The Sacramento Kings are having a strong start to the season, surprising everyone (Yours Truly included) with a 6-5 record. After nearly a decade of terrible basketball, the Kings have reeled off wins against a handful of teams that regularly top the Western Conference. The defense is much better; Ben McLemore seems to have made a strides after a sketchy start; Darren Collison is actually filling in well for Isaiah Thomas.
It’s all happening so fast…. Maybe a little too fast.
The Kings temporarily reverted last week, looking like the team Sacramento fans had grown used to over the last few years. They dropped two straight games in which they had leads of 20 points or more—the first team to achieve such a feat in the NBA’s 68-year history.
The second loss—against the Memphis Grizzlies—came under dubious circumstances, though, and, after the recent run of good fortune, it seems Kings brass, too, could use some lessons in winning and losing.
After blowing a second 20-point lead in as many games, the Kings managed to lose a contest in which they had a one-point lead, two free throws to shoot, and sixth-tenths of a second on the clock. I’m sure you know the rest: McLemore misses both free throws, Grizzlies inbound with three-tenths left, and Courtney Lee hits an alley-oop layup to win. The Kings lost in embarrassing fashion, crumbling in the second half, and allowing the only shot that could beat them. They’re making progress, but showed glaring signs of their immaturity and inexperience. It was only Game 9, though. Life goes on. End of story, right?
The Kings are appealing the result because Ryan Hollins may have touched the ball on the inbound pass (which would start the clock and negate Lee’s layup), and the clock may not have started exactly when Lee touched the ball. Reminder: we’re talking about human scoreboard operators and fractions of seconds here.
To be fair, it seems Sacramento has an argument. However, their appeal will get denied for a couple reasons.
First, after poring over those final moments, and looking at every angle, the Kings have culled precise evidence to support their case; an exact angle at the right playback speed to argue Hollins got a touch, and a play time—.377 of second—that goes down to the thousandths. The problem here is the human element. Even with replay, there is only so much that can reasonably be expected of the refs in that situation. They can’t sit there all night while they, or some eagle-eyed experts, determine these things. They can and should take their time, but there has to be some limit. If things under review aren’t clear within a reasonable time (10 minutes, max?) is that really incontrovertible evidence? Human beings have to make these calls with nothing other than the camera angles, video fidelity, and time-measuring instruments made available to them, and, under those conditions, the refs made the right call in Memphis. There was simply too many variables to say, definitively, that they should have overturned the decision to give Lee the game-winning basket.
Secondly, if the NBA did overturn this decision it would open up the floodgates. Where would the line be drawn on plays that reverse the outcome of a game? There are a lot of missed calls—it’s part of sports—which can be pointed toward as deciding a one-point outcome. If the league accepts the appeal, it would set a dangerous precedent. (Just imagine how many emails Adam Silver would get from Mark Cuban after every Dallas Mavericks loss.) It would completely undermine the authority of referees by ruling decisions they make in regulation can be overturned with litigious appeals days later.
Beyond that, this becomes an image issue for the Kings, who come off looking like the kid who loses a pickup game, then takes his ball home so no one can play.
And for what? Do Sacramento players and coaches really feel like they won that game? The Kings blew a 26-point lead, had 15 turnovers, and allowed the Grizzlies to shoot 63 percent in the second half. Take a look in the mirror and they’ll see dozens of places they lost the game themselves. Avoid a turnover here, wake up on a defensive possession there, and they walk away with a win.
The Kings, and nobody else, let the game get to a point where human error could decide the outcome.
It’s a tough lesson to learn, but one in which all contenders are well-versed.
That (what they gleaned from the loss) is leaps and bounds more valuable than any win they could earn by arguing with the league over the nuances of the replay system.