That makes Monday night’s adventure through the lane against Detroit all the more amusing. Beal came off a pair of screens with the ball and drove left toward the rim. Pistons shot blocker Blake Griffin stood in his way. Beal gathered his dribble, took two steps toward the bucket and thought about shooting, but instead pulled the ball down and fumbled it for a moment. Then he took two more steps and threw a pass out to the perimeter.
Nearly everyone in Little Caesars Arena howled for a travel call, but referees didn’t find anything amiss. And then Tuesday morning, as NBA Twitter ridiculed the missed call, the officials’ labor union attempted to defend it with a straight face.
NBA officiating has drawn the ire of players for a long time, but the referees association’s explanation of Beal’s (non)travel may have gone a step too far. Let’s break it down:
The NBRA contends that when Beal gathered the ball while his right foot was planted, that doesn’t count as one of his two steps after picking up his dribble. Debatable, but fine. Beal then takes two steps toward the basket before, the NBRA says, “losing control of the ball.”
Okay, Beal does lose control of the ball. But the only thing that caused him to lose control of the ball was him. Griffin never makes contact with the ball or Beal. When Beal loses control, the ball doesn’t even hit the ground — he just juggles it in his hands momentarily.
“After regaining possession,” the NBRA continues, “a player is allowed to regain his pivot foot and pass or shoot prior to that foot returning to the ground.”
This interpretation of regaining possession, one NBA players don’t seem to share, has the potential to change the way basketball is played. The referees association claims that if a player, after exhausting all legal steps with the ball, bobbles the ball a little bit, that player is entitled to two more steps, which is what Beal did after regaining control.
That, theoretically, opens the door for James Harden to step back for a three-pointer, juggle the ball slightly, then shimmy over a couple more steps to create more space and legally launch a shot. Or for LeBron James to drive into the teeth of the defense, slap the ball around between his hands for a beat, then take two more steps toward the rim for an easy dunk.
“This is legal,” the NBRA concludes about Beal’s move.
But what if this interpretation of regaining possession was read even more broadly? What if a player, after exhausting all legal steps with the ball, bobbles the ball a little bit, takes two more steps, then bobbles the ball again? Based on this interpretation, could that player then take two more steps to “regain his pivot foot”?
In other words, have basketball players been dribbling unnecessarily for more than a century?
Later Tuesday afternoon, the NBRA tweeted again to vindicate the call on the floor, and this is where things get even weirder.
Apparently “fumble” is a technical term in basketball. To “fumble” the ball is to hold the ball and then lose control of it without contacting a defender. It’s hidden in the NBA Rulebook, rule 4, section 17, where every other rule governing ballhandling and dribbling resides in rule 4, section 2 (“Dribble”) or rule 10 (“Violations and Penalties”), section 2 (“Dribble").
Based on this definition of “fumble,” if an official deems your fumble to be legitimate, a player pretty much has free rein to move without dribbling. The player would just be recovering the fumble.
“This is what makes this job so difficult,” the NBRA tweeted.
But basketball fans online, even Beal himself, couldn’t buy even the original argument, laughing about it with a wink and a nod to Beal’s three extra steps.
A reminder that rule 10, section 2(a) of the NBA Rulebook states, “A player shall not run with the ball without dribbling it,” and section 2(e) states, “A player may dribble a second time if he lost control of the ball because of: a field goal attempt at his basket, provided the ball touches the backboard or basket ring; an opponent touching the ball; a pass or fumble which touches his backboard, basket ring or is touched by another player.”
None of those happened in Beal’s case. Because Beal apparently fumbled. No word on if Washington gained a first down.
Not that any of this matters. The Pistons won, 121-112.
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