Mark Cuban, renowned as a vocal sideline presence at Mavericks games both home and away, was screaming from his courtside seats on Wednesday.
"FOUR, FIVE, SIX," Cuban shouted at the referees, begging for them to call Atlanta for a defensive three-seconds violation.
After the game, Cuban came into the locker room and addressed the media about what he perceived to be a major issue in the NBA this year: referees have decided not to take defensive three-second violations seriously this season.
"Something's happening where, and I don't think it's at the league level, but officials have chosen not to call defensive and, in some cases, offensive 3 second (violations)," Cuban said. "The rule's not a difficult rule. Either you're in there actively guarding or you're not. It's not hard to see if you're getting out in enough time. It's crazy."
He spoke for about five minutes and you can read more of his comments here. The problem is this: through a quarter of the season, NBA officials have called 133 defensive 3-second violations, which is actually slightly more per game (0.405) than last season (0.39 and 493 in total), per NBAsavant.com.
When I tweeted those statistics late Wednesday night, Cuban responded, saying that those numbers don't portray how many defensive three-second violations are being missed or how many should be called. (He deleted his tweet shortly afterwards.) After all, Cuban said he has sent in multiple instances of players hanging in the lane for more than three seconds, sometimes as long as nine seconds, and the league agreed with him that they were indeed missed calls.
So I went through all 100 field goal attempts the Mavericks took against Atlanta and looked for instances where the Hawks were camping in the lane. In the referee grades the NBA publicly releases for the final two minutes of every game, there was one defensive three-second violation on Atlanta with 1:32 left that the NBA acknowledged they missed. Before we get to that, though, let's brush up on what a defensive three-second violation actually is.
In an effort to allow zone defense but not give defenders total advantage, the defensive three-second violation governs how long a defender can remain in the painted area. It's three seconds, of course, as the rule's name suggests, but the "timer" only starts when he's not actively guarding someone: defined as "being within arm's length of an offensive player and in a guarding position."
Already, you can tell how nebulous this rule can be. "Arm's length" is not a precise measurement, particularly on a court full of the world's best athletes moving rapidly. Likewise, three seconds isn't the easiest thing to measure for referees, who have at least a dozen more potential violations they're watching for on every play.
Players don't make this easy on referees, either. Defenses are frequently taught "2.9ing" -- which, despite sounding like a sex act, is a sound defensive philosophy. Coaches tell weak side help defenders to stick one foot in the paint and remain there for 2.9 seconds -- the maximum allowed amount -- before quickly hopping out and back in, resetting the three-second count.
So you understand how there's going to be some missed defensive three-second violations here and there. In fact, you might assume correctly that referees typically only call the really blatant, obvious ones. But after the game, Cuban said that referees are missing blatant, obvious ones. Let's take a look first at the one the NBA admitted they missed.
Throughout these clips, you'll mostly see that the potential violator is Al Horford, an excellent defender who makes up for a lack of elite athleticism with strong tactical play. Like, you know, 2.9ing or even hanging out in the lane a bit longer if the referees are letting him. The NBA said this was a missed call and it clearly is.
(For those wondering, I recorded these gifs at 10 frames per second and the counting you'll see happens every 10 frames. Also, 10 frames per second is a bit choppier than I'd like, but it was necessarily for the amount of gifs needed. Apologies for that.)
Here's another example that might have had Cuban yelling out numbers.
I probably could have started the countdown on that play a bit sooner. Bazemore was in there for 3.5 seconds. (You'll also see the Hawks sag off Devin Harris rather dramatically all evening, more than most Maverick guards.)
As Zaza Pachulia mentioned after Wednesday's game, it's easier for guards to pull off extra seconds in the lane than big, lumbering centers, who are just more noticeable in every possible way. But Horford gets away with it here, too.
On both plays, you'll notice he's high, nearly at the free throw line. Pure speculation, but I wonder if that helps him get away with it.
Still, we talked above about how defensive 3-seconds is difficult for referees to call. But Cuban said "we're starting to tell our guys to just stand in the paint and don't move" and that other NBA teams are doing the same. In other words, Cuban is saying teams have completely stopped respecting the rule. I'm not sure in this game I found evidence of that. Here's a play where you see Tiago Splitter make sure to reset his "timer" and get back within arm's length of his man when he feels himself edging past three seconds.
It even hurts Splitters' ability to cut off Barea's drive, but Splitter went back anyway, understanding the rule dictated he had to. And again, on the play below, you'll see Horford "2.9ing" perfectly.
And then there are vague interpretations like this one below that could easily go both ways like this play. Was Horford close enough to Zaza Pachulia to reset his count at about two seconds? He was in the lane for five, so that's a pretty important distinction. Certainly, referees seem to think he was.
Even last year, NBA officials only called defensive three-second violations on teams every four or five games. The most on a single player was 11. This year, no player has more than five infractions. (Horford, for those wondering, hasn't been whistled for one yet.)
Clearly, players can get away with more than three seconds in the lane if they're smart about it. We've seen that the arm's length rule might be interpreted more as the "vicinity of an offensive player" by referees, like double plays in baseball. Cuban said that the NBA recently sent out a league-wide memo listing defensive three-second violations as a point of emphasis. Maybe that's all it will take?
Cuban is exceedingly smart, too. He has access to way more film and general league knowledge than me, so I'm not here to call him wrong or say that this hasn't been an issue. A league-wide memo would indicate that yes, it has been going uncalled too frequently. But at least in the Hawks game, in the film I watched, I saw no systematic failure of that rule. It's not like teams are dropping into a Syracuse-style 2-3 zone defense or something.
I'll let you decide whether the NBA does need to crack down on these instances or if the lax way the rule is called now is fine. And, like Cuban himself even said, this isn't why the Mavericks lost to Atlanta. They just didn't make shots.