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NBA invests in officials in hopes of seeing it pay off in games

Changes on horizon as NBA prepares for new ways to train referees, increase pool of officials

David Aldridge

David Aldridge TNT Analyst

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Mar 6, 2017 11:56 AM ET

The traditional three-man NBA officiating crew may expand in the years to come.

Will more referees be merrier?

The NBA head coach is actually defending NBA referees. Really.

“I wish they would do away with the Two Minute report,” the coach texted. “It’s useless and only creates (ticked) off coaches when they say ‘yes, that should have been a foul.’ There’s no way to correct it, so why throw the officials under the bus?”

This was unsolicited. The subject was something else entirely. But it speaks to the respect that most coaches and players have for NBA referees. They fuss at them during games and there are, to be sure, individual coaches and players who have beefs with individual refs. (There are, also, the tinfoil hats among you who believe every ref is on the take and cheats your favorite team.) But everyone in the game understands how hard a job referees have, night in and night out, trying to keep up with and adjudicate the actions of the world’s best players.

“Like we like to say, they’re the best at what they do. “But any team and any individual can always get better."

NBA President of Basketball Operations Byron Spruell, on NBA referees

But a six-month internal review of the NBA’s officiating program, pushed for by Commissioner Adam Silver, has reached the conclusion that more eyes and more technology can only help. The results of that review, announced by the NBA last week, boil down to this: the refs are good, but they could be better.

So the NBA’s President of Basketball Operations, Byron Spruell, announced a series of initiatives the league believes will improve officials’ performance from all areas: in number, in scheduling, in evaluation and in game responsibilities.

“Like we like to say, they’re the best at what they do,” Spruell said by phone Friday. “But any team and any individual can always get better. So we thought this was an opportunity, given where the game is, and where a lot of pieces of basketball and the officiating program is, that we can still take it to another level … me coming in with a fresh look, and league operations -- you’ve got the basketball ops side, the ref ops side, and also strategy and analytics. So all of that coming together, but a huge priority in looking at it, in my review, was actually the officiating program.”

Let’s be clear: if the refs do their jobs better, the public perception of their job will improve. “They kind of go hand in hand,” Spruwell said. “If you increase the performance, the perception increases, too.”

Several plans -- some already in operation, others on the drawing board -- will come on line in the next few years. Among the highlights:

  • The league will hire several new referees in the next few years to its current group of 64, with a goal of increasing the staff by 10 percent by next season and 25 percent in the next three years. This may include a Game Administrator position -- a referee who would sit courtside and act as a liaison between the on-court officials and the Replay Center in New Jersey.
  • A new tracking system, that started on Feb. 1, which can track up to three times the number of plays that the league was previously capable of reviewing, to help in the grading and evaluation of referees.
  • Use of new training techniques for officials, including virtual reality programs.
  • Changes in scheduling of officials, which may include keeping referees together during the regular season in crews for multiple games, similar to the way the NFL’s officiating crews remain together during the season.
  • Establishing an Officiating Advisory Council, with five permanent members and rotating members from the coaching, playing, media and referee communities, to focus on current and future issues involving referees. The permanent members are former U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair General Martin Dempsey; former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan; ESPN/ABC analyst and Hall of Famer Doug Collins; TNT studio analyst Kenny Smith and former NBA referee Steve Javie.

National Basketball Referees Association General Counsel Lee Seham declined comment about the new initiatives Sunday, saying he was still coordinating with the union’s representatives.

The NBA will continue bringing in up-and-coming referees from the NBA D-League, adding two to four new refs per year. But the league will also “cast the net a little broader,” as Spruell put it, and also look harder at college and international referees, former players and more women. While the goal will be for them to be NBA-ready officials when they arrive, Spruell said there could be full-time opportunities for new referees to work full-time at the Replay Center.

“And then in addition, maybe think about having a game administrator courtside,” Spruell said. “Just (centered) around more efficiency and better game flow situations.”

The game administrator could help speed up the game, for example, by being able to work with the Replay Center while play is happening on the floor to check on things like whether a basket was a two-or 3-pointer. Currently, if there’s any doubt on a two/three, game officials check the shot via replay at the next timeout.

Game Administrators will aid referees' calls on whether a shot was a two or 3-pointer.

With a game administrator courtside, “by the time the guys would even get over to the video, or to the console, they would probably have, if you have an administrator courtside, replay would already tell them, yeah, it’s a three, and then you just continue to almost play on,” Spruell said. “And so some of that can just get to speed of the replay to consider, if you will, if you had that on-court administrator. Or, if you have technology with this, and maybe there’s better technology as we continue to test it, or it’s just a way to communicate directly with the on-court officials.”

