Article by: Rick Bonnell - The Charlotte Observer (TNS)
The Charlotte Hornets are 6-1 this season at reversing referees’ calls. That sterling record isn’t dumb luck.
The Hornets have invested, at a five-figure cost, in a portable video system that provides them replays in real time. Two team officials, sitting behind the bench, have instant access to speed up, slow down and zoom in on what just happened, in time to flag how coach James Borrego should use one challenge per game to maximum effect.
The Hornets believe this technology could win them an extra game this season, and maybe that extra victory is the difference in making the playoffs.
“If it can swing the outcome of one loss to a win, then across the whole organization it’s viewed as worth the investment 10 times over,” George Rodman, the Hornets’ director of basketball analytics and strategy, told The Observer.
“At the end of the season, we may look back on one (call) that we got right in Game 65 that had a very significant impact on what the rest of our season looked like.”
Borrego has challenged seven calls over this season’s first 28 games. He lost one of those challenges — an out-of-bounds play against the Hawks in Atlanta on Jan. 6. That 86% success rate is nearly double the NBA-wide average of 46% this season.
A lot goes into Borrego’s decision whether to use his once-a-game challenge, which became permanent in the NBA after an experimental phase last season. Likelihood of a reversal is obviously key, but also when in a game to challenge (later is typically better) and the stakes of a call: Specifically, did a call result in points scored or a player getting in foul trouble?
Borrego is on the conservative side in how and when he uses his challenges.
“Maybe I’ve got to challenge more,” Borrego said. “I’m always evaluating. I don’t think there is a perfect answer yet.”
Striving for perfection is important because changing the outcome of one game could make a huge difference in tightly packed Eastern Conference standings.
Consider recent history: The Hornets were in contention for the last playoff spot on the final day of the 2018-19 season before losing out to the Detroit Pistons. Or the spring of 2016, when the Hornets winning one more game would have made them the third seed in the East with home-court advantage, rather than the sixth seed and an eventual Game-7 loss to the Miami Heat.
The Hornets are 13-15 and tied with Toronto for the No. 7 spot in the Eastern Conference standings through Wednesday’s games.
CAN’T TRUST THE JUMBOTRON
When the NBA first approved challenges last season, coaches typically looked up to the large video boards above the court after questionable calls, waiting for replays that sometimes never were shown.
Rodman says it’s common knowledge around the NBA that many teams’ game-operations staff don’t show replays that might disadvantage the home team until it’s too late to challenge.
The Hornets sought something more reliable, with split-second availability, to circumvent that. They turned to DVSport, a company out of Pittsburgh that services pro and college teams’ increasing need for on-demand video replays.
Systems are customized to individual needs, but essentially the Hornets are one of a dozen or so NBA teams paying a fee in the lower five figures(the Hornets did not disclose the exact cost) to know they have access to these replays. Each game, home or away, the Hornets plug in a portable computer in the locker room that is linked to a tablet on the bench.
That tablet provides Rodman and head video coordinator Jordan Surenkamp with instant access to videos of a play that might be worth challenging. Time is crucial; an NBA team has 30 seconds to challenge a call, so Rodman figures he has, at most, 15 seconds to suggest to assistant coaches that challenging is a good risk.
“I think most teams now realize that if this is a rule we have, then it’s worth investing in, so we are maximizing it correctly,” Rodman said of the Hornets’ technology commitment. “Not something we loosely pay attention to, just haphazardly challenging things.”
WHICH CALLS MATTER MOST?
Rodman estimates there are roughly 40 calls in any NBA game that are close enough that a team could justify challenging them. Picking which call could have the most effect on a game’s outcome is a big factor in Borrego’s choices.
For instance, there was a block/charge call involving superstar Kevin Durant that the Brooklyn Nets challenged against the Hornets because getting that reversed would both change the score and get a foul taken off Durant’s total.
“There are a number of plays out there I feel like I could challenge throughout the game. If it’s costly, then I’ll use it earlier (rather than) holding it,” Borrego said.
What factors in these decisions beyond likelihood of a reversal:
— Timing: Later is better, as far as potentially impacting a game’s outcome.It’s no coincidence that all but two of Borrego’s challenges have come in fourth quarters.
— Momentum: Borrego said the emotional impact of a play — if a reversal might boost his players or deflate the opposing team’s — does play a role: “Momentum plays that (if reversed) can turn a game in our favor,” Borrego said.
— Foul trouble: An exception to the later-is-better guideline is a key player getting in foul trouble. The two times this season Borrego challenged calls before the fourth quarter involved fouls against centers Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo. Both fouls were voided.
— Are points involved?: If reversing a call could directly add points to the Hornets’ score or take points off the opponent’s score, then that significantly increases the likelihood of a Borrego challenge. Four of the six calls Borrego successfully challenged were shooting fouls, so negating those directly impacted the opposing team’s score.
Only two of Borrego’s seven challenges have involved out-of-bounds plays. That play is the easiest to get reversed (a 75% success rate last season) because replay often provides such clear evidence. However, it only results in a change of possession, not a change in the score or a player’s foul total, so it’s low in strategic value.
The goal isn’t to get any old call changed. It’s reversing a call that could be a Hornets game-changer.
And potentially a season-changer.
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