Why the NBA’s Officiating Crisis Matters

All’s well that ends well. At least, that is how the NBA is hoping basketball fans feel after the Golden State Warriors, the best (and most entertaining) team in the league, triumphed over LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in this year’s Finals. And with this week’s draft, many NBA fans will be looking to the future rather than to the past season or postseason, as hope springs eternal—just as did for the Warriors when Stephen Curry slipped to them just over six years ago.

But all is not well in the Association. The NBA is facing an officiating crisis. It threatens the integrity of the sport and the legitimacy of the league.

On the one hand, the Warriors were clearly the deserving champions. They are likely one of the five best teams in the history of the sport. They won 83 games and finished first in defensive efficiency, scoring, and assists. At their best, when they moved the ball while taking care of it, they were virtually unstoppable on offense. Their elite defense was the anchor that put them a level above every other team this year and was the key to their ultimate triumph as champions.

But if the Warriors were not a historically great team, but merely the best team, the reality is that the officials, not the players, could very well have decided who this year’s champion was, as they have in the past. Numerous games were decided entirely by the officiating this postseason. Many games were marred by sloppy play as players struggled to play through overly physical defense that was rightfully not permitted the entire season. Referee Scott Foster turned home court advantage into home court disadvantage, as home teams lost 12 straight games in this year’s playoffs with Foster on the court. The away team deserved some of these victories, but Foster’s brutal calls and no-calls changed the outcome of some of these games as well. Nearly every NBA analyst agreed the officiating during the Finals, the NBA’s biggest stage, was simply awful.
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NBA fans should not know the names of Scott Foster, Joey Crawford, Tony Brothers, or any other referee. Yet these are household names for serious basketball fans. Why? Because they are determining the outcome of games—they could not be more relevant. If you want to understand what is happening on the court, you often need to know who is officiating. This is disastrous for the sport.

For some, this is proof that there is a conspiracy in which referees are expected (or are chosen because of who they are) to extend a series in order to increase revenue for the league. Others draw the conclusion that the officials are merely extraordinarily incompetent.

This crisis is nothing new. The NBA faced a betting scandal with Tim Donaghy. Nothing challenges the legitimacy of a sport more than the specter of illicit gambling, which is why penalties for players who gamble are so severe. But Donaghy did not just gamble, he also provided an insider account that confirmed the accusations of those who believe the league conspires to manipulate the outcome of playoff games, accusing certain referees of being ‘company men’ that do the bidding of the league.

Tim Donaghy is not the most ethical man on the planet, but he knows NBA refs better than perhaps anyone else, even making his living on these insights. Donaghy was heavily critical of the officiating in the NBA Finals after games two and three, games that some compared to rugby because of the incessant fouling that was permitted:

I’d picked Golden State and Cleveland stole it. Curry, a slick shooter but not a physical player, is at a disadvantage against James, a physical player now. Because the refs aren’t enforcing the rule book. It’s easier for refs to call a physical game and let things go. But that affects a player like Curry and favors James….

Now I’ll have to reevaluate how I pick my teams if the league allows this kind of play to continue.

With Cleveland undermanned due to injuries, there was a clear incentive for the league to assign Scott Foster to officiate game two where his streak might continue and to allow for overly physical games that negated the Warriors’ skill advantage, so that the Cavs could remain in these games and the series. Then the league might see an incentive to have officials begin to call games so that they more closely resemble the sport of basketball. The result would be a lucrative six or seven game series with high ratings and revenue. This is precisely how it played out.

Now this could be the result of sheer incompetence on the part of the referees. If so, the officials who lost control of games two and three should no longer be doing high profile games or perhaps even employed by the league. Of course, Scott Foster was assigned to a later game in the series, indicating that the NBA saw it a little differently.

The Finals played out in a similar way to the Warriors-Grizzlies series this postseason, when the Grizzlies took a 2-1 lead after officials simply refused to call hand-checks, the holding (and even hugging) of shooters off the ball, and a seemingly endless number of grabs, holds, and pushes. It was so bad that simple pick-and-rolls could not be executed the way they are throughout the entire season.

