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Don’t Blame The Refs For All Of These Replay Reviews

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The first thing to know is that you’re not imagining it. Instances of replay reviews have, indeed, spiked significantly in the NBA bubble at Walt Disney World.1 Reviews jumped about 7 percent from the pre-hiatus portion of the regular season to the seeding games, and they’re up another 20 percent from there during the playoffs.2

The second thing to know about the spike is that it’s not being orchestrated, according to Monty McCutchen, a longtime referee who is now the NBA’s vice president of referee development and training. “It’s not from a directive from me,” McCutchen told FiveThirtyEight. In other words, the league has not instructed referees to review plays more often to ensure a greater degree of call accuracy inside the bubble.

The third thing to know, of course, is why.

Currently, NBA play-by-play logs categorize reviews three different ways. There’s “altercation,” which is self-explanatory. When, say, Marvin Williams of the Milwaukee Bucks and James Ennis of the Orlando Magic get into a tussle and have to be separated by some combination of players, coaches and officials, the refs head to the replay monitor to see if any punches were thrown or if anyone made contact with a referee, and determine whether to assess technical fouls.

Then there’s “challenge,” a new option for coaches this season. For example, if Pascal Siakam picks up his third foul at the 7:44 mark of the second quarter of Game 3 in a series where the Toronto Raptors are already down 2-0, and Raptors coach Nick Nurse believes the foul should be on Boston Celtics forward Grant Williams instead, he can call a timeout, then light up the little green light at the end of the bench to trigger a review. (In this particular case, an unsuccessful one.)

The third classification is tagged as “request,” meaning the game officials themselves requested the review, and that type of review can be triggered in 15 different ways. Notably, any flagrant foul called on the floor triggers an automatic review in which the referees can either confirm the call on the floor, upgrade a flagrant one to a flagrant two (or downgrade from two to one) or downgrade a flagrant to a common foul. Referees can also review any common foul that they feel could be upgraded to a flagrant.rule was instituted beginning with the 2014-15 season.

“>3 Any of the other 14 triggers requires what McCutchen calls “doubt on the part of the referee.”

To explain the concept, McCutchen flashed back to Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, and specifically to a contested block-charge call involving Kevin Durant and LeBron James.

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“When [the viewer] is watching this, and now he knows he is supposed to be looking at LeBron’s feet, and now he’s only concentrating on that when he’s watching the replay, and LeBron’s feet are 8 inches outside the restricted area, everyone goes, ‘Oh my God! That’s so obvious that he’s out of the restricted area,’” McCutchen said. “But when you’re also worried about a travel on Kevin Durant, a blocking foul, or whether he’s gonna hit his arm, or whether someone in the post is holding another player, you’re not exactly always looking at what we end up looking at on TV and replay. And therein lies how doubt is created in a referee. Once we know what to look for, things become obvious. When you’re concerned with all things at one time, things become less obvious — and that’s what constitutes doubt.”

It’s those doubt-inspired reviews that tend to agitate viewers — or announcers, in the case of ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy. The league is cognizant of the fact that constant reviews (particularly late in games) can be bothersome, and they are studying the issue. But according to McCutchen, that issue doesn’t affect a referee’s decision on whether to review a specific play.

“We need to get those plays right,” he said. “If [we go to replay review] six times and you don’t go on the seventh, and the seventh is the one that you screw up the game, all anyone is gonna talk about is the seventh time. They’re not gonna talk about the 15 minutes it took to play the [last minute of] the game.”

The decision to review a play is also not subject to the whims of what ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz recently called the “small claims court,” where players and coaches continuously lobby referees to change calls and implore them to review a call they believe is incorrect. “A player or a coach might genuinely create doubt in you. But in and of itself, a player or a coach trying to create doubt or passionately believing they are correct does not necessarily mean you should go to replay,” McCutchen said. “That being said, if you have the potential for a trigger, and you’re not honest with yourself about there being doubt, and you end up being wrong — then you do run the risk of being held accountable to that.”

