Want Fairness? Give Coaches The Challenge Flag

It is Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals. The buzzer sounds ending regulation. Overtime begins. Fifty seconds into the extra time period, Kevin Durant is at the top of the key, guarded by George Hill. Durant drives left towards the free throw line, and raises up for his signature mid-range jumpshot over a smaller opponent. Hill strips the ball while Durant prepares to get into his shooting motion, but referee Ken Mauer blows his whistle. Foul!

Hill, who had retrieved the ball after the strip, cannot believe the call, and LeBron James is irate, believing it was a clean strip. Durant went on to nail two free throws to get the overtime period underway.

Now imagine Tyronn Lue with his team in possession of two timeouts, throwing a challenge flag, arguing the call. The referees go to the replay monitor and see that it was in fact a clean strip. Durant does not have a chance to put the Warriors up by two points. Cavaliers ball.

This scenario is very similar to what happens in the NFL and MLB when coaches who do not agree with certain calls throw a challenge flag, forcing the officials to review the play.

Finally, the NBA looks to follow in the footsteps of Major League Baseball and the National Football League.

Kiki Vandeweghe, the NBA’s Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations told Sirius XM’s Justin Termine that the NBA Summer League will experiment with a challenge flag in the summer.

There is no downside to experimenting with different rules in the summer league, as it is a great way for Adam Silver and the NBA to see what might work and what might not. No official rules about this challenge review system have been reported, so fans are unaware of how these challenge flags might be used.

Nevertheless, challenge flags would be a welcome sight for the NBA. Too often, referees make the wrong calls affecting outcomes of games.

On December 29, 2017, the Oklahoma City Thunder were going down to the wire against the Milwaukee Bucks, as Russell Westbrook hit a game-tying triple with 5 seconds remaining. After the Bucks called a timeout to advance the ball, Giannis Antetokounmpo drove baseline and finished with a poster dunk on Westbrook. The players on the Thunder bench pleaded to the officials to review the play, as they believed Antetokounmpo stepped out of bounds.

The officials opted to not review the play, forcing Westbrook to launch a full court shot, leading to a Bucks win. After the replay was shown, it was clear Antetokounmpo had stepped out of bounds. If a challenge flag was available, Thunder coach Billy Donovan could have thrown it, and given his team a last chance to win the game or go to overtime. With a challenge review system, situations like the Thunder loss can be avoided, especially in meaningful games come playoff time.

Many questions, of course, have come about since Termine’s announcement on Twitter. How would this system be used? Would it be available throughout the game? Would coaches use it to slow down the pace of play?

My thoughts. The best way to use challenge flags would be similar to how the NFL utilizes them: coaches can challenge a play if they have timeouts remaining. If the initial call stands after review, the team is charged with one timeout. Coaches can keep their challenge flag if the initial call is reversed. Coaches will have to think twice before challenging a call, as they would not want to lose a timeout. Challenging a call should be available only in fourth quarters, forcing coaches to use timeouts wisely in the first three quarters. This would reduce the amount of timeouts in the first three quarters as well, as coaches would save their timeouts to challenge calls later in the game.

To resist a coach’s temptation to throw a challenge flag to stop the play while their opponent is on a fast break, the NBA would need to instill a rule in which the coaches can only challenge a call when it’s a dead ball play. If a foul is called, a coach can throw the flag if he believes no foul had taken place.

There are many quirks the NBA would have to clean up if a challenge flag was inserted into the league, but it would give teams a chance to overturn certain calls they do not agree with.

This challenge review system would almost put an end to momentum-shifting questionable calls at the end of games. The most important part of a referee’s job is to get the call right, and this system can give coaches who do not agree with a call a chance to challenge the referee’s decision. The referees should not be able to impact the outcome of games.

Let’s leave the winning, the closing out of games, the crunchtime scores, up to the players.