Sunday, July 7, 2013

Public Enemy #1...NBA Refs

This is a subject I've been wanting to touch on for quite some time now but I wanted to wait until the end of the season before broaching it. As a fan of the NBA I have to be honest about something. In my opinion, the NBA is the worst officiated league by far of all the major sports & it doesn't help that it's arguably the most heavily impacted by the officiating. Some would argue that baseball can be because of an umpire's calls, but both hitters & pitchers can adjust to an umpires strike zone. There's little adjusting that an NBA player can do when it comes to an NBA ref's calls.

One of the most frequent complaints you hear players & coaches say is, "you gotta call it both ways". In other words, if you're going to make that call on one end of the court, you have to make it on both ends. Unfortunately, that doesn't always happen, especially if the team getting the call on their end of the court is the home team. For as far back as I can remember, fans have been complaining about the amount of calls the home team gets. Growing up, it always seemed that was the case especially if the home team was the Celtics. To some extent, it is understandable. Refs are human beings & I'm sure it's not easy for them to not get swept up in the emotions of the home team's crowd. That's a legitimate excuse but not an acceptable one. You are a paid professional & it's your job to NOT get swept up in that emotion.

The other aspect is the affect star players have on the refs' whistles. While star players have generally gotten more calls in their favor, it wasn't until Michael Jordan started dominating the league that it seemed to go to another level. Perhaps it was more difficult to referee a Jordan game because of his high-flying super athletic style of play but, there have always been superb athletes in the league. What many people felt, myself included, was that the league was protecting it's investment. He took the NBA to worldwide popularity so it appeared the league wanted to make sure he was always on the court at the crucial times instead of on the bench in foul trouble.

Now in defense of the referees, it is probably the most difficult game of all the major sports to officiate. The size & speed of the players makes it difficult to see everything so what naturally happens at times is a ref can make what's called an anticipation call. They anticipate a foul was made based on experience & what they see from both players & the movement of the ball. It makes sense on some levels but here's my biggest issue with that: why are the same anticipation calls still being made after all these years? As more & more of those calls are made there should be an adjustment, not just in-game, but year-by-year.

Growing up learning to play basketball, there was one small technic that I was taught defensively. I remember being told over & over again when you reach in for a steal, swipe the ball up not in a downward motion. When I asked why it was explained to me that if you swipe the ball down, it's a difficult call for the ref to make accurately whereas if you swipe the ball up, it's easier for the ref to determine if you got all ball. Again, that made perfect sense to me. But what that showed me was, coaches & players were making adjustments over the years to the way refs were calling games.

What seemed to have happened though was that instead of NBA refs making their own adjustments, they just begun making the newer calls more frequently, like the charge/blocking call, while sacrificing fundamentally basic calls such as traveling. You hear it every year about 100 times, "is traveling still a call in the NBA" from people old & young. The league however just ignores that talk as though if they don't address it, the chatter will somehow go away. Well, as long as traveling is allowed, fans will question the refs' integrity.

It almost seems crazy to think that for much of its history, they were actually using a "two-person" system as opposed to the "three-person" system they use nowadays. They may be approaching a time though real soon where they need to go to a "four-person" system. The obvious concern is more calls being made which means longer games & less action. The biggest concern though should be about getting the calls correct. If there's an additional referee on the floor, each ref can focus on certain calls, which should create better angles. One result would hopefully be an end to the outside official making a call that the ref standing 3 feet from the play on the baseline doesn't make. Those calls are mind boggling to say the least.

As as fan, one of the most annoying calls is the proverbial "make-up call." Anyone who follows basketball knows what I'm referring to. What makes them even more frustrating is when you hear NBA league officials try to sell you on the idea that make-up calls don't exist. The refs are human & as humans when we make a mistake, if we can fix our mistake, to some degree we often will. In the case of an NBA ref, fixing a mistake may mean making a call that rarely gets made but allows the ball to go back to the team that was wronged.

You often hear on sports shows after a controversial game for the refs, the number of fouls called as well as the amount of foul shots taken by each team. Very rarely are those numbers lopsided even in what the eyes see as a one-sided game from the refs. The problem with that is, there is no statistic for non-calls or missed calls. That also hold true for momentum calls. What I mean by that is, calling a foul or missing a foul call at the right time that can lead to a 4 or 5 point swing for one team. It happened way too often in this year's playoffs & even in the Finals. When somebody finally comes up with an accurate accounting for fouls with those variables included, then I'll take that stat seriously.

One step I believe they can make to lessen the impact of the referees is to remove the disqualification of a player upon reaching 6 fouls. Let the player stay in the game but if subsequent fouls are called on him, they can do something like a technical foul shot or 2 free throws & possession of the ball for the opposing team. There has to still be some kind of punitive penalty for leaving a guy who is fouling too much on the court in order to avoid taking advantage of such a rule. Also, as I said before, they may need to go to a 4th official in order to get better angles & less responsibilities for each individual ref. This way each ref can focus more on specific calls which in theory will allow them to make more of the correct calls & fewer anticipation calls.

I don't envy the NBA referees because again, it is perhaps the most difficult game to officiate but the bottom line is, it is their job. The game has evolved over the years but it is still relatively the same. The best adjustment the league has made in my opinion is the defensive 3 seconds call. The problem is however, they seem so focused on making the newer call that offensive 3 seconds is not called nearly as frequently. Some of that may be because of the lack of post players in the league but make no mistake, there's still plenty of guys hanging out in the paint. Also, there is NO WAY anyone is going to convince me that the league did not make it a point to cut down on calling the traveling violation as the game moved more & more out on the perimeter. There have been players over recent years who travel on nearly every possession where they put the ball on the floor. I'm not going to name names but I'm sure anyone reading this right now is yelling out someone's name.

