NEW YORK (AP) – James Harden slides sideways or steps back, and the screams begin.
Whether you're sitting on the opposite seat or on a stool at a sports bar, someone insists that Harden must have traveled between the time he finished dribbling and kicked from another location. Travel will be an emphasis this season for officials, who are determined not to allow offensive players to gain extra advantage by taking an extra step.
Scoring stars like Harden have already taken advantage when manual control on the perimeter was no longer cool, so they can't get another one.
"If we cannot allow people to hand the check in hand, we cannot allow them to travel because they are almost imperceptible," said Mark Wunderlich, vice president of referee operations.
That said, most of the time, when Harden steps back, he doesn't travel.
"It's cool, except that he takes a third step every now and then when his pace is low, which shows how difficult it is," said Monty McCutchen, head of NBA referee development and Training.
That's why the referees are working harder to get it right.
NBA critics – and even some fans – have long mocked that the league does not call travel. McCutchen said the data showed that officials were missing about two per game, but the way the game is played today could make these losses more criminal for the defense.
Players are bigger, faster, and more skilled, and even big men who would have been the centers of an earlier generation are now doing everything forwards, like the 1.80m MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. It is already far enough with the two legal steps, forget when a third party is allowed.
McCutchen compared the difference with Tiny Archibald, a 6-1 guard who played in the 70's and 80's.
"He covered three meters with his two steps," McCutchen said. “How far is Giannis covering? The game has changed.
Then the authorities began to change with that, changing the way they were taught to officiate when McCutchen and Wunderlich were on the floor. Previously, referees were trained to look first at the defensive player. Now they have reversed the sequencing, first looking at the offensive player's feet to ensure that a legal pivot foot has been established and not changed.
And the league has added a new language in the rulebook to define the "date" to clarify how many steps a player can take after receiving the ball or completing his dribble.
At arbitration meetings and referee training camp last week, McCutchen said officials studied repetitions of three trips each time they returned from a break and had a dedicated 45-minute session.
An educational video was sent to the teams and the referees visited the coaches' preseason meetings, where they had a two-player travel station on the floor so they could give demonstrations to the coaches.
And Houston coach Mike D'Antoni said the league emphasized that Harden's jumper is cool.
“They made a point, which is great, to tell all the coaches they are not traveling. It's not traveling, "said D Antoni." So, I hope the coaches stop complaining and that you in the news understand that it's not traveling. There are other points that we need to clean up that are traveling, and the NBA will try to do a better job of it. "
San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich joked last year that step 3 came when players "jump back and travel and shoot a 3". But the referee team leaders praised Harden for his cleverness and creativity.
“In dribbling, we always talk about dribbling, you can take two cool steps in the basket, right? No one ever thought of getting together after dribbling. You can take two cool steps back, ”said Wunderlich.
Added Jason Phillips, who will oversee the Replay Center: "The rulebook does not indicate that the two steps should be in either direction."
Harden said it should never have been a debate, because if he were traveling, the referees would have whistled him.
"I'm tired of hearing it's a trip, coaches, other players, haters, fans, whatever you want to call it," said Harden.
But he acknowledges that it sounds weird, so referees know they need to educate teams and fans as much as they do. There is no new rule or even a new interpretation of travel, just a desire to correctly call the travels that are in the books.
That's why it's the biggest emphasis on the preseason education list.
"The first is traveling and the second is traveling and the third, fourth and fifth are traveling," said McCutchen. "I'm just kidding to show that there are POEs and then there are POEs. We really want to improve our game fundamentals and travel is a big part of that."
AP sports writer Kristie Rieken in Houston contributed to this report.
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