Inside NBA's unwritten rule: Passing the ball with seconds left on clock

CHRISTIAN WOOD SHEEPISHLY raised his right arm in the air and looked toward Spencer Dinwiddie, who had just made a 3-pointer off a pass from the Dallas Mavericks' big man to push the lead to double digits midway through the fourth quarter.

You see, Wood made the gesture not as an acknowledgement for the assist but as a nonverbal apology.

Wood knew he had broken an unwritten NBA rule.

He had tossed a teammate a "grenade," as passes for contested, low-percentage shots in the final seconds of the shot clock are commonly known.

It's a rare instance when a pass is perceived as a selfish play and can create tension -- often passive-aggressive actions, such as grumbling to others -- between teammates. A blatant grenade is almost always followed by the passer publicly admitting fault, much like the gesture Wood made toward Dinwiddie during the Mavs' Dec. 12 home game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Wood's grenade was particularly egregious. After an offensive rebound was tipped out to Wood, resetting the shot clock to 14 seconds, he went one-on-one, taking eight dribbles while meandering from the top of the arc to the left wing. Thunder rookie forward Jalen Williams reached in and deflected the last dribble. Wood fumbled while recovering the loose ball, and then he spotted Dinwiddie, who had floated near the half-court logo with his teammate in trouble.

Dinwiddie caught the pass with less than a second left on the shot clock and Oklahoma City's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander within arm's reach. Dinwiddie shifted to his right to get just enough room to put up a 29-foot prayer.

As the ball sailed through the air, Wood put his hands above his shoulder, a "Whoops!" sort of shrug. Dinwiddie did the same thing after the ball banked off the backboard and went in the hoop.

Dinwiddie would give Wood a pass for this grenade, regardless of the result. It wasn't actually a violation, according to the version of the unwritten rule that Dinwiddie learned as a rookie with the 2014-15 Detroit Pistons. That interpretation allows for a team's primary shot creators (Luka Doncic and Dinwiddie on the Mavs at the time) to be acceptable safety valves in case of emergencies. (Rookies are also exceptions to the rule, meaning it's fine to force them to jack up a bad shot.)

"You can throw it to one of us -- or, if [rookie Jaden] Hardy was out there, you can stick him with it. Like, oh, well!" Dinwiddie told ESPN, laughing, in an interview weeks prior to being traded to the Brooklyn Nets in the Kyrie Irving deal.

"It's different when you're a shot creator -- and then obviously rookies can't get paid anyway. But I'll shoot it. I don't really too much care, to be honest. Give it to me. I'll fire it up there every time."

THE GENERAL RULE: If you dribble down the clock and don't find anyone open, take a tough shot yourself instead of pulling the pin and putting a teammate in position to dent his percentages. Leaguewide, players shot 29.7% last season on contested field goal attempts after receiving a pass with two seconds or less remaining on the shot clock, according to ESPN Stats & Information research of Second Spectrum tracking data.

"You're just not supposed to do it, but it happens sometimes, and sometimes they hit the shot," Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker told ESPN. "But nobody likes it. Nobody enjoys that. ... The point-5s where you can't even get your shot together -- those are the ones where people get mad."

By point-5s, Booker is referring to catching the pass with only half a second left on the shot clock, forcing a player to fling up a terrible shot with a defender in his face.

Plenty of players get mad about getting stuck with grenades. Such passes have caused many eye rolls and pursed lips.

"A vet will tell you for sure: 'As a shooter, do not pass it to me with one second.'" Mavs coach Jason Kidd, a Hall of Fame point guard, told ESPN. "It might be a written rule now. It's always been there."

By nature, however, grenades come most frequently from the team's stars, given that those players bear the biggest responsibility to generate looks. A list compiled by ESPN Stats & Information research of the players who have tossed the most grenades over the past decade, using passes for heavily contested shots in the last two seconds of shots as the definition, is led by five future Hall of Famers: Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, Chris Paul, James Harden and LeBron James.

Shorten the window to the past two seasons, and two of the league's premier young playmakers rank in the top three: Doncic and Indiana Pacers All-Star guard Tyrese Haliburton. (Westbrook leads that list, too.)

If teammates want to vent about passes from those elite class of players, it most likely won't be publicly or directly.

"You know there's levels of players, so depending on what player threw them the grenade, they'll complain to somebody else," New Orleans Pelicans guard CJ McCollum told ESPN.

Of course, all those stars create a lot of open looks for teammates at the end of the shot clock, too. It's understood that they'll inadvertently put teammates in a tough spot from time to time. The tension, rather, tends to arise when there's a perception a player is protecting his own shooting percentages at the expense of a teammate.

"The intention can't be there," Dinwiddie said. "You can't just be like, 'Aw, f--- it, here you go!'"

In some instances, players don't get mad; they just don't get open. A player who doesn't want the ball might make a curious cut with the shot clock ticking down, trying to ensure there isn't an available passing lane.

There are a couple of other tricks occasionally used by players concerned with protecting their percentages. One is to hold the ball a beat too long, a variation of waiting until the end-of-quarter buzzer sounds before launching a half-court heave, although it's usually not so obvious. Another is to make an extra pass, pretending to be unaware that the shot clock was expiring. (Shot clock violations are team turnovers, not assigned to an individual.)

Fans and media might be fooled or not notice these intricacies. But players know, whether they learned specifics of the unwritten rule from veterans, as Dinwiddie did during his rookie season in Detroit, or just get the general principle.

"Honestly, I don't know the rule," Grizzlies superstar Ja Morant told ESPN, meaning no veteran ever pulled him aside to discuss specific anti-grenade guidelines. "But it's, 'My bad,' for sure [if a grenade is thrown], unless they make it. I'll still be like, 'My bad, but good shot.' And you get points, so hey! I feel like we're both happy.

"Nah, but if he shoots a terrible air ball or don't get it off, I'll definitely apologize. For the most part, I'll try to shoot it myself."

A PRIMARY REASON these are passes non grata in the NBA: Shooting percentages affect a player's paycheck, as it's frequently used as a negotiating point in contract talks.

Nets forward Dorian Finney-Smith, who was also part of the Irving trade, is a perfect example of how much shooting percentages can matter when it comes to NBA money, particularly for role players. He signed a three-year, $12 million deal to stay with the Mavs after shooting 30.3% from 3-point range in his first three seasons.

After working to smooth out his mechanics, Finney-Smith shot 38.9% on 3s over the next three seasons, agreeing to a $56 million extension in the middle of the 2021-22 campaign that was the maximum the Mavs could offer him at the time.

Finney-Smith, however, has declared himself as a willing grenade target, although he doesn't fit under the category of shot creator. He has developed into a prototypical 3-and-D player, primarily serving as a shot-up shooter on offense -- and sometimes going several minutes without getting a shot. So Finney-Smith sees a silver lining in getting an occasional pass with the shot clock buzzer about to sound.

"Because you get to shoot it with no conscience," Finney-Smith told ESPN. "If you haven't touched it in a while, you get to chuck one up."

Of course, it's a lot easier to feel that way for a player in the first season of a four-year contract like Finney-Smith.

Another player who is fine with getting tossed the occasional grenade? McCollum, who is financially secure with career earnings that will near $300 million by the end of the extension he signed before this season. McCollum is also a pure scorer who subscribes to the old saying of never meeting a shot he didn't like -- and enjoys the license to let it fly when the only other option is allowing the shot clock to expire.

"I know some people are worried about their percentages and trying to preserve it," McCollum said, "but I'm a guy who enjoys shooting the basketball.

"So I don't mind the right grenade."