By: Dan Grant
In the midst of their Conference Finals, a setting where all low blows are seemingly not created equal, and teams can sometimes go nearly entire games without shooting a free throw, NBA referees are under near constant fire. Coaches and players give it to the officials with all the empathy of Daenerys in the Vaes Dothrak sweat lodge. Fans, with the advent of recordable television and an entrenched symbiosis with social media, now have the ability to immediately review plays, and a custom forum in which to voice their vehement displeasure. It’s beyond Thunderdome.
All this, despite the fact that the officials have a job as difficult as the one-legged man at an ass-kicking contest.
That’s not to say I sympathize with them, mind you. They get paid a hell of a lot of money to do what they do, and nobody’s holding a gun to their head. I’ve got very little time for any official that takes a ‘woe-is-me’ approach, or attempts to do anything but apologize for a blown call, and in my experience, most fans feel the same way. They don’t want to hear why a bad call happened, they just want it to be rectified the next time.
The league knows this, which is why referees are rarely permitted to speak to the media. It would achieve nothing. And the NBA, if nothing else, is a pragmatic league.
Here’s the thing: refereeing professional basketball 100% accurately is impossible, full stop. It’s not like baseball, or football, where if we had a million monkeys with a million replay machines, we could somehow get every call right. Too many of the rules rely on an official’s personal judgement. Just think about how many times you’ve watched the slow motion replay of a contested block/charge, and disagreed with the person next to you about what the call will be, or better yet, what the correct call should be. The officials need to make these calls in real time, which is an objectively unachievable task, to coin a word. More simply put, it’s a fools errand.
The league knows this also. Which is why what they’re doing to their own officials right now makes no sense at all.
Beginning on March 2nd of last year, the NBA began releasing what is known as a ‘Last Two Minute (L2M) Report’, breaking down the the last two minutes of every close game, and grading every call and non-call made by the officials in that time frame. You can view a sample of one of these reports here. Each one is available online, and one is released following every game that is within 5 points at the end of the fourth quarter and/or overtime. Here’s the description listed within the report:
Below is the league’s assessment of officiated events that occurred in the last two minutes of last night’s games which were within five points at the two-minute mark (and during overtime, where applicable). The plays assessed include all calls (whistles) and notable non-calls. Notable non-calls will generally be defined as material plays directly related to the outcome of a possession. Calls that are indirectly related to the outcome (e.g., a non-call on contact away from the play) and/or plays that are only observable with the help of a stop-watch, zoom or other technical support, but have some merit in reporting, are noted in brackets along with the explanatory comments. The league may change an opinion after further review, particularly when a new video angle becomes available. If you have any questions, please contact the NBA Communications Department.
At first, it seemed like this was a step in the right direction. Fans have often cried out for referees to be fined, fired or worse. If players faced discipline for poor conduct, they reasoned, why shouldn’t referees be subject to the same type of penalties? And if they already are, why shouldn’t it be made public? Give us scrutiny, or give us
For its part, the NBA has long had problems with officials blowing calls in big moments, a perception that they treat star players differently, and of course, with players embellishing in order to draw favourable calls. The league, which likes to posit itself as the most fan-friendly in all the major North American sports, would respond to the fans! The L2M Report would add a layer of transparency to the process, giving the referees a chance to explain their reasoning on big calls, and a chance for the league to publicly acknowledge any mistakes.
It seemed laudable, because it was meant to.
Then you remember that coaches, players and front offices have essentially been muzzled by the league, facing exorbitant fines for any public criticism of the officials. And you remember that a basketball game is not only two, but 48 minutes long, and that questionable calls happen in every game, not just in the close ones.
After remembering these things, and reading several of these reports, you start to ask the very reasonable question — what the hell is the point of this?