If the best team and best players are supposed to get star treatment, a claim that is sometimes made (and is certainly sometimes true), it is unclear whether it was financial incentives or sheer incompetence that put the eventual champions and league MVP down 2-1 in two different series where referees threw the rule book out. Even in the Warriors’ first round series, it was clear something was seriously wrong with the officiating. Stephen Curry was clobbered by two players shooting a three-pointer to tie the game. The ref had the best conceivable view, staring directly at Curry from point blank range. No call.

All of this happened to one team—the best team. But brutal officiating was endemic in the playoffs. LeBron’s team may have benefited from the libertarian officiating in the Finals, but he personally had to fight through far too much contact and was appalled by some of the no-calls. We were denied seeing not only the awesome, fluid offense of the Warriors, but more spectacular, athletic plays from LeBron.
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Fans of every team can probably tell you about a playoff game where the refs let things get out of control and give you a litany of shockingly bad calls and no-calls that occurred across a series. The officiating in game four of the Cavs-Bulls series (with Scott Foster) was atrocious. The winning team scored just 86 points in an unwatchable game. The Spurs-Clippers series was full of officiating mistakes. Clippers coach Doc Rivers was even fined $25,000 for his criticism of ‘brutal calls.’ In these high profile series between quality teams, the officiating was far, far too important.

Throwing out the rule book destroys the aesthetic appeal of the game. It cuts down on scoring and athletic plays. It makes it harder for shooters to find space and more difficult to pass the ball because less help defense is required. Offensive players respond, just as LeBron did, by frequently pushing off and sometimes by traveling, as well. When games are officiated this way, it is simply a different sport—a vastly inferior sport, where skill is not rewarded. And it is ugly to watch, even if the last two minutes of a close game keep us on the edge of our seats.
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This poor officiating would have truly been disastrous if the Warriors had actually lost to the Grizzlies or the Cavs, something that would have been grossly unjust. At the same time, while the best team won this year, this hasn’t always been true. The Sacramento Kings, as Donaghy claims and every non-Lakers fan who watched knows (and probably even some Lakers fans), were cheated out of a trip to the Finals by officials in the 2002 West Conference Finals. Game six of this series is perhaps the worst officiated NBA game in the last couple of decades. More recently, LeBron James’ first title may not have happened had refs called the clear foul LeBron committed on Kevin Durant in the final moments of game two as Durant drove to the basket looking to tie the game. Sometimes, we know the wrong team wins because of the officials, as was the case in 2002. More often, as with the Heat-Thunder Finals, we have no idea who would have won if the refs had done their jobs. These are some of the more high profile cases, but the problem with officials determining outcomes is a recurrent pattern.

All sports involve luck and this includes luck with the officials. But the NBA playoffs are the ones most likely to reward the best team with a championship (if the officiating is neutral). A hot goalie can carry a team in the NHL playoffs, as can ace pitchers in Major League Baseball. Football and the NCAA basketball tournament are one-and-done affairs, allowing for more upsets. NBA teams can be derailed by injuries, off nights, and close losses to teams that are nearly as talented, but overall no sport is more likely to have the best team win the title. This makes unfair officiating all the more irritating for the neutral fan and gut-wrenching for a team and fan base that has lost a title because of it.

Now who wins an NBA championship is not a life and death issue; one need not think hard to come up with many things that are far more important. But it is a matter of fairness. When there is over-commercialization, corruption, or unbelievable incompetence, there is a real issue of injustice at stake. And even if some would rather have it not be the case, sports matter to people and play an important role in our culture and society. Regular people make real sacrifices to attend and watch games. They give their money and time to support their team. It connects them to their local communities. It is one of the rare things that brings people together across racial and class lines. In an increasingly atomized society, it is a durable source of community.

When refs steal a championship, they rip off a whole community. It did not happen this year, but it should never happen. The NBA should not be the WWE. Even though a rightful champion was crowned this year, this year’s playoffs should be a wakeup call. Whether the league is essentially scripting series or the officials suddenly wilt under the pressure of the playoffs and become pathetically inept, something must be done to stop games from being determined by the refs. The NBA needs to address its officiating crisis.