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The NBA’s dumbest rules: The Fumble

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Who ever knew losing the ball unforced, and taking extra steps while regathering, isn’t a travel?

NBA: Washington Wizards at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

In an effort to connect more with fans, the NBA referees decided to become more active on their official Twitter account, with a stated purpose of “encouraging communication, dialogue and transparency with NBA fans, while offering expertise from our elite group.”

At first it seemed like a good idea. The NBA has always been knocked for its lack of transparency when it comes to officiating outside the last two minutes of a tight game, and there are a lot of new officials this season. The “lack of experience” (to put it politely) has shown, with both players and fans taking notice in a season that has been marred by poor officiating even more so than usual. The attempt to explain or admit mistakes over egregiously bad calls/no-calls that go viral and leave people dumbfounded may have been in good faith, but you could make a pretty arguable case that it has backfired.

By putting themselves out there on Twitter, the refs have made themselves (not the league) responsible for answering for their mistakes because fans can now communicate directly with them. This in turn can leave them even more open to criticism when they don’t respond or give the answer people want or expect. For example, @OfficialNBARefs never tweeted a thing — not even an “our bad” — regarding possibly the worst missed call of the season: when Kevin Durant committed a most blatant out-of-bounds infraction, which led to a potential game-winner for the Warriors. The refs in that game were only saved from further embarrassment because the Rockets hit a game-winner of their own on the ensuing possession to avoid complete highway robbery.

This was a classic example of the conundrum the refs have created with this Twitter account: they have to walk that fine line of admitting mistakes without throwing their own under the bus. In the Durant case, it was probably too obvious to even bother commenting on, but other times they can get in a little over their heads trying to explain things away, and that was exactly what happened on Feb. 12 when trying to explain why a viral Bradley Beal five-step travel from the night before wasn’t actually travel.

Their explanation:

The offensive player gathers with his right foot on the ground. He then takes two legal steps, before losing control of the ball. After regaining possession, a player is allowed to regain his pivot foot and pass or shoot prior to that foot returning to the ground. This is legal.

This didn’t go over well with a majority of fans and even media members who have the even slightest bit of knowledge regarding the game of basketball, so they attempted to explain even further:

Fumble? Who ever knew there was a “fumble” rule in basketball? I’ve always associated that terminology with American football. As the refs pointed out, a basketball fumble is officially defined as the following:

A player who is holding the ball and fumbles it out of his control may recover the ball. If his pivot foot moves to recover the ball, he must then pass or shoot the ball. If he fumbles and recovers it without moving his pivot foot and before the ball touches the floor, he retains his status before the fumble.

That still doesn’t sound right. First of all, I’m not entirely sure Beal actually lost complete control of the ball considering he keeps a hand on it the entire time, almost immediately re-gathers with both hands, and the ball never touches the ground or anything/anyone else. Also, there has always been a general understanding that a player cannot take more than two steps without dribbling/passing/shooting the ball unless a defender touches the ball in the meantime, negating the player’s prior steps, so this literally came out of nowhere and remained highly debated throughout the day.

To add salt to @OfficialNBARefs wounds, Vice President of Referee Development Monty McCutchen actually came out later that evening and said they got it wrong: Beal did in fact travel because he fumbled after his second step, when a player either has to shoot or pass th ball but nothing else.

“While in some cases a fumble at the end of a dribble on the gather can be retrieved, that is not what happened on this play. Bradley Beal gathers the ball and takes two steps, but then loses control of the ball. Once he has lost control after taking the two steps, he must regain control and pass or shoot before taking another step in order to be legal. Since he does not regain control until another step, the play is a travel.”

Ouch. So the fans were right and the refs were wrong. What a surprise! Regardless, this falls on the league, not the officials. Even if Beal’s five steps without a dribble or any contact ended up not being legal after all, the fact that it still could have been had he lost it a step earlier, maybe taking four steps instead of five, still makes “Section XVII — Fumble” the dumbest rule in basketball. It essentially rewards a player for his own unforced error, and now that this rule has been exposed, an unholy beast may have just been released.

In a league where players like James Harden are already blurring the lines between what is and isn’t travel with this double step-back move, you know this fumble thing could just as easily be exploited now that it’s out there. Having trouble getting to the basket or dribbling around a defender? Just nonchalantly “lose” the ball by tossing it a little ways in front of you, take a step or two by the suddenly-confused defender, regather the ball, and score. Easy-peasy. This has potential to become the traveling version of flopping.

Time will tell if players start taking new advantage of a rule they likely didn’t know existed until now, but even if they don’t I would argue the league needs to get rid of it ASAP. Under no circumstance should a professional basketball player be rewarded (or at least not punished) for losing control of the ball unforced no matter what step count he is on, and as a result get an advantage on the defense. It defies all logic.

Plus, like the refs said, obscure rules like this is what makes their job so difficult. All those tweets combined with McCutchen’s response has proven that the refs don’t even understand the rule themselves, and how could they when the definition doesn’t explicitly say a fumble can only occur before twos steps are taken? Sure, digging up this rule was little more than a desperate attempt by the refs to save some face, but regardless their jobs would be a lot easier and under less scrutiny not only with better wording in the rule-book, but also if they could just call a travel a travel without having to make snap judgments on obscure stuff like this.

No one knew “the fumble” was a rule before now, and the officials may have opened a whole new can of worms for the league to deal with this summer. Hopefully they do. It’s a loophole the NBA should remove before it becomes yet another void in the matrix that allows players to tarnish the aesthetics of the game even more than they already have.