NBA teams are using VR to help players with visualization and shooting.The league believes the technology can help referees see where their visual eye contact is on a particular play, if their mechanics are proper and if they’re in the right position to make an accurate call. (And, as with seemingly every other business that uses VR, the league believes its younger officials may take to it quicker and easier.)

“The other thing I’m thinking of, as just a byproduct -- because, again, 64, that do what they do and the best in the world at that, they can always get a little bit better and I think the technology will help,” Spruwell said. “But even as a byproduct, I myself have been trying to put myself in their shoes. So think about virtual reality from the standpoint of a fan experience -- you make the call on the play. There are other ways, through education, through VR, that can also be helpful from an overall perspective, as we really -- I hate the word humanize, but really put people in their shoes, to see how demanding a profession it is.”

The new initiatives continue the league’s attempts at greater transparency. Some, like the Last Two Minute Reports, continue to be controversial. But others, like an app that coaches can access and provide postgame feedback on the referees’ performance that night, have been popular.

“The intent here -- because some will do it; some won’t, and some will do it more consistently than others, we get that. But ultimately, the coaches have input into the evaluation process at mid-year and year end,” Spruell said. “And what we’re finding is, it’s hard to remember a game back three months ago that you want to really think about -- who was on that crew, how’d they do?

“This allows for an accumulation of information to provide to the coaches for their mid-year and year-end feedback. So far, all the indications are that it’s really good in terms of content. You would think there’s emotion but we’re able to filter that, in terms of some of the comments that are made on a particular call, or what have you. But the feedback so far has been exceptional. It’s a really good tool that we’re happy we’re starting to implement.”

Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, the president of the National Basketball Coaches’ Association, says he uses the app after every game.

“Very valuable,” Carlisle said via text Saturday. “Constant feedback in essentially real time throughout the season keeps everyone current.”

New Orleans Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry agreed.

“I have used it,” he said, “and it’s good to be able to send in comments about the game so quickly.”

For now, one change that won’t be coming to the NBA any time soon is using more than three referees in games, the standard practice since the league changed from two refs in 1988. The NBA has experimented with four-referee crews during select D-League games this season, all involving the Long Island Nets, and five-person crews in other D-League games.

But it’s a work in progress.

“It’s been okay, is what the guys are telling us,” Spruell said. “Not that we’re going to it (in the NBA) next season by any means. But it’s been okay to have an extra set of eyes on the floor. They’ll still have to work out some of the mechanics moving from three to four as they did from two to three. Also, the five has been interesting because you still have basically the regular three mechanics working down the court, and then you have one each on each baseline.

“Some would say that’s even a better way to transition, because you’re not really messing with the mechanics of the three, but you’re adding two on the baseline that can look for D3s (defensive three-second violations). We’re toying with it. Don’t expect anything to happen in the upcoming season. But we’re toying with it to see if it could really work.”

The NBA is just getting the data on the four-person crews in the games played at Barclays Center, where the Long Island Nets play their home games.

Long Island Nets coach Ronald Nored has seen first hand how four-and five-man referee crews work.

“Obviously, being in the D-League, you know there’s going to be different things that the league is going to experiment with,” Long Island coach Ronald Nored said by phone Sunday.

“Us having an opportunity to be part of the game with the four officials, I thought it was good,” he said. “Bob Delaney (the longtime former referee who is now the NBA’s Vice President of Referee Operations and Director of Officials) was at the game. It gave us a very open and low-pressure environment to experiment with it. From a coaching standpoint, to be honest, there was nothing that stuck out in my mind where I would say it was a bad system or there was something negative.”

The Nets saw four-person crews for six games, with one more scheduled for later this month.

“The things that stood out for me was the off trying to figure where their areas were at consistently, and their rotations,” Nored said. “The first couple of times they were fairly consistent with the four officials that were part of the crew. As they did it more, (the referees’) rotations became better at where they should be.”

Nored said there were more fouls called in the majority of the four-member crews than normal -- which doesn’t come as all that much of a surprise, given the extra set of eyes watching.

“The thing we tried to emphasize was doing a better job of defending w/o fouling,” he said. “I don’t think we did a good job of it, necessarily.”

The changes in scheduling will be designed to help both with travel costs and to, hopefully, get officials more rest and keep them from having to officiate so many games in a short period of time. Having more referees from which to choose should aid in putting crews together that can stay together for several games. (It won’t be geographically-based; the referees that live in Atlanta or Florida won’t just do games in the southeast. The NBA wants its refs to work all the teams in the league.)

This is something I’ve advocated for years, especially in the playoffs. Part of the reason so many teams complain in the postseason is because a series is officiated so differently from game to game. The reason for that is that you have new refs coming in at least the first four games of a seven-game series, and most officiate differently than the refs who preceded them. If you had the same group of refs for three or four games, the two teams could get used to how they call a game.

