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Those late whistles NBA fans and players hate? There's a method to the madness

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Anthony Edwards could not understand why the whistle came late. Neither could the defender, Christian Braun.

It was Game 6 of a high-stakes playoff game between the Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves. With 8:02 remaining in the second quarter, Edwards elevated for a turnaround jumper and Braun hit his left arm before Edwards launched a shot. One of Edwards’ teammates yelled, “Foul!” The ball clanked off the side of the rim. Only then did official Marc Davis use his whistle.

Approximately 1.8 seconds elapsed between the foul and the whistle. In a sign of irritation, Braun and Edwards — the competing sides to the same play — raised their arms in protest. At that moment, even the play-by-play announcer for ESPN noted the whistle “came late.”

It happens almost every NBA game, stirring frustration in players and groans from fans: the dreaded late foul call, otherwise known as a conditional foul. A referee appears to wait to see if a shot goes in before blowing the whistle. If the shot falls, play on. If it misses, the official belatedly awards free throws.

“I mean, you see it, you see it a lot,” LA Clippers star Kawhi Leonard said during the regular season. “I think they want to, you know, keep the game going on. So if a guy makes a shot, they keep it going instead of stopping it and giving him free throws. Or they are just seeing it late. That’s what I think it is.”

When Kevin Durant was asked about similar late calls, he said: “I wish I could tell you the reason why.

“If I had to guess, they don’t want to continue to stop the game and intervene on the free-flowing nature of the game. So sometimes they would rather just keep playing than having to stop the game for a foul call. So, sometimes you can respect that about them and appreciate that. And then sometimes you’re like, ‘S—, let me get that call,’ you know? But they’re trying their best to find a balance of, I guess, chaperoning the game and just kind of letting us do our thing, too.”

Alas, it’s all a big misunderstanding, the NBA says. To understand what’s really happening, according to the league executive in charge of officiating, you need to understand referee mechanics — where they’re positioned on the court and how their line of sight informs when a whistle is blown. So everyone should purge “conditional foul” from their basketball vocabulary and replace it with something called a “cadence whistle.”

“We are not training a result-based whistle, that it’s a conditional foul (where referees may say to themselves): ‘Oh, he missed it, so I’m going to give in to that,’” said Monty McCutchen, a former longtime referee who now runs the league’s referee training and development program. “That’s bad refereeing and I don’t want any part of it.”

Crystal Hogan, a Division I college basketball referee, explained late whistles this way:

“A foul is a foul is a foul… However, something else happens that can appear that the official waited to see if the basket was made when in reality … they were giving the primary official the first opportunity to call the foul. After seeing that the primary official maybe had a bad angle, the official with a better look comes up with the foul, which is called having a late or secondary cadence whistle.”


The Athletic asked McCutchen to review several foul calls from various games — with each play featuring missed shots and delayed whistles — to explain why players and fans should consider them instances of cadence whistles rather than conditional fouls.

It’s reasonable to consider McCutchen’s assessments with skepticism; he is an NBA employee, after all. But the league does acknowledge some of its officiating errors. Since 2015, the NBA has released to the public what it calls “Last Two Minute Reports” for the final two minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime of games that are at or within three points during those spans. In those reports, every call and non-call is evaluated as either correct or incorrect.

The first late whistle The Athletic posed to McCutchen was Braun’s foul on Edwards.

The nearest official, James Williams, who stands on the sideline at the top of the screen, did not make the foul call even though, as McCutchen noted, that area of the court was Williams’ primary responsibility. Instead, Davis, the trail official, visible in the bottom left corner of the screen, made the call — after the ball hit off the rim.

What happened?

McCutchen said Denver defender Aaron Gordon blocked Williams’ view of Braun hitting Edwards’ arm. In that instance, McCutchen said, Williams did exactly what NBA referees are trained to do: Rather than guess that there was a foul, he didn’t blow his whistle.

Davis, on the other hand, had a clear line of sight on Braun and Edwards. After waiting a moment to give Williams an opportunity to make a call, Davis took responsibility.

McCutchen said the sequence is a textbook example of a “cadenced whistle.” Even though Williams had the primary responsibility to monitor Braun, Williams did not make the call because he could not see the violation. Instead, a secondary official (Davis) saw the infraction and called the foul.

“This play shows three people that understand our mechanics system to the nth degree,” McCutchen said. “That’s why they’re on Game 6 — is that you have three people trusting each other. I get good discipline out of James Williams, who isn’t guessing. … He’s disciplined. He doesn’t guess. And the whistle comes exactly where it’s supposed to come from, with a cadenced whistle.”

The refs’ mechanics were not entirely without flaws. While Williams and Davis did exactly what they were supposed to do, McCutchen noticed that another official, Tyler Ford, who was standing on the baseline, was incorrectly positioned. McCutchen said Ford should have been standing on the second ‘N’ in the word Minnesota painted on the baseline, not the first ‘N.’ As a result, McCutchen said, Ford had given himself too narrow an angle of view to evaluate potential infractions on Rudy Gobert, the defender Ford was primarily responsible for.

“Even though it didn’t end up costing us, this is poor mechanics, and these are the kinds of things we’re calling Tyler Ford about the next day, even in the playoffs, even though he’s excellent, has proven he deserves the game,” McCutchen said. “We are constantly harping on our mechanics about where to stand and what to be looking for.”


The second play The Athletic posed to McCutchen occurred during a March 24 regular-season game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Indiana Pacers.

Here, the Lakers’ Anthony Davis fouled the Pacers’ Myles Turner, but the whistle came late from the slot official, Gediminas Petraitis, wearing jersey No. 50 and standing at the bottom of the screen at free-throw line extended.

This is an example of a particularly complex play from referees’ perspective, McCutchen said, because when the play begins, Petraitis’ primary responsibility is to focus on two weakside defenders, LeBron James near the baseline and Austin Reaves at the free-throw line. Because James did not move as the play progressed, Petraitis’ responsibility as Turner approached the basket was to find another defender to focus on — in this case, the help defender, Davis.

Petraitis did shift to Davis and ultimately made the correct foul call, McCutchen said, but McCutchen acknowledged the call came late.

Why the delay?

“With all these moving parts,” McCutchen said, referring to Petraitis focusing on James before he shifted to Davis, Petraitis “had to have time to process from when he found Davis. There’s a certain lag to that, and that lag is what you see here.”

McCutchen acknowledged that it’s easy for him, with the benefit of replaying the sequence in slow motion, to break down why the delay occurred. To people watching the play in real-time, and to people not trained in referee mechanics who have seen many other examples of late whistles, it would have been easy to conclude that the referees — in this case Petraitis and his colleagues Marc Davis and Matt Myers — had been officiating based on the result of the shot.

Approximately 1.5 seconds elapsed between Anthony Davis’ hitting Turner and Petraitis blowing his whistle. The pro-Lakers crowd inside Crypto.com Arena let out a collective groan.


Game 2 of the first-round playoff series between the Dallas Mavericks and Clippers featured another delayed whistle.

As Dallas sped upcourt in transition, Luka Dončić passed to a cutting P.J. Washington, who missed a layup as he was fouled by Paul George. The call came late, after the ball rolled off the rim.

McCutchen said Kevin Scott, the official at the bottom of the screen, made the correct call but delayed blowing his whistle because of “poor mechanics.”

Officials are trained to focus on defenders. In this case, McCutchen said, the lead official, Davis, who is in the upper right corner of the screen running toward the baseline, should have been monitoring the closest help defender, Leonard.

Scott begins the play by keeping an eye on the on-ball defender, Terance Mann, and McCutchen said Scott was in “the perfect position” to watch Mann.

But when Dončić passed the ball, McCutchen said, Scott should have shifted to the next defender, George. Instead, Scott looked for a moment at Washington as Washington received the pass.

“This is the breakdown in fundamentals,” McCutchen said, referring to Scott looking at Washington’s catch and not George. “If we’re going to be good in fast time, we have to train ourselves, and it’s not natural … to go from Terance Mann directly to Paul George. That’s hard. What we say is, ‘Defender to defender.’ … But if I let my eyes even for a nanosecond stop on the catch with P.J. Washington, what happens? I get to Paul George late. Now, it doesn’t mean we don’t get the call right. It does mean that our brains then have to catch up.”


Despite the NBA’s efforts to be more transparent with officiating, players and coaches often are baffled by the delays. Broadcasters, too.

Asked about delayed foul calls, TV analyst and former NBA point guard Greg Anthony said he thought the delays were occurring more often these days.

“I’m a fan of it,” Anthony said. “I think it’s a good decision by the league and the officials. And the reason I say that is because basketball is a contact sport, and not all contact is equal. Oftentimes, what an official — again from my perspective — is trying to accomplish is did the contact affect the outcome? So that’s why and you see it all the time. You see guys go up for dunks and there’s clear contact, but they score and they don’t deem it to have been contact that affected the outcome of the play. And so, the other aspect of that that I also like is that you give yourself time to get the call right, because if you go early, you have no recourse.

McCutchen would disagree. He insists that the league is not teaching its officials to referee on the result of a shot. “There’s no teaching involved about conditional fouling,” McCutchen said. “A foul is a foul.”

But he added that there can be “contextual clues” that can reassure officials who had a clear line of sight and already have a very high degree of certainty that a foul occurred. McCutchen cited a hypothetical example in which one of the greatest shooters of all time, the now-retired Ray Allen, launches a 3-pointer and the primary referee is “pretty sure” a defender hit Allen’s elbow and then sees that Allen’s shot attempt fell 5 feet short. In that case, it’s OK to use the contextual clue of Allen’s clear miss because the referee already was highly certain an infraction occurred.

What would not be permissible, McCutchen said, would be instances when referees were blocked from seeing an infraction and then called a foul because a shot missed.

“That’s what we really train and teach against: that last component,” McCutchen said. “You’re not allowed to look at a play and not know what happened but because he missed, guess on the play. That’s bad officiating, and we really harp against it.”

Stan Van Gundy has seen late whistles from two perspectives: from his years as an NBA coach and now in his current job as a color commentator for TNT’s broadcasts.

“The late call always prompts a complaint from the other team — players, coaches and fans — always and even when it’s the right call,” Van Gundy said. “And sometimes it’s as simple as, I’ve had referees say, ‘Hey, sometimes it takes us a second to process.’ But you always get a backlash from that from the opponents on the late call. And sometimes I do think they’re waiting on the result. I think that happens a lot. But I do think there are times, too, where that’s not what’s happening. What’s happening is, is that they are just taking the time to process (what they just saw).”


Late calls are a fact of life. The league is constantly adjusting to players trying to take advantage of what they can get away with, while also trying to ensure that games aren’t three-hour events bogged down in reviews and trips to the free-throw line. It is a tense moment when fouls are called after shots are missed, but some players understand.

In the modern-day NBA, few players have been more adept at drawing shooting fouls than Clippers guard James Harden. To him, the delays don’t matter.

“Just get the call right,” he said. “That’s all I care about.”

(Illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; Photo: C. Morgan Engel / Getty Images)

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