The NBA playoffs are under way and that can mean only one thing: It's time to criticize the officials.
It seems like every year we hear the complaints. This year Knicks fans are up in arms about the offensive foul called on Carmelo Anthony and the no-call on Kevin Garnett's screen that set up Ray Allen's game-winning shot in Game 1; the Nuggets were upset by a missed offensive interference call on Kendrick Perkins that gave the Thunder the lead for good; Blazers coach Nate McMillan was fined for his comments on officiating; Pacers coach Frank Vogel avoided being fined by diplomatically mentioning how it's "impossible to take a charge on [Derrick Rose]," and Doug Collins also avoided being fined with, "I could (comment) but my grandkids would lose their college fund."
But the ire against the officials reached conspiracy-theory level on Tuesday. It was announced Danny Crawford would officiate Game 2 of the Mavericks-Blazers series and, from what I can tell, it was ESPN columnist Tim McMahon who reported that the Mavs are 2-16 in playoff games in which Crawford officiates. Does the NBA have it in for the Mavericks? Is Stern sick of Mark Cuban's antics? But those conspiracy theories were tame compared to this one by Yahoo!'s Kelly Dwyer:
This is the NBA trying to move you closer toward the idea that all refs are incompetent or biased or both. It would much rather give up a Tuesday's worth of negative media coverage on a "story" like this if it helps shift the narrative, which then allows them negotiating leverage down the line. Bottom line: Is it a coincidence that Danny Crawford is working Tuesday night's Dallas Mavericks game? Hell no. But not for the reason you'd think.
The negotiating leverage that Dwyer refers to has to do with the collective bargaining agreement with the National Basketball Referee's Association that expires on Sept. 1. He's saying that the NBA purposefully placed Crawford on this game to draw criticism in an effort to help gain the league leverage for that negotiation. I can't believe the NBA is that stupid. Any negative press against the officials isn't isolated to those officials. It rubs off on the entire league. The NBA also has bigger issues with the a potential lockout looming. But just the fact that someone (and not just someone but a fairly prominent NBA blogger) would think such a thing shows the NBA has a real problem on its hands.
Maybe there's still lingering doubts in the wake of the Tim Donaghy scandal. His proclamation of refs fixing games and having certain biases against players and teams gave fans fuel to question any and all calls. The lingering distrust has to be a big reason the Crawford story gained traction. But it's amazing that it didn't just gain traction through a blog like Deadspin but it permeated the mainstream media. Jennifer Floyd Engel of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram is a believer that Crawford is biased:
Coming in, Dallas had won exactly two of the 18 playoff games where referee Danny Crawford had been involved. A basketball statistician with way too much free time and mathematical acumen determined there was a five in 10,000 chance of this occurring naturally. I am pretty sure Cuban has a better chance of being named Godfather of a little Stern than of such a statistical anomaly being accidental.
And it also doesn't help that anytime there is a controversial call, Donaghy comes back into the picture and goes on every radio and TV show that will have him. On Wednesday he went on ESPN Radio Dallas and was asked if he thought it was a coincidence Crawford officiated the Mavs game, "No, absolutely not. I think that would be absolutely impossible to put that as a mere coincidence. It's no secret that when Ed Rush was supervisor of officials, he had a hatred for Mark Cuban and Danny Crawford was one of Rush's right-hand guys. So he carried out what he thought would be in the best interest of him being in the good graces with the supervisor of officials. Some guys enjoy sticking it to Mark; it's no secret."
And although Donaghy has little credibility, he has enough to further convince those who have doubts about the officiating.
But there's obviously more to it than just the Donaghy factor. The perception is that there are more missed and incorrect calls in the NBA than in any other league. This type of scrutiny isn't placed on NFL, MLB or NHL officials. Is the criticism justified? Are NBA officials simply worse than other sports' officials?
Well, in looking at most of the controversial calls from these playoffs, only the missed Perkins goaltending call was without a doubt the wrong call. The foul on Carmelo? Most simply argue that that call shouldn't be made that late in a game. By making that argument they are admitting it is in fact a foul. The Garnett screen? His leg might have been a bit further out than it should've been but it was nothing egregious. The refs missed the Perkins call and the NBA issued a statement saying as much.
Fans don't realize how much the league has done to try and regulate the officials. Aside from just calling the refs lousy, most get upset by what they deem to be inconsistent calls. They believe some refs allow more physical contact and others are whistle-happy. But this is more anecdotal than fact. The NBA employs 30 observers, mostly former college-level officials, to review every single game and every single call and grade the officials based on their performance. And those 30 observers are monitored by actuaries looking for statistical anomalies. The officials themselves also do their diligent work. They watch game film prior to matchups to know what to look for and they often will get together and analyze their performance after games as well. With this type of scrutiny it's difficult to believe Crawford truly has a bias against the Mavs.
Most of these check-and-balances are relatively new and maybe it will just take some time for the perception of officials to change. But I think there is a bigger factor at play besides skepticism post-Donaghy. The reason NBA refs get a bad rap is because of the sport itself. What makes the sport different from others makes refs prone to criticism.
In what other sport would a 7-foot, 285-pound player like Andrew Bynum wind up one-on-one with a 6-foot, 175-pound player like Chris Paul? The NFL is the only other major sport that has a wider range of weights and sizes and a mismatch like that might happen with a cornerback on a blitz against an offensive lineman but that brings up my next point.
Basketball straddles the line between a finesse game and a physical game. You have a player like Dwight Howard who looks to back opponents down and physically dominate them and then you have someone like Steve Nash who weaves his way in and out of the defense. It's a tough sport to call when the range of skills is so divergent.
But the two biggest differences between the NBA and the other leagues that cause officials to be blamed are the sheer number of calls and how those calls directly influence the score. The Wall Street Journal did a couple studies in the past two years and determined that on average, an NFL game contains 11 minutes of action and an MLB game 14 minutes. These obviously pale in comparison to the 48 minutes of action in an NBA game. With that much more playing time there are bound to be more whistles and more plays for fans to gripe about.
But then you have the NHL and soccer where games are actually longer than NBA games. The difference, though, is the (lack of) scoring and the officials' influence on it. In the NHL, an official might make a bad call that results in a power play but the team with the man-advantage still needs to score the goal against the defense. In soccer, it's the same thing even if a player receives a red card. Although, since soccer is so low scoring, when a ref makes a poor call that allows or negates a goal, they receive far more criticism than any NBA official (it happened multiple times in the 2010 World Cup).
While you'll be hard-pressed to find many hockey or soccer games where the teams combine to score 10 goals, an average combined score from a game this past season in the NBA was a shade under 200 points. Having a high-scoring game might seem to deflect criticism because no individual call can be that important but it gives fans of each team all the more chances to complain and blame the officials instead of their team. These "bad calls" directly influence the score of the game with free throws. Sure, the player has to make the shots but they are unguarded, unlike the net on a penalty kick or in a power play.
NBA officials aren't perfect. They are bound to make a few bad calls every single game just like an baseball umpire isn't going to call every pitch correctly. But NBA refs get far more criticism than they deserve. The league's PR department needs to do a better job letting people know the steps they are taking to ensure the officials are doing the best job they can. Did you know they are developing goggle simulators to get refs more experience to speed up the learning curve? Did you know about the 30 observers monitoring every single game? Probably not.
The league needs to be aggressive by reaching out to those columnists and bloggers who question their officials because fans' opinions are still largely guided by those voices. Protecting the officials will protect the integrity of the game and that is paramount to retaining fans.