Thankfully, Spruell agrees.

“I think there would be some benefit to staying together for two to three games,” he said, “for that same consistent crew that worked one night, if they have a back to back, if they’re traveling together, and then two nights out they another game together, bonding experience, the opportunity to really review tape together rather than splitting up and going to yet another crew.”

Of course, there are those who would say that familiarity could breed contempt -- or, in this case, bias -- toward or against a coach or a team the longer a referee is around them. It’s a cynical worldview, and if you believe refs are that easily manipulated, well, you probably don’t believe them to ever be capable of calling a game down the middle.

The OAC will have two scheduled live meetings, with conference calls in between. Spruell said the union is aware of the initiatives and that he expects it will want more involvement in deciding how and when the new ideas will be implemented. Active referees will be members of the OAC as well.

“We’re going to have meetings during the course of a season for the full-times, so we want to be cognizant of the active referees’, coaches’ and players’ conflicts during the season,” Spruell said. “We’ll have them more on an ad hoc basis. But to the point that it’s about perceptions, expectations, etcetera, and who better than the three major players in the game -- players, coaches and referees -- to understand each others’ viewpoints and expectations? We will include them alongside these independent thinkers that I think will bring a lot to us and bring a lot of passion to this council.”

All of these initiatives also will have one significant impact: they’ll factor into how the league decides which officials get playoffs and Finals appearances, and that gets everyone’s attention.

“We have objective measurement and data,” Spruell said. “We have input from the coaches. We have ref ops and management teams, and their advisors that are really evaluating our officials. Absolutely, we’ll put it through a more rigorous system of evaluation to then stratify the group for playoff assignments, etcetera. It also will help us just with the messaging of what they need to continue to work on individually, as a crew, and then ultimately as an overall program. That’s where this is headed.”

… AND NOBODY ASKED YOU, EITHER

The Philadelphia Hardware Group. From Michael Madiraca:

Brett Brown said ROY has to go through Philly. Who's the top rookie outside Philly though?

Good question and one to which I have to give some additional thought, Michael. I assume the topic Brown was discussing was/is whether Joel Embiid should get Rookie of the Year consideration despite playing just 31 games for the 76ers this season -- or if Embiid’s fellow rookie teammate, Dario Saric, should get the ROY in his place. Outside of the 215, it’s slim pickings. One could make a strong case that second-rounders Malcolm Brogdon (Milwaukee Bucks) and Paul Zipser (Chicago Bulls) have had much more impact than any non-Philly first-round pick from 2016. In fact, I guess I am making that argument. And if Yogi Ferrell, the undrafted rookie from Indiana who’s been sensational for the Dallas Mavericks since signing there in late January, finishes the season as strong as he’s played the last five weeks, he’s in the discussion, too.

1:34

The Starters share their thoughts on Joel Embiid's chances at Rookie of the Year.

All Along the Wasatch. From Bruno Entringer:

I am fan of Utah Jazz since 1991. After some terrible seasons since Jerry Sloan retired, this season the Jazz are pretty good (the were last season if it wasn’t for so many injures). Now Jazz are 4th in West and seems no one bats an eye at them yet. What are your thoughts? Are they ready for the playoffs? Does Rudy Gobert have any chance to win DPOY this year?

Utah is primed for an extended postseason run, Bruno. The Jazz has everything you want -- a superstar in his prime (Gordon Hayward), outstanding team defense (led by Gobert) and veterans with extensive playoff experience (Joe Johnson, George Hill and Boris Diaw). I think the LA Clippers, Utah’s potential first-round opponent, match up decently with the Jazz, especially if Chris Paul is healthy and capable. But if Utah gets out of the first round, it will be a Western Conference semifinals nightmare for anyone who plays them, including Golden State and San Antonio.

A man curses because he doesn’t have the words to say what’s on his mind. From Kevin Bryant:

…Do you think that the NBA would empower referees to issue technical fouls to players for using racial slurs, regardless of context or offender? As a Black man, who grew up running the basketball courts of the South Side of Chicago, I am quite familiar with the type of language that is deemed acceptable to players. I recognize the “term of endearment” argument that many use to support their use of slurs (I find it to be a weak argument.), and understand that many players may have a hard time adjusting, but I think that it can be done. Imagine the fallout if Gordon Hayward dunked on someone and said, “b*tch a** n*****,” or a Black player tried to use a slur as a term of endearment for a player of another race?

Good question. Referees have the discretion to T up anyone for language, though not specifically racial slurs. Under Section V of the NBA’s rulebook, