This is a pivotal season for NBA referees. Having made it through the heavy scrutiny of last season, following the Tim Donaghy betting scandal revelations, the NBA is coming off a postseason in which never-before-seen levels of controversy drew the spotlight away from some otherwise compelling games and series. Every night, it seemed somebody new was in danger of being suspended, whether it be Rafer Alston slapping Eddie House upside the head or Rajon Rondo inadvertently catching Brad Miller in the face while swiping for the ball. Each decision to suspend or not suspend a player had a huge effect upon the next game.
The NBA obviously needs to sort out that situation so that everybody is clear, once and for all, what constitutes a flagrant 1, flagrant 2 or just an old-fashioned personal foul and what the relevant suspension should be. Postseason suspensions could be served during the following regular season, for example.
Perhaps more importantly, this is the year where the NBA is set to introduce more-relaxed traveling rules and how they handle that could make the NBA's most unstoppable players ever more unstoppable. Or, alternatively, could narrow the gap between those who used to get away with such violations anyway and the rest of the field. This could theoretically affect careers and define legacies. Can they afford to have replacements in place during this crucial transition period?
Last week, the NBA officially announced that they were going to lockout the referees, in light of their ongoing contract negotiations with the league. Referee training camp began on Sunday with replacement referees. Inevitably, this has fans, players, coaches and the media concerned about the standard of officiating in the upcoming season.
What can we expect to see from these replacement referees, which will be taken from a pool of D-League and WNBA officials? In particular, how is this likely to affect the Celtics? I decided to investigate further.
Doom mongers have pointed to the fact that officials were also locked out in 1995, which is widely remembered as a debacle and not without good reason. A shoving match between Dale Davis and Michael Smith that the replacement officials were unable to split up, escalated into a full scale brawl, which saw a then-record 16 Kings and Pacers players suspended. Chris Webber was injured in another fight. O'Neal himself was injured by Matt Geiger during a particularly physical preseason game and missed the start of the year. Finally, many people spoke out about the standard of officiating. Dennis Scott, by no means the sole dissenting voice, labeled the replacements "horrible" in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel.
In theory, it shouldn't be as bad this time though. They used to have just two officials back then, with no instant replay for three pointers or buzzer beaters. The small arc takes away a lot of ambiguity about charging fouls. Additionally, he replacement officials came from college ball and the CBA last time, so weren't "in the system" and used to refereeing to NBA rules.
I decided to go back and watch a few games from the time of the original lockout and I have to say that the officiating didn't seem all that bad. Of course it would have differed from crew to crew, but the number of protested calls by players, coaches and even Tommy Heinsohn were no higher than any other game, whether it be 1995 or 2008. With that said, there were a few things that stood out:
- Apparently, they had just introduced stricter rules about disrespecting officials and being called for technical fouls. I don't know if this was done to counter the fact that the league was anticipating the players not having much respect for the replacements.
- One of the games was refereed by a college crew, who called a few travels on the perimeter which, although correct, would never normally be called in an NBA game (although perhaps they should be.)
- The CBA refs seemed a little better, although there were maybe more offensive foul calls on screens or down low and fewer what I would call "ticky-tack fouls". These are probably a closer representation of the replacement referees this time round than the college crews because they were used to dealing with pro players and NBA rules.
- The TNT announcers made reference to a game in Chicago which did almost descend into farce because there were an inordinate number of three second violations. Again, these were probably the right calls, but usually overlooked in the NBA, although it is a non-call which was - and remains - one of Tommy's biggest bugbears.
So were these referees all that awful, or did they just call everything by the book and ignore the NBA's unwritten rules? This would explain why they drew the ire of a player like Scott.
Here's what I saw from Dennis Scott in one of the games I went back and watched, though: He backed down his man in the low post and was called for an offensive foul when he shoved his man off his spot with a forearm to the chest. It was probably a foul that nine times out of ten would not be called, but on this occasion, it was. His reaction? He disrespectfully fired the ball back at the official, hitting him in the shins as he signalled to the scorer's table.
Was a technical foul called, though? Nope. And did Scott get hit with that call again? Of course not. He continued to back down the smaller guards and went to the line for 6 shots, all of which he made en route to a game-high 30 points.
Clearly, although they weren't refereeing "the NBA way", the officials were still susceptible to being intimidated, which I would suggest is probably more down to human nature than any unwritten rules the NBA might have whispered to their referees.
Another example I saw was Dino Radja being called for a travel on a low post move, another thing that NBA players usually get away with (perhaps even moreso today.) However, when Charles Barkley made an identical move, there was no whistle, much to Tommy's chagrin. Intimidation factor again? Probably.
In 1995, the lockout was over within just over a month, although they may have fast-tracked their way to a solution in view of the bad press that was being received. If this season begins and the negotiations have yet to be resolved, what can we expect from our replacement refs?
As Celtics fans, you can't help but monitor these things closely. Bennett Salvatore seems to have an agenda against Paul Pierce. Bill Kennedy was fined after goading Doc Rivers into a technical foul. Kendrick Perkins and Rasheed Wallace are among the league leaders in being "T'd up". Then you have all the incidents from last year's postseason and the additional concern that some of their main rivals have players that receive suspected "preferential treatment" from officials.
There was even that hullabaloo after game two of the 2008 finals when people complained about the one-sided officiating and they were absolutely right. I still don't know how the Celtics only shot 28 more free throws than the Lakers on a night when they went to the hoop on almost every possession, but the Lakers kept jacking threes. It should have been 38.
That's before you even get into the last two minutes, where the officials (a) ignored Kobe bumping Paul Pierce on a lay-up, (b) allowed Kobe to score despite him hooking Pierce AND travelling on the same play, (c) ignored Derek Fisher bullying Pierce off the ball, (d) allowed Vladimir Radmanovic to shove James Posey off a loose ball and then take FIVE steps on a dunk shot and (e) called a ticky-tack foul on Pierce to send Kobe to the line. My point - and there is one, other than just blind homerism - is that refereeing is never easy because close to 50% of the people watching will think you got any close calls wrong. Add in the intimidation factor (so masterfully played by Phil Jackson after this particular example) and it's hard not to worry that replacement referees will find it hard in the NBA.
Many people have joked that, "It can't be any worse," and it is interesting to consider. If the main problems in 1995 were because the replacements called it by the book and didn't overlook certain violations, then it would be very interesting if that happened again this time. Very, very interesting.
If O'Neal is called for a charge every time he barrels a post-up defender out of the way, he's going to have to resort to beating them with speed, which could get very ugly.
If every time Dwyane Wade makes a jab step move in the lane, while on the move, without dribbling the ball, he gets called for a travel, that will affect his ability to get to the hoop and make him less dangerous.
If LeBron James gets called for a travel every time he comes off a pick at the top of the key and takes three steps before taking off for a big dunk - or if he decides to add another step to his now-legal "Crab Dribble" and starts calling it a "Lobster Dribble" or something, but the officials refuse to allow it, then he'll be calling the officiating "horrible" too. Maybe that's how it would be remembered in fifteen years, too, but the rest of us would find it a refreshing change.
With the NBA's star-making agenda and - while I would stop short of suggesting they would try and engineer this - the perceived benefits they seem to expect from a LeBron-Kobe finals matchup (personally, I would find this tedious beyond belief, but that's beside the point), I doubt this would ever happen, especially with the fact that the WNBA/D-League refs will take less time to "get with the program". In fact, with the still prevalent intimidation factor, it could actually go the other way, leading to even more "superstar calls".
However, if it did play out that the superstars were receiving fewers calls, I think many of us would actually be dreading the lockout resolution and a return to the old ways. The truth is, though, that this will soon be forgotten once the original referees return, whether that is before the season, one week into it or half way through. At that time we can expect the problems associated with the current officials to return too.