What Happened to the ‘Charge’ Call in the NBA?

In case you hadn’t heard, the NBA has an officiating problem.

As game after game goes by in the playoffs, the topic of choice following every one seems to be one of three things:

  • LeBron choked again.
  • Somebody not named LeBron DIDN’T choke OR was allowed to choke because he’s not named LeBron.
  • The officiating was horrendous.

What a shame.

LeBron James fouled out last night on an unnecessary interpretation of the charge rule. (Image credit: Jim Davis/Boston Globe)

NBA Making a Difficult Job ‘Practically Impossible’

As somebody who absolutely loves basketball and has seen it played at an incredibly high level the last several weeks, this couldn’t be more disappointing.

Because everyone hates Mr. James for one reason or another, I don’t see the first two discussion topics going away anytime soon.  (As Jim Rome so poignantly tweeted immediately after Wade’s three missed to end the game – “Lebron misses that shot, twitter breaks. Wade misses it, ‘Ohhh, sooo close.’ “)

But that third one, the horrendous officiating, is ruining the game we all love.

It doesn’t have to.

I am a certified official for four different sports: basketball, volleyball, soccer, and softball/baseball.  I have also been officiating for 13 years, so even though I may be a young guy, I understand a lot of the pressures that officials go through.

Refereeing basketball is the hardest of the four because it easily has the greatest number of subjective calls.

Officiating in the NBA is that much harder because refs have to judge how much a slap on the wrist really affected a guy who is 6’9” and 260 pounds while traveling at full speed.

Because of that reason, the officiating in the NBA could never possibly be perfect.


The NBA itself is making an already difficult job practically impossible. How? Because of that ridiculous semi-circle underneath the basketball hoop.

Pierce v Battier

Near the end of the 4th quarter last night, Paul Pierce had a 1-on-1 fast break against Shane Battier. Of course, anyone that has followed basketball for more than five minutes could have told you what was going to happen: Shane Battier would try to draw a charge. And of course that’s what he did.

Pierce took the ball right down the middle, adjusted his drive slightly to his right, slowed down, and took a soft leaner over Battier.  Battier planted his feet (outside the semi-circle) and braced for the contact – while not trying in the least to play defense.

Pierce made contact with Battier. Slightly. But he had seen Battier plant his feet and was able to avoid 90% of the contact. Battier’s feet were planted. He was outside of the semi-circle.

It was the prototypical “no-call” play. Of course, Pierce was called for a foul and the crowd went ballistic. (See the replay here at the 3:30 mark.)

I immediately went to twitter:

When will refs ever learn?  Offensive fouls are PLAYER CONTROL FOULS.  You are allowed to swallow the whistle when contact is made.

To my surprise, my timeline and phone were bombarded with questions. Even very knowledgable basketball fans like Jerod were confused and asking for clarification.

The Truth About ‘Player Control Fouls’

Without getting too involved in agonizingly boring definitions, player control fouls are defined as “any fouls committed by the player in control of the ball.”

However, when you become an official, this definition is expounded on greatly in your clinics and classes.

Basically, the original idea of the “charge” call was this: “If the offensive player is out of control, it should be a charge – regardless of the defender’s position.”

That’s why when Dwyane Wade drives to the basket and kicks Kevin Garnett below the belt in midair, a referee can still call the foul on Wade – regardless of the fact that Garnett wasn’t planted on the ground outside of the semi-circle.

At the end of the day, the charge/block is always going to be subjective. But it used to be so much easier to call before they inserted that semi-circle.

If you ask almost anyone to define the difference between a charge and block, the first, second, and third answers will all have something to do with the position of the defender’s feet.

  • Was the defender moving?
  • Did the defender get there late?
  • Was the defender outside of the semi-circle?

On every single replay, 90% of the focus is placed on the defender’s feet.

But go back and look at the NBA rule book. There is a minimum of 12 different things that officials are supposed to look for. Interestingly enough, more than half of them have nothing to do with the defender’s feet.

The problem is, of those 12 criteria all of them are subjective except one: “were the defender’s feet inside or outside of the semi-circle?”

Remember, refs are human. They know that every single foul will be replayed at multiple angles. Understanding that, would you make calls based on 11 subjective criteria, or one black or white aspect of the rule that people can clearly use to decide whether or not you made the right call?

You would look at the defender’s feet. Just like the officials do every night in the NBA.

What has been the result? Has the charge/block call become easier to call? Has it made the game run smoother?


Now, instead of playing defense, defenders are racing to spots on the floor that they can flop from.

A charge was originally intended to award great defense. Now, it’s rewarding players who are literally AVOIDING defense.

Get rid of that stupid semi-circle.

My favorite part about the NBA’s charge/block definition comes at the end:

The mere fact that contact occurs on these type of plays, or any other similar play, does not necessarily mean that a personal foul has been committed. The officials must decide whether the contact is negligible and/or incidental, judging each situation separately.

No-calls are good!  They keep the game moving. They reward good offense and good defense.

According to the NBA, if the contact was negligible, the play should go on. Unfortunately, the refs don’t have time to decide that. All they can do is look at a guy’s feet.

LeBron v Pietrus

Poetically (or hideously, depending on who you were cheering for last night), the Heat ended up getting hurt on the same call in OT.

As LeBron James ran down court, he saw open space down low and tried to post up his defender. Michael Pietrus beat him to the spot, just in front of the semi-circle. LeBron, who was in complete control of his body, backed into Pietrus under the hoop. Both players went to the floor.

Of course, this would have been the perfect “no-call” situation. But watch the replay (3:45 mark). What is the official looking at? The defender’s feet.

They were outside of the circle.

Those other eleven criteria didn’t matter.

And LeBron James was done for the rest of the game, unable to choke, thus forcing us to talk about the officiating once again.

Just remember…don’t blame them for that one. Blame that stupid semi-circle.

About the Author

Jon Washburn

Jon Washburn grew up in Indianapolis, IN and as such, is a diehard Pacers, Colts, and Cubs fans. When it comes to college, he cheers for Notre Dame football fan and Purdue basketball. Yes, this sounds shady, but since he grew up without cable, he learned to love Notre Dame - the only team on TV. Glenn "The Big Dog" Robinson was at Purdue when Jon was in his formative years, so he latched onto them as well. Did that make him a fair-weather fan at the time? Sure. Give him a break...he was 8...and he has stayed with those teams ever since. Currently, he lives in Charleston, SC with his wife who grew up in Cleveland. Although he is no longer physically in the Midwest, his heart will always be there. Jon goes by the name "Twitch" because he has Tourette's Syndrome. Hit him up on his twitter @jwtwitch.