How the Dumbest Rule in Sports Claimed One of the NBA's Most Exciting Players

The stadium scene.
April 26 2013 7:11 PM

No More Live-Ball Timeouts

The dumbest rule in sports just claimed one of the NBA's most exciting players.

Russell Westbrook
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - APRIL 24: Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder is looked at by a trainer after a leg injury during Game Two of the Western Conference Quarterfinals.

Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Halfway through the second quarter of Wednesday night’s Rockets-Thunder game, nine guys on the court stopped trying. With Houston up by one, Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks wanted his team to call timeout. Russell Westbrook dribbled the ball casually across half court, while his four teammates and four of the Rockets ceased playing in anticipation of walking to their benches. The only guy who didn’t slow down was Houston guard Patrick Beverley, who tried to swipe the ball and ended up side-swiping Westbrook.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

Westbrook, who has never missed a game in his NBA career, came away limping and looking like he needed to restrain himself from throwing the ball at Beverley’s face. Now the OKC point guard is probably in an even fouler mood: On Friday, the team announced he’s having surgery to repair a torn right meniscus and will be out “indefinitely.”

Should Beverley, an impetuous rookie, have known better than to have pawed at Westbrook when he was just trying to call time? Is all fair in playoff basketball?

Feel free to have that debate in the comments—there are reasonable arguments to be made on both sides. I’m going to focus on a more radical agenda: It’s time to abolish the live-ball timeout.

The NBA’s timeout policies are dumb for a lot of reasons, many of which I laid out in a 2006 rant on the subject. They kill the suspense and momentum at the end of close games; they give coaches too much control over what should be a free-flowing sport; they allow teams to magically advance the ball to half-court, violating the rules of time and space.

But the live-ball timeout is the lamest of them all. I can understand allowing a team to huddle up after a stoppage of play—when the ball goes out of bounds, or when the opposing team has scored a basket. The fact that a player can call timeout when he’s dribbling the ball up the court, though, is an affront to everything that athletics should be about. It is the worst rule in all of sports, and right-thinking people must band together to eradicate it once and for all.

As I explained in that piece back in 2006:

“The least-defensible timeouts come from players in distress. A football player can't call timeout when he's getting tackled. Neither can a tennis player who's chasing a tough backhand. Yet NBA players plead for time when they can't throw the ball inbounds, when the shot clock is running out, and when they're surrounded by defenders. This is both unjust and unsporting—a tactic that would be ridiculed on the playground. The offensive player's only punishment for wussing out this way is that he has one less timeout to call later. While timeouts are a scarce commodity, they're not nearly so scarce that losing one is an effective deterrent.”

The play that led to Russell Westbrook’s injury illustrates the illogic of one type of live-ball timeout. You know there’s a problem with your sport’s rulebook when, with the clock running in the second quarter of a close game, nine guys aren’t trying, and the one guy who is making an effort ends up looking like a jerk. Even worse are the get-out-of-jail-free timeouts—when the defense executes a perfect trap and doesn’t get rewarded because the boxed-in offensive player makes a “T” with his hands. (The NBA, at least, doesn’t allow a player to call timeout if he’s up in the air and falling out of bounds. Kudos for that, pro basketball powers that be.)

In the interest of fairness, I’d love to run through a list of the positives associated with calling a timeout in the middle of game action. But there are none. The live-ball timeout is pure evil. Abolishing the rule would make a lot of things about NBA basketball better, and it wouldn’t make anything worse.

Sure, maybe the coaches would whine about how they couldn’t draw up as many plays. Well, boo hoo Erik Spoelstra—I’m sure LeBron will be able to come up with something on the fly. And if players and coaches wanted to call for a TO under a no-live-ball-timeout regime, they’d still have ample opportunity to do so after every foul call, turnover, made basket, and deflection out of bounds. In the absence of live-ball timeouts, players would get to make more decisions on their own and defenses would get rewarded for making great plays. Plus, in this counterfactual universe, Russell Westbrook would still be playing. Thunder fans, are you with me?

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