While officials are held accountable for their calls on the floor, they’re not fined for judgment, according to McCutchen — only for “misapplication of rules or behavior.” So referees face no additional incentive review a call just to make sure it is correct, and thus improve their grade, which can affect their playoff game assignments.

So, about the playoffs. Reviews are up approximately 20 percent from the seeding games to the playoffs, and they’re up around 28 percent in the playoffs compared to the pre-hiatus regular season. But that’s actually not abnormal. In each of the past two seasons, the league saw a similar spike in reviews during the postseason — an average of about 20.8 percent.4 But this year’s spike started from a higher level: Pre-hiatus reviews this year were already up from the previous two regular seasons, and they jumped even more in the seeding games.

Yes, there have been more reviews this postseason

Replay reviews per game in the NBA by segment of the season, plus the change in reviews from the regular season to the playoffs, by season

Season Regular season Seeding games Playoffs Change
2019-20 1.937 2.068 2.477 27.9%
2018-19 1.781 2.012 13.0
2017-18 1.733 2.232 28.8

Reviews per game in the 2019-20 playoffs are through games played on Friday, Sept. 11.

Source: NBA.com

Explaining why the rate of reviews tends to rise in the playoffs is fairly easy. “The importance of the moment creates more doubt,” McCutchen said. “And I think that’s just a human nature thing. You can understand if you’re in Game 6, and someone’s going home, you better be right on the play.”

Part of the reason the baseline review rate was higher this year, though, is because of the introduction of the coach’s challenge. Non-challenge replay reviews per game were actually down during the pre-hiatus regular season compared to the past two regular seasons, and that continued through the seeding games. Just about all of the seeding-game bump can be explained by increased use of the coach’s challenge.5

Coach’s challenges are the big offenders

Replay reviews per game in the NBA by type and segment of the season

2017-18–2018-19 2019-20
Review Type Reg. season Playoffs Reg. season Seeding Playoffs
Non-challenge 1.757 2.122 1.350 1.352 1.683
Altercation 0.055 0.116 0.044 0.057 0.063
Request 1.702 2.006 1.306 1.295 1.619
Challenge 0.587 0.716 0.794
Total 1.757 2.122 1.937 2.068 2.477

Reviews per game in the 2019-20 playoffs are through games played on Friday, Sept. 11.
Coaches were granted one challenge per game for the 2019-20 season.

Source: NBA.com

In other words, that spike you’re seeing in replay reviews isn’t the fault of the refs. It’s being caused by the coaches. (In particular, it’s being caused by Eastern Conference coaches. Four of the top five teams in postseason reviews per game are the four teams that made the Eastern Conference semifinals.)

It’s worth asking, then: Is it worth it? Are coaches even particularly good at challenges? Do challenges result in overturned calls any more often than requests from the referees themselves? It depends on what your definition of “worth it” is, but coach’s challenges have certainly resulted in more instances of overturned calls than have requests.

Coaches have been getting calls overturned this year

Outcome of replay reviews in the 2019-20 NBA season by type of call and season segment

Referee Request Coach’s Challenge
Outcome Regular Seeding Playoffs Regular Seeding Playoffs
Overturned 28.3% 34.2% 29.4% 44.7% 48.0% 42.0%
Supported 61.7 58.8 62.7 35.8 38.1 46.0
Stands 10.0 7.0 7.8 19.5 15.9 10.0

Reviews per game in the 2019-20 playoffs are through games played on Friday, Sept. 11.

Source: NBA.com

The NBA has three classifications for the result of a coach’s challenge or non-altercation replay request): “Overturn” means the call on the floor was incorrect, and the ruling is reversed; “support” means the call on the floor was correct; and “stands” means there was insufficient evidence to overturn the call on the floor. In the seeding games, the rate of calls receiving each of those designations was pretty similar to where it was during the regular season. In the playoffs, calls have been more likely to get the “support” ruling than “stands,” indicating slightly more confident review decisions.

All of this is on the NBA’s radar. The league is studying what’s happening in the bubble just as much as those outside of it are, and that includes looking at the replay system.

“We’re using this as an opportunity to really understand our game at a higher level,” McCutchen said.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

play

2:00

Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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