances, and the cars of women in labor to speed? And many of us like leash laws. But how about those frisbee dogs that perform at halftime sometimes -- they're surely breaking the law almost everywhere they perform.

The Suns are the counterexample to the bench-clearing rule. It can suck to be a counterexample.

And yes, sure, you break those rules sometimes, when there's a really compelling argument. But what is the compelling argument here?

I guess the one that has all of us motivated is: because it means so much and because what they did was so harmless. All true, but that's an impossible standard to maintain consistently in the future. Who wants to decide who's harmless and who isn't? Who wants to say which games are really important next time?

Stu Jackson, as reported by the AP, addressed the various "Get Out of Jail Free" cards people like me were trying to give the Suns:

  • The "Amare Stoudemire was checking into the game" theory: "I've not seen a player report in quite that way," Jackson said.
  • The "Tim Duncan and Bruce Bowen were on the court in the second quarter when Francisco Elson and James Jones got tangled up" theory: "Both players got up," Jackson said. "There was no altercation, and they ran down to the other end of the court."

Is he wrong on either count?

Similarly, is Horry's punishment too light? You really can't say that it is. It just wasn't that terrible of a foul -- it was actually pretty similar to Baron Davis's elbow to Derek Fisher. (Actually, Davis's may have been worse, because the NBA has a rule that an elbow to the head is an automatic suspension.) Horry's punishment is more or less in step with the way other similar suspensions have been made in the past and most of us tend to agree with that "let them play" approach. I don't see too many people livid that Baron Davis is lacing up his sneakers right now.

Long before this series began, over the course of years, the NBA had, with its actions, sent the message to players that physical play and even the occasional dirty tricks would be more or less taken in stride. But bench-clearing brawls were never acceptable, and would be squashed long before they had a chance to begin. With that in mind, Stu Jackson's announcement was, I suppose, pretty predictable.

The downside of those two consistent trends in disciplining is that it would seem to create a dirty playoff tactic: wait until there are some valuable players on the bench, then send in some bozo to deck the other team's star, just to see if you can tempt good players onto the court.

I'm sure all this hurts like crazy if you're pulling for the Suns. The rules have monkeyed with your dreams. I'm not happy about it either.

But now there's only one thing to do: suck it up and win anyway. It really could happen, and it would make the Suns America's team.

(The one thing that I really have pangs of regret about here? The Suns have not gotten anything useful out of the last few drafts, even giving up picks for cash as a cost-saving move, when reasonably good players were available. Be great to be able to roll the dice with twenty minutes from a promising young whipper-snapper in a game like this.)

It'll be tough, but everything is tough when you are dead set on winning an NBA championship.

Time to step up, Leandro Barbosa, James Jones, Raja Bell, and especially Shawn Marion. No more hesitating on the jumper, Kurt Thomas. Time to wow us all again, Steve Nash. And maybe we'll even have a Jalen Rose or a Marcus Banks sighting.

Let's do this. And if Phoenix does manage the heroics in Game 5? Then in Game 6, Boris Diaw and Amare Stoudemire return rested and motivated.

UPDATE: ESPN's Chris Sheridan (Insider) finds this ruling insane:

The 15-minute conference call with Jackson was one of the most contentious I have ever been on, with Jackson even acknowledging that if the leave-the-bench rule needs to be revisited, then the league office would be wide open to revisiting it. Jackson said the ruling to suspend Diaw and Stoudemire for a game each (and Robert Horry for two games) was ultimately commissioner David Stern's, but that Stern had accepted his recommendation.

The league office has historically enforced this rule rigidly, though Jackson would not speak to exactly which precedents he considered before imposing the suspensions.

But just because a rule was enforced with a lack of common sense in the past does not mean it must be enforced unreasonably in perpetuity.

I absolutely think we need to start a smart and open-minded discussion about how the rules should change to prevent these kinds of absurd situations. It should change, no doubt, soon. I'm interested in hearing ideas about how.

A TrueHoop reader emailed a great point -- by this logic, if James Jones had noticed that Duncan and Bowen had wandered on the court in the second quarter, he should have immediately decked Francisco Elson. There's your altercation. Mr. Commissioner! Presumably Jones, Duncan, and Bowen would h
ave all been suspended for Game 5 -- a big win for Phoenix.

Makes no sense.

But just ditching a long-term, iron-clad rule in one instance, without any special reason? (This rule almost always seems absurd when it is enforced. That's nothing new. Players who run on the court and throw punches can be suspended for the punches. Players who are suspended just for this rule have always done, essentially, nothing, except break this rule.) I can't understand how this case is different from all the others that have preceded it. If you believe in rules, this is the decision you have to live with.

What happens if there's another brawl in this series, and some San Antonio players leave the bench? Do they get the special "these are important games" waiver too?

The fix to whatever problem is going on now should be permanent and long-term, not a one-off.