The most controversial call & in fairness, the most difficult of them all to call accurately is the
charge/blocking violation. The charge is another one of those calls that has come about from players & coaches making an adjustment to what they see referees doing. It's been around for almost as long as the league itself but players began noticing the refs were apt to reward the defender for putting his body
in harms way, so they started looking to take more charges. Then a tactic probably first introduced as a strategic move by Bill Laimbeer of the Detroit Pistons was, the flop. Soon guys like Dennis Rodman & Reggie Miller were mastering how to flop & get the charging call.

The league finally took steps this past season with the anti-flopping rule but the horse is already outta the barn as the saying goes. The fines they levied were minuscule but as David Stern himself said, they really couldn't start with hefty fines until they were able to test it out properly. That too made sense. Problem being though is, all of the fines & possible suspensions are taking place after the fact. So that flop that decided a game in the 4th quarter & the subsequent fine or suspension is too little too late. The players who are great floppers are not going to stop because they may get fined if it means a possible win for their team. To most the flop is an annoying cop-out to standing up & playing solid defense. Seeing guys resort to fooling referees & referees continually fooled by it is disconcerting to say the least.

What the league should do is change they way a charge is called. One of the worst ones is the guy making the pass & his momentum takes him into a defender & it's called a charge. Get rid of that please. If the man with the ball is able to make a pass before running into the defender than it's either a no-call or a block, whichever the league wants. My next favorite charge call is the most common one. Right now if a player goes up to the rim & the defender's feet are set & he's outside of the restricted area, it's a charge unless he's in the lower box on the baseline then he doesn't have to be outside of the restricted area. Too many times though I see a guy get called for a charge when he lands on the defender. That needs to change. If the defender isn't there with his feet set prior to the offensive player taking off, then same as the last call, it's either a no-call or a block. The offensive player should have a right to his "landing spot" we'll call it.

In the playoff series this year between the Indiana Pacers & NY Knicks, the refs were making the correct calls on many of the Knicks players' drives to the basket but it was a call they hadn't been making all year & maybe not in the past 20 years with any consistency. The Pacers were getting blocks or no-calls by going straight up as the Knicks player went up to the rim. There was often contact but because the defender went straight up, it was very often viewed as incidental contact & a play-on. It was a brilliant defensive strategy by the Pacers & as I said, was actually the correct call but when as a league you have established a pattern making a call a certain way to change that call in the middle of the playoffs is very difficult to adjust to. Shockingly however, in the next round against the Miami Heat, for whatever reason, the Pacers were no longer getting the no-call, now it was a foul.

That's the biggest issue with the NBA referees. The level of inconsistency is alarming to say the least. Last year during the lockout shortened season, that may have been the worst officiating I had seen in all my years. This year was slightly better but come playoff time, it became inconsistent again. They had been letting way more contact throughout the season so players should've been prepared but I almost feel like before each game they need to do something similar to boxing where the referee goes into each locker room & lets the fighters & their staff know what they will allow & what they won't. For whatever reason, the refereeing seemed to be a lot better years ago.

NBA officials have reputations amongst players, coaches & even fans. Players also have reputations amongst the refs, reputations which open the door for scrutinizing particular players. A guy like Metta World Peace has a reputation for odd behavior so he gets less rope than most players which is understandable to a point. However, very often younger players get called for way more fouls than veterans whether or not the player has a reputation. As a fan it can drive you crazy watching a guy from your team constantly getting called for ticky-tack fouls meanwhile you see a vet, committing far more egregious violations & they don't get away with it. Point is, there's too many times when you can tell the personality of the referee is what seems to be the driving force behind some calls.

Which brings me to my final point. While I understand the premise behind hiring ex-players as referees as the NBA has done with Haywood Workman & Leon Wood, I think like the league unnecessarily, opens themselves up to all the conspiracy theory stuff when they have someone like Workman, who was an Indiana Pacer at the height of his career, doing Knicks/Pacers games! I mean, he was a pivotal role player on those teams that went head-to-head with the Knicks during the Patrick Ewing/Reggie Miller years. Then you take a guy like Joey Crawford who famously once ejected Tim Duncan for laughing while he was sitting on the bench & then challenged him to a fight, refereeing NBA Finals' games. There was even a stat floating around the internet that LeBron James was 23-3 in his playoff career in games that Crawford refereed while he was under .500 in the rest of them for his career. Now, if that statistic is even close to being accurate, then come on NBA, just let him stay home if you don't want your integrity questioned. Otherwise, you're either ignorant or naive.

Personally, I think the league is ignorant, naive & also a bit arrogant when it comes to the level of disgust that fans have for their referees. It seems at times that they think they can just ignore those fans & their thoughts. If that is the case then they need to get their head out of the sand because as great of a league & sport as it is, the current state of NBA referees can cause more fans than they realize, to become turned off to the sport just as easily as a troublesome player could. Maybe now that Stern is stepping down the new NBA Commissioner will make fixing the referees a priority, because as I said before, fans are loyal to players and/or teams, they have no loyalty at all for the refs. It's time the league stepped up & admitted they need to overhaul how their game officials function & finally do something about it.