The league would still contend it’s about transparency. By their own numbers (which is a bit like how we used to trust the USOC to drug-test its own athletes), on more than 500 plays reviewed during the playoffs, referees have been 96.2% accurate on whistled plays, and 88.6% accurate on all plays. That means, as most fans would tell you, they’re far less accurate when it comes to non-calls, since I’m pretty sure that 96.2% number is incorporated within the 88.6%, thus dragging the total percentage way up. Accuracy numbers specifically for non-calls were not easily available. This makes sense. It’s rarely the whistle blown that leaves fans irate, it’s far more often when the tin is left dangling.
For the sake of argument, let’s take the leagues statistics at face value. It still begs the question: what is the point of this transparency if it doesn’t lead to anything tangible? The fans are still pissed about the missed calls — I don’t know if you’ve ever been in an argument before, but it doesn’t make the other person feel better to say: ‘Hey, good news! You’re actually just being irrational!’
If the league isn’t going to go back and alter the results of games because of these missed calls (and they can’t), and they aren’t going to publicly suspended or reprimanded any officials (and they won’t) just what the hell is the end goal?
There are two major problems with the L2M as I see it. One, is that it doesn’t begin to capture the scope of an NBA game. The last two minutes is such an arbitrary and miniscule portion of the game so as to be nearly useless. The other is the timing of the reports release. Putting out the L2M by 5:00 pm the day after the game might seem like the NBA is attempting to mete out swift justice, but all it really does is drive the 24/7 sports media news cycle, particularly when there’s a clusterfuck like the recent Thunder-Spurs debacle.
The referees themselves seem to have had enough of the whole thing, which makes me thinks there will be a significant change of some kind before long. NBA refs are unionized employees, and if they ever decided to strike or walk off the job, the league would be completely screwed. Or didn’t you notice the officials during March Madness this year?
On the most recent edition of The Drop, the Starters long-form NBA podcast, the guys had a lengthy discussion of the L2M, and how it might be detrimental to the officiating, rather than helpful. Host J.E. Skeets made the assertion (I’m paraphrasing here) that knowing you’ve blown a call or multiple calls might get in the head of the official and cause him or her to be gun-shy (or trigger-happy, for that matter) the next time. In other words, these people have hard enough jobs as it is! Is having your mistakes pointed out in public making you better or worse at your job? Do we really need to publicly scrutinize these failings, when 100% success isn’t an achievable goal?
To me, the answer is no. But the reports are probably not going away. So what can we do to fix them?
If the NBA really is committed to this transparency, the logical next steps would be to publish a full 48 minute report, and for every single game, not just the close contests. Calls should also be attributed to individual officials when possible, rather than to the officiating crew as a whole. This would allow for accurate individual statistics to be compiled. You’d start to hear fans utter things like ‘Oh no, we’ve got Danny Crawford tonight — he always blows the charge!’, ‘Don’t worry, Bill Kennedy is crew chief tonight and he counts a long five seconds’ or ‘Sweet fancy Moses, that’s Monty McCutchen’s music! He only hit 78.4% of his non-calls last season!’. The possibilities are really endless. I am all for this. However, these statistics shouldn’t be released immediately after every single game. Not only is that cruel and unusual punishment for the officials, but it would be an unnecessarily arduous task for the league. Publish them bi-weekly or monthly. In the playoffs, release them on a round-by-round basis. You’ll still drive your media cycles — fans won’t forget a particularly egregious call or non-call, and would be champing at the bit for the release of every report.
Oh well. It’s all part of the glory of being an NBA fan, and a reminder that we don’t really have control over any of this crap, despite the leagues assertions that it’s done with us in mind. With the Warriors down three games to one and the Raptors only two wins from an NBA Finals berth, you can’t apply logic or reason to things anymore, anyway. The cosmic dance continues. Haywoode Workman will continue to be a treasure. Joey Crawford will continue to throw darts at a picture of Tim Duncan well into retirement. And somewhere, Tony Brothers is almost certainly not blowing his whistle — or blowing it at the wrong time.
Dan Grant is an editor at the Same Page and a contributor to SB Nation’s Raptors HQ. He can be found on Twitter @SlamminDannyG. He used to be both a part-time softball umpire and an ice hockey referee, so yes, he’s kind of an expert.