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Ineptitude, inconsistency and organized crime: NBA officiating cannot be trusted

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From LeBron James showboating on the rim (and not getting called for a technical foul) to Richard Jefferson tripping Kevin Durant in the final seconds of the game causing him to fall (and not getting called for a foul), the Warriors-Cavs Christmas Day game highlights all that is wrong with NBA officiating.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Cleveland Cavaliers
Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) and Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) at Quicken Loans Arena.
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

This isn’t about a bunch of sour-puss Warriors’ fans displeased with a one-point loss to the much-maligned Cavs on Christmas Day.

It’s about an ongoing issue in NBA basketball that affects all teams and most players, impacting paychecks, future games and playoff possibilities. This is, of course, about the inconsistent, sometimes incoherent, officiating of NBA referees. On Christmas Day, the NBA referees lived up to the awful reputation they have earned and solidified over the years.

For Warriors’ fans, two of the biggest officiating blunders in the holiday game versus the Cavs were: 1) the refs not calling a technical foul on LeBron James for showboating on the rim; and 2) the refs not calling a foul on Richard Jefferson who, in the final seconds of the game, tripped Kevin Durant, causing him to fall and take an awkward shot from a seated position the floor:

Give it to Durant for not giving up on the play! Out of time, he knew he couldn’t get back up, keep the ball and make a shot. There also was no time to pass the ball in hopes that another player could get a good shot off. So, he launched it above his head from a seated position. Although the ball had a good arc and trajectory, it was off course and fell wide of the basket. Even for a team with the best shooters on the planet — Durant, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson — this should be considered a low-probability circus shot for any player.

Because of poor officiating, the Warriors were cheated out of a trip to the free-throw line and a probable win. Durant was 12-12 from the free-throw line for the game, which means there was a very good chance he would have made both free-throw shots if the refs had called the foul on Jefferson. One free-throw would have tied the game; a second would have put the Warriors ahead by one, with only a second or so left in the game for the Cavs to inbound and advance the ball.

In this fantasy land of what-ifs, no one is denying that the Warriors had other issues that led to the Christmas Day loss — including going only 9-for-30 from deep and tallying 20 turnovers for the game. But that does not negate the fact that a foul should have been called on Jefferson, earning Durant a trip to the free-throw line.

Film don’t lie.

But the most galling officiating error came when the refs failed to blow the whistle on LeBron James for a technical, following his extracurricular activities on the rim.

Section IV of the NBA rules and regulations state:

a. An offensive player who deliberately hangs on his basket ring, net, backboard or support during the game shall be assessed a non-unsportsmanlike technical foul and a $500 fine.

The rules and regulations also identify only one exception to the aforementioned rule:

EXCEPTION: An offensive or defensive player may hang on the basket ring, backboard or support to prevent an injury to himself or another player, with no technical foul assessed.

In the Christmas Day game, the refs did not call LeBron James for this:

That’s right. James got away with three deliberate swings from the rim over a span of approximately four seconds. And this is to say nothing of the jerking and pulling. When he finally jumps down after hearing a whistle, he lifts his hands above his head in protest — indicating he knew he had committed a violation. Yet, despite the whistle, the refs did not award him the technical foul and $500 fine he deserved.

Now, let us consider the technical foul called on Draymond Green in the game against Utah during the previous week (Note: Start watching at the 1:10 mark to avoid the shade of this talking head):

That’s right. Green was called for a technical foul after his body swung exactly once from the momentum of running and dunking; he stayed on the rim less than two seconds. He did a pull-up of sorts before hopping down, but it is clear he was looking down at the floor to ensure the ball was not beneath him so that he could lower himself safely — which should have qualified as an exception to the rim-hanging rule.

In the post-game press conference, Warriors Coach Steve Kerr strongly defended Green’s action on the rim as falling under the safety exception, pointing out the fast-break speed with which Green was running before making the dunk. He also mentions that the ball was on the floor beneath Green, since he had left the nine remaining players in the dust.

By contrast, James was not in a fast-break situation on Christmas Day. He was thrown the ball close to the basket, took a few strides, elevated, dunked — showboated Cirque du Soleil-style. James had no reason at all to be on the rim that long. His basket activity does not qualify as an exception to Section IV (a) of the NBA rules and regulations. He should have been assessed a T.

History repeating?

