The NBA finals don’t begin until June 4, but there’s one blanket statement that can be made right now. This is the worst officiated post-season in NBA history.
No, there hasn’t been a miscarriage of justice like in 2002, where bad calls may have decided the Western Conference finals. But it wouldn’t be a surprise if there were errors on that magnitude in the upcoming games. So far, a key-playoff contest, Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinal series between the Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks, was decided by poor officiating, and many other games have been indirectly affected by bad calls. In addition, almost all the morning memos that come from the league offices either rescind what was called as a technical foul the night before, or some in cases, a no call becomes a flagrant foul.
With so many games decided by a point or two, it doesn’t take a mathematician to conclude that unwarranted and overlooked free-throw opportunities are deciding big games.
To be clear, I’m not against free throw shooting. Free throws are a cornerstone of a good offense. The difference in shooting percentage between the good teams and bad teams isn’t huge, (roughly two baskets per game). What separates the strong offenses from the weak ones is the ability to get to the free throw line, nailing three-pointers and getting offensive rebounds. Of these three factors, free throws are particularly important as they drive the opponents’ key players to the bench with foul trouble, and even Dwight Howard, normally a poor free throw shooter, hits them when it counts.
The constant parade of free throws make these games very long, but I think the real blame belongs to the networks that see every 20-second time out as a chance to have “the most interesting man in the world” remind us to “stay thirsty” or some other ode to Madison Avenue creativity. Three-hour NBA games are not a problem (not for me at least since I have no school-aged kids); it’s the inaccuracies and what it says about the game’s administration.
Playoff games are different from the rest of the season. During the regular season, an East Coast team might fly to Denver for a game on Monday, play in San Antonio on Tuesday, Minneapolis on Thursday, Portland on Friday then fly home for a Sunday afternoon game. Under those circumstances, it’s all a team can do to make sure that they are running their plays correctly. With the opportunity to face the same opponent seven times in two weeks (with a maximum of four plane rides), teams can plan to disrupt an opponent’s offense in several different ways, offering new schemes with each contest. Small wonder the games are more physical. A lot of the fouls and most of the flagrant and technical fouls are called in the name of the refs “keeping control of the game.”
Here’s the big problem. From an officiating standpoint, the league treats the playoff games the same as the regular season ones. Whether it’s Game 7 of the conference finals or a comparatively meaningless February matchup between the Memphis Grizzlies and the New Jersey Nets, there are three officials working the game. Since playoff games are more important, the officiating crews working them should be larger.
The NBA should take a page from baseball (which sounds strange since umpires struggle to call balls and strikes correctly) and have more officials at each playoff game. The league employs at least 45 referees (enough officials to have three at 15 different games per night during the regular season), so most of them should work the post-season. I’d like to have five per contest during the early rounds of the playoffs and a sixth from the conference finals onward to be the video official, so that plays that require replay consultation can be quickly resolved. With five officials on the floor, each would be primarily responsible for a smaller area on the court, and the crew would have an easier time adjudicating the intense action of the post-season.
Getting the games called correctly and fairly is crucial to the integrity of the league. I know of several knowledgeable sports fans who gave up on the game after 2002, and the name of Tim Donaghy is still fresh in the minds of most hoops fans. With so many close playoff games, one bad call in the second period has enormous implications. The league needs to be more proactive in making sure that the games are properly called.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.