By David Aldridge, TNT analyst
Posted Jun 16 2009 2:56PM
For weeks, TNT analyst David Aldridge has been delving into the state of officiating in the NBA, trying to separate the perception of the league's referees and how they do their job with the reality of it. He's heard from fans, talked to officials, debated with owners and gone straight to the top, to NBA commissioner David Stern.
Here is the final part of Aldridge's in-depth examination:
So, the readers will scream at me, "Is anything wrong with how the refs call games, and how the league handles its refs?"
Well, glad you asked. As a matter of fact, several things that both officials and the league could do would decrease the suspicion level that always ratchets up this time of year:
The lack of consistency from game to game in the Playoffs is pet peeve No. 1 for players and coaches. When two teams play one another, over seven games, they develop patterns. If they find an effective way to, say, keep Dwight Howard from coming across the lane on the move to catch the ball, they'll use it again and again. But the referees don't stay the same in a series. Each game has a different crew. And different crews interpret the rules differently. So Crew No. 1 may allow contact in the post against Howard. But in the next game, Crew No. 2's interpretation is a 180-degree turn.
Coach A, whom I mentioned in Part II, said officials are inconsistent in part because the rule book has grown too big.
"There's just too many things for them to do," he said, "too many things to call. There's so many rules and interpretations, in many ways it's made the officials mechanical instead of instinctive ... their feel has been taken away by technique and mechanics. We have great referees, but they're not allowed to use their instincts ... on one play, they have to look at three seconds in the paint (by offensive players), three seconds on defense, and they have to call traveling and carrying. All on one play."
Another big part of this problem is that officials are responsible for different areas on the court, and this changes throughout the course of the game. (Warning: this gets a little wonky.)
To maximize their coverage on the court, the three referees take different places on the court, trying to form a triangle that gives each a straight line of vision. (Think of them as satellites that need a clear line to send their signals to you.) The "lead" official on a play takes position along the baseline, moving up and down to see play in the paint and whether or not balls go out of bounds. The "trail" official is about 28 feet from the basket, on the outside, looking for contact outside of the paint, like when cutters start trying to come through the lane, or when screens are set. The "slot" official is at the free throw line extended, and is looking at activity on the weak side. The lead and the trail official are supposed to stay on the same side of the court, with the slot official on the opposite side.
But the officials don't stay in those spots during the game. Depending on where the ball is, they rotate from play to play. For example, when the ball changes possession on a miss or turnover, the trail official, because he or she is closest to the other end of the court (remember, they're 28 feet from the basket), runs down court to the opposite baseline and becomes the lead official on the next possession. And if the ball moves from the strong side to the weak side, the officials rotate position; the slot becomes the trail and the trail becomes the slot.
What this means is that on one play, a referee who may let a little contact in the paint go can be the lead official. And on the very next play, at the other end of the court, the lead official could be someone else -- perhaps a ref that says any contact is a foul. That means at one end of the floor a bump isn't a foul, and at the other end, it is. That's often why, in some games, you can be physical with Shaq, but in others, you can't. And it's why coaches often are frustrated, when play at one end is different from play at the other end.
An overemphasis on "Areas of Emphasis" -- occasional crackdowns on increasingly egregious violations that occur from time to time, dictated from the home office to the officials -- also can have an effect on the Playoffs.
"They may push them to call the game a certain way, in terms of what calls to make," Fisher said. "Let's call this more. And it may impact one team more than it does the other. If you have guy in the middle like Dwight Howard and they want to call post play tighter, it's going to affect you differently than it would if you don't have a guy in the middle like Dwight Howard. We feel like those are things that the league does game by game, in particular the postseason, because there's so much focus on each game."
Asked if, and how, the Playoffs are officiated differently from the regular season, Lakers coach Phil Jackson took it back to 1992, when his Bulls played Portland in the Finals.
"Prior to the series between Portland (and Chicago), Portland was in the finals in the west with Utah," Jackson said. "If you remember, Buck Williams and Karl Malone got in just some outrageous wrestling matches, and the NBA came into The Finals with the fact that this was not the kind of basketball that we wanted to see exhibited as the NBA game. It kind of changed the context of how Portland could play. Buck Williams got fouls (against the Bulls). And I think there was kind of a mood as to how is the game going to be played."
Assign the same crew to one series, and rotate their positioning throughout the game.
If you put the same three referees on a series, each of the four to seven games is much more likely to be called the same way. With the same referees for each game, teams would be able to adjust quicker, knowing that contact, for example, is either going to be allowed, or it isn't. Officials could also get used to the same players, and the way that those players play, if they see them again and again. (They might also be less fatigued if they can sleep in the same bed for more than one night rather than having to get up at 4 a.m. to catch the first flight from, say, Miami to San Antonio for a Spurs-Nuggets playoff game after working Heat-Bulls the night before.)
And by moving the officials around more during games, there would be less chance that one ref is under one basket for most of the game calling it one way, while another ref is under the other basket calling it a different way.
Yes, there could be a problem if a ref tosses a player or coach in Game 1 and then has to see that player or coach 48 hours later. But wouldn't it better to address potential confrontations then and there, rather than wait for some time down the road?
After every playoff game, you can bet the losing coach will find a way to work this into the press conference: "And I can't say anything about the officiating, 'cause they'll fine me, but I can't understand how they shot 40 free throws and we only shot 22."
It couldn't be that his team wasn't as aggressive as the other team, or that the other team was ahead throughout the fourth quarter and thus would likely get more free throw attempts as his trailing team fouled to stop the clock. It couldn't be that they have quicksilver guards and his team has Clydesdales in the middle. It couldn't be karma or Superman reversing the tides. It could only be that the refs did his team wrong, and could they rectify that by the next game?
Officials look at TV and they read the papers. And if they've heard nothing during the preceding 48 hours than a steady whine from an opposing coach or team about Shaq's fouling, is it not possible they could think, "Hmm, maybe they have a point. Maybe I should look harder at what Shaq's doing tonight." Is it not possible that seed planted in their brain will bear fruit?
Coach A, mentioned earlier in this series, says that coaches complain because they're "just being honest" about what they've seen in a game. But coaches complain at the podium for another reason, too: It works. Jackson has done this for years to great effect, whether with the Bulls or Lakers. But regardless of why they do it, to have coach after coach question the officiating after an emotional loss is tantamount to waving a red flag in front of a bull. (In this case, you fans are the bull.) It only makes fans angrier and more willing to see conspiracies against their favorite team where none may exist.
Stern takes responsibility.
"I've said this last year: I take the blame for that," he said. "I sort of accepted that (coaches) have already become crazy through the grind of the playoffs, and we try to cut them as much slack as we can."
But players are always held responsible for what they've done before. If they've done drugs once, the second time they're caught, the penalty is steeper. If they get in a fight once, the next time, they're suspended longer. And on and on. Why that isn't the same for coaches who use the postgame presser to whine over and over -- especially when it clearly seems to impact the officials working the next game -- is a mystery.
Fine them hard -- say, $50,000 for a first offense. Fine them more if they're recidivists, and if they keep it up during a series, suspend them for a game. And fine their teams more for that recidivism, too, up to and including the forfeiture of draft picks.
That's how seriously I view the problem of coaches crying. They are saying, in essence, "The refs cheated us." They are attacking the integrity of the game. And they should not be allowed to continue doing that when the most people are paying the most attention --the postseason.
Way too many flagrant fouls are called during the Playoffs.
Some argue that there are too many technicals, too, especially considering that a player is suspended for one game in the Playoffs after his seventh technical of the postseason. But I will allow that referees have to have the discretion to send a message to a player or coach that their behavior has crossed a line.
Flagrant fouls are another issue. A Flagrant 1 foul gives the offended team two free throws and possession of the basketball. And when a player is assessed a Flagrant 2, if it is upheld by the referees after watching on replay, that player is ejected from the game. Each obviously can have a huge impact on a particular game's outcome.
In 2,460 regular season games, according to league statistics on NBA.com, a total of 94 flagrant fouls were called on 61 players. With each of the 30 teams playing 82 games, referees called, on a per-game basis, .0832 flagrant fouls a game during the regular season.
Entering Game 4 of The Finals, referees had called 16 flagrant fouls on 13 players during the playoffs. Before Game 4, there had been 83 total playoff games played -- one more than one team's regular season. That works out to a per-game average of .1977 flagrants called per game during the Playoffs -- more than double the average in the regular season. Think of it this way: If you took the entire postseason's worth of games, subtracted one and called it "The Stroms," The Stroms would have been whistled for 16 flagrants during the regular season.
Worse yet -- at least as I see it for the refs -- the league has rescinded seven of the postseason flagrant fouls, and retroactively reclassified seven fouls as flagrant that weren't considered flagrant by the referees during the game. Anthony Johnson's Flagrant 2 foul during the Orlando-Cavaliers Eastern finals against Cleveland's Mo Williams -- for which Johnson was ejected -- was rescinded. Andrew Bynum's Flagrant 1 foul for elbowing Denver's Chris Andersen in the Western Conference finals was rescinded. But the league upgraded a no-call on Denver's Dahntay Jones for tripping Bryant during those Western finals to a Flagrant 1. A New York Times story earlier this month pointed out that that was double the amount of flagrants changed one way or another just two years ago, though only a slight increase over the 12 reversals from last year's playoffs.
The standard that the league continually says is the measure by which its referees determine whether or not a foul is flagrant -- a windup by the fouling player, contact by the fouling player with the fouled player, and then follow-through -- is a slippery one. No one knows how the flagrant is going to be applied by the officials, and no one, including the referees, knows when their judgments are going to be overturned the next day by the league office.
Again, take LeBron. There is also no way to foul James lightly -- he's 260 pounds of chiseled muscle. If you try to foul him by grabbing an arm, he's taking you with him to the basket for an and-one. The only way to foul LeBron when he gets up a head of steam is to pound him. That's going to look like a flagrant a lot of the time when it's just a defender trying to stop an unstoppable force. But you can't have different rules for one guy.
Dallas' Wright had a point when he asked, after the non-foul call against Denver's Anthony that led to Anthony's hitting the game-winning three, "What do you want me to do? Do you want me to Derek Fisher him, just take him out, and then I get a flagrant foul late in the game?"
Carlisle allows that the issue of flagrant fouls is "probably the most polarizing topic right now" among coaches.
"The difficulty of officiating our game is the reason it's one of the best games to watch," he said. "In the big picture, it's really a good thing. It means your game is extremely popular and fun to watch."
With the Brawl at Auburn Hills, and the damage it did to the NBA's image and its bottom line burned into the league's psyche, officials are under enormous pressure from the league to keep anything like that from ever happening again. And, thus, there is a premium placed on keeping things "under control," not letting physical contact escalate into something more. What used to be viewed as just a normal, hard, "playoff" foul is now, too often, judged as something more sinister.
The league has to ease up on its referees, and it has to allow for the fact that the Playoffs are emotional and may occasionally veer toward messy. These are grown men playing for a championship. You can't instruct referees to let the players play, then try to reel them in when they play hard. Either let the contact go and live with the occasional scrap that may follow, or call every ticky-tack foul from the opening tip. The players will adjust, one way or another. But do it every game.
I don't know if you are swayed at all by all of this. I hope you are. Reporters are supposed to be skeptcial, not cynical. If there is evidence that something is rotten in the State of Stern, I promise you, I will follow it. But right now, it's not there -- no matter how hard you squint, and how much you want bogeymen to explain away the fact that Kobe is better, and LeBron is a freak, and that in the NBA, the best team almost always wins.
Derek Fisher gets the last word.
"I don't think guys feel like, because this team won the championship, that's what the league wanted," he said. "The league's not standing there with you when you're shooting your 3-pointer. Nobody had anything to do with that. If you don't box out on the free throw line, the NBA doesn't have anything to do with that. That's all on you. If anybody does say that or think that, I don't know that I have a comment for them, anyway."
Longtime NBA columnist and broadcaster David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT and a regular contributor to NBA.com.
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