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Walking the Basketball Dog

posted by Tim Carmody Jan 30, 2023

Ja Morant lets the basketball slowly roll in front of him while his defenders wait across half court

If you've watched a high-level basketball game in the last ten or so years (NBA, WNBA, NCAA), you've probably seen something a little strange. Instead of throwing the ball inbounds directly to a teammate, the inbounder will slowly roll the ball on the floor in their general direction... and then the ball handler will wait as long as possible before he picks it up and starts dribbling. Sometimes it's just a few seconds, and sometimes it feels like an eternity. What is this, and why do they do it?

It's called "walking the dog," and it exploits a rule that's as old as the shot clock itself. The shot clock (24 seconds long in the NBA) begins counting down as soon as a team takes possession of the ball after an inbounds pass. If you don't shoot and make contact with the rim within 24 seconds, the other team takes possession of the ball.

The shot clock is designed to speed up play. Walking the dog is a loophole designed to slow it down. You use it for two reasons: to delay starting the shot clock (giving you longer to get down court and set up a play) and to run time off the game clock (giving your opponent less time to control the ball and score).

Walking the dog is very old — the 60s Celtics used to use it after the other team scored to give them more time for their legendary center Bill Russell to get down court and set up the offense. And generally, that's been how it's used in the modern NBA, to get more time back on the shot clock. But in recent years, more ball handlers have been walking the dog to run time — sometimes, lots of time — off the game clock. So it's becoming more controversial.

One of the most notorious dogwalkers is Ja Morant, who usually makes highlight reels for his explosive dunks. But his slow roll strolls up the court are becoming just as much a signature move:

Two years ago, Morant became a regular dog walker in his sophomore season and quickly got his team to buy in. He's utilized the move 41 times across all quarters and has been the ball handler on 23 of those 34 plays in crunch time, wasting over three minutes of game clock. In just over half this season, Morant has wasted more time walking the dog than any team had in an entire year and holds three of the longest dog walks recorded in the NBA this season (his teammate Desmond Bane has one of the others)...

The Grizzlies don't discuss this in practice or plan these plays in advance. Morant often motions to his inbounder to roll the ball in slowly in these situations right as they materialize, especially when leading late in a game. The guy will do anything to shave a few seconds off. He'll leap out of the way instead of catching the ball if the inbounder throws it too hard in his direction. If Morant finds himself inbounding, he'll play dumb and misplace the ball as the game clock keeps running.

How has Morant become so good at walking the dog? He declined to speak with ESPN for this story, but his teammates think it boils down to his speed and athleticism. Opponents are hesitant to really press him 75-plus feet from their own hoop. If they make a mistake, he could have a huge runway with a numbers advantage. Others think it's more a combination of fatigue and a never-ending game of chicken.

How do you stop a player from walking the dog? It's so simple that it's stupid: send a defender to make them pick up the ball. There's some risk on either side here: an inattentive ball handler might allow an aggressive defender to steal a rolling ball. But an overaggressive defender might accidentally foul the ball handler in the back court while trying to steal the ball. That's exactly what happened to Ben Simmons in a recent game against Morant:

As the Grizzlies' star guard makes his way up the court, he lets the basketball roll alongside him, slowly, slowly, slowly, an inch at a time, untouched. Morant only needs to maintain a slow walk to keep up as he scans the court, uncontested by any Nets defender.

The ball rolls another inch, another inch, another inch. Morant is almost at half court. He keeps letting the ball roll alongside him, knowing the 24-second shot clock won't start until he touches it — burning precious game clock at the same time, almost 21 seconds now.

As he crosses half court, Morant finally picks up the ball and glances over to his bench. His defender, Ben Simmons, suddenly closes on him and lunges at the ball, looking for a steal — but he's too late. Morant sees it coming and protects the ball. Simmons hits him in the arm. Whistle. Foul. That's Simmons' sixth; he's out of the game.

Thanks in part to that play, Memphis wins by 10. Afterward, Morant explains that he was baiting Simmons, knowing he'd bite based on past experience. Clips of the play soon go viral.

Personally, I like it when clever players find ways to play games-within-a-game in sports, especially basketball. So I have no problem with walking the dog. Other people think it's boring, unfair, or it slows down the game too much. It definitely seems like if a lot of games come to a literal standstill, then the league office might step in and make a rules change. But until then, it's worth enjoying the players who play this game — and all of its wrinkles — the best.