Published by Olgun Uluc, 14th November 2018 on foxsports.com.au
The NBA is changing, and Monty McCutchen knows it.
“When I came in the league, you couldn’t survive as a referee unless you learned how to referee Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone, and Charles Barkley, and Buck Williams, who were battling down on the block every night,” the now-Vice President of Referee Development and Training said on a conference call that foxsports.com.au was a part of, during the early hours of Wednesday morning (AEDT).
Since McCutchen’s time as an official, the league has shifted to one where the bulk of the action and production happens on the perimeter.
‘Positionless’ players are becoming the norm and ‘unicorns’ are invading the hardwood, so everyone has to adjust.
One of the noticeable trends is, of course, the pace of the game. Across the board, NBA teams are taking part in more possessions than any time over the past 20 years. It’s what led to the re-enforcement of the league’s freedom of movement rules, and that may just be the beginning.
“I think that, in large part, three or for years ago, we had to change our mechanics as a referee staff, because much of the game had changed from what traditionally had been a low post game,” McCutchen said.
“As our game has evolved, all of the game has lifted up above the free throw line. We had to change our mechanic system, so we were in better positions to see earlier shots. Early offence is often the best offence, as we have found out.”
In the conference call, McCutchen responded to several queries, and pointed out two parts of the game that are being closely monitored: the intentional foul rule — or, as he called it, the ‘take foul’; as well as offensive players’ desire to push off.
Just like the NBA followed FIBA’s lead with regard to its new shot clock rules — the shot clock gets reset to just 14 seconds after an offensive rebound — the league is also studying whether implementing similar unsportsmanlike foul rules could help improve the flow of the game.
At this point, the rule is currently being experimented with in the NBA G-League, and the NBA monitoring its usage.
“We are studying that,” McCutchen said of the ‘take foul’.
“It was brought up in the competition committee as a concern. Right now, the average for us, we’re finding, is one a game for that. So, it’s not overwhelmingly a problem for us yet.
“But, it was discussed in competition committee, so it’s much further along the pathway to maybe becoming a reality.
“Where the competition committee settled on that, was to implement it as an experimental rule in our G-League, so we’re currently monitoring, analytically, how many of these occur in a game, and as a result, does it have merit for our game in the NBA level.”
The implementation of that sort of rule would naturally speed up the game even more.
According to Basketball Reference, the pace of the 2018-19 season, thus far, has been 100.3 possessions per 48 minutes, the highest number since the 1988-89 season, when it was 100.6 possessions.
The new freedom of movement initiative made for a strict re-enforcement of the current rules on the books, with players not allowed to grab or dislodge an opposing player, whether moving or stationary, and on either end of the floor.
While the rulings became stricter, there wasn’t a real emphasis placed on push offs, which players often use to gain an advantage by creating an opening on the offensive end. That, however, is something the competition committee is looking into, according to McCutchen.
“We do believe that the way the game has evolved, and is evolving, it may involve future rule enforcements,” he said.
“In particular, one of the things we’re already finding, is that if we’re gonna take care of all of this holding and wrapping and grabbing, we can’t then allow offensive players to push off with two hands in the post. That being said, I think we’re doing a pretty good job with that.”
As the NBA changes, the officiating has to follow suit. While McCutchen freely admitted that ‘officiating is always just a tick behind the evolution of the game’, he’s in a position to make sure the game remains competitive, while keeping it as an entertaining product for the fans.
The competition committee features owners, coaches, general managers, and players who come together every year in order to discuss these things. Whether it’s an issue that appears to plague the game, or a FIBA rule that they believe had merit, it appears as though they’re open to change; because changed begets change.
“One of the things I think you’re 100 percent right about, is that, how the game changed, the only way to compete with quick shooting was to switch,” McCutchen said.
Led by the Golden State Warriors, then adapted by multiple teams — namely, the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers, of late — teams are now switching everything on the defensive end, because no real mismatches are created. Players are becoming more versatile, especially defensively, so guarding traditionally isn’t necessarily the most effective way to do it.
McCutchen continued: “The other thing we found was, if you don’t wanna switch, then what it leads to is you want one player to both show on the jump-shot, while still holding and grabbing the slip out of a switch, which is the pick-and-roll. The best way to beat a switch is to slip the roller. So, we found that there was a lot of punching and grabbing to prevent the roller from being able to slip to the hoop.
“Then, of course, it forced isolation basketball out on the wing as the shot clock wound down. We’re finding now, with our enforcement of the freedom of movement rule, switches are still possible. One way you can beat it is that slip, and people are able to do that now, which cuts into the effectiveness of switching.”
The idea is to read the game, the trajectory of it, and make decisions in order to best accommodate each party.
Sometimes, however, rule changes get shut down. McCutchen said the NBA has evaluated FIBA’s goaltended rule — once the ball hits the rim, it’s live — but that never gained traction.
Another part of the game that he said was being looked into was flopping, with the NBA recently implementing a rule where a player would be warned on his first offence, then fined for his second. McCutchen pointed out that “largely, not completely, but largely, we have found that that’s been effective,” and that the league isn’t currently looking further into flopping.
Throughout McCutchen’s call, he made sure to point out, several times, that officials are imperfect. The goal is to be as accurate as possible, while putting as many people in the best position to succeed.
As evolution occurs in the NBA, everyone needs to adapt. Teams need to draft taller, longer wings to compete with Giannis Antetokounmpo, or sharpshooters to respond to the three-point firepower of Stephen Curry.
Officials are no different.
“Players learn how to skirt certain situations, (and) coaches learn how to coach around a certain situation,” McCutchen said.
“It’s referees’ jobs, my job specifically, to be able to go in there and make sure that the rules that are on the books are keeping up with those changes.”