The NBA OFFICIATING Last Two Minute Report that came out the next day labels James’ dunk theatrics “INC,” for “Incorrect Non-Call” — meaning James should have been called for a technical foul. (These NBA OFFICIATING Last Two Minute Reports came about as a way to improve transparency in the wake of a referee cheating scandal in the early 2000s involving disgraced NBA ref Tom Donaghy and noted organized crime actors.)

To avoid doing time in federal prison, Donaghy offered to provide detailed information on game manipulation by the league. The judge ultimately rejected his plea offer. But Donaghy claimed in open court that directives came from the top for refs to call “bogus fouls to manipulate results,” and that refs were “discourage[d] ... from calling technical fouls on star players.”

In 2007, then-NBA Commissioner David Stern referred to Donaghy in a press conference as a “lone isolated criminal.” He repeatedly stated that Donaghy’s claims against the league were his desperate attempt to stay out of prison and/or drag as many people down with him as he could.

Still, Donaghy never wavered from his assertion that the NBA encouraged this wrongdoing to “boost ticket sales and television ratings” — citing Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference finals as an example of a specific game that was fixed for the purpose of extending the series. (A seventh game, obviously, meant more ticket sales, more advertising, more television coverage, more money.)

The present-day actions of the NBA referees cannot be ignored — not when NBA officiating remains inconsistent and, at times, incoherent or incomprehensible.

Not when overt fouls are not called on “star players,” as was the case on Christmas Day with LeBron James not being called for rim acrobatics following a dunk.

Not when a player like Draymond Green has seven technical fouls 32 games into an 82-game season — at least a few of which were questionable calls.

Not when other players, like Indiana Pacers star Paul George, blatantly accused the league on Monday of deciding in advance the direction games will go, stating:

“I’ve been fined multiple times. I’ve been vocal to the point where the league issues [a statement], ‘Hey, we missed a call. Hey, we missed that.’ Officials do it during games [saying], ‘I missed that call, I missed this call. We’re sorry. We’re sorry.’ It’s getting repetitive. They see it, they know what’s going on. They know what a foul [is]. They know what’s not a foul. It comes down from somewhere else how these games are going, I believe.”

Surely, Paul George’s fine for these statements will be monstrous.

Perception is reality.

Perception is reality — and not just for players and fans.

Since the NBA is such a mega-money machine, perception is also reality for the companies whose products are endorsed by various NBA players and advertised during games. Is this the perception the league wants hanging around? If a player of such prominence as Paul George is willing to accuse the league of fixing games through poor refereeing — at the risk of massive fines — then the league has a major problem on its hands.

If the NBA wants to foster a different perception, it must look at the hard evidence — game film — and, simply, do better. This requires moving beyond the ineffective Last Two Minute Report that admits to officiating errors, but does not offer corrective measures. In many ways, this is like throwing salt into the wounds of the players on the losing team, or twisting the knife deeper into the backs of the players who were incorrectly called for fouls, especially technical fouls, which can have stiff consequences for teams as the season wears on.

Players and coaches are held accountable for everything they do on the court (and, often, for what they do off of it, too). It is time for the referees to be held accountable. If players are fined for something as inconsequential as wearing a headband upside down, or for something as important as speaking in the media about very problematic officiating, then the referees should be fined for their egregious errors — especially when those errors affect the outcomes of games.

Corrective measures need to be enacted that move beyond flaccid admissions, and these measures need to cover the entirety of a game, not just the final two minutes.

Fans, players and coaches realize that games cannot be replayed and every call will not be accurate. But, with the advanced technology we have today, there is no excuse for it to be this inaccurate. More replays need to be run. Heck, it would not be too difficult for league officials to review every foul call after each quarter and announce any corrected calls in the subsequent quarter.

The league should act now.

For Commissioner Adam Silver, this issue of terrible officiating isn’t going away — because fans are outraged. A statement here and a statement there will not pacify passionate fan bases that feel their teams are being cheated. In fact, fans probably feel they are being cheated, too.

When fans get to the point that they no longer trust the refereeing — or deem the outcomes of games to be fixed through corruption, for profit — they will stop buying tickets and merchandise, and stop watching games on TV or League Pass. It is up to Adam Silver to improve NBA officiating to prevent another decline in popularity of the league.

Of course, the people hurt most by unstable officiating are the athletes who have worked their entire lives to ascend to the basketball heights of the NBA … only to be cheated out of wins (and potential championships and legacies), all because someone in a suit potentially decided that LeBron James is a star who needs to stay on the floor, or that Draymond Green is a villain who should not be allowed so much as an audible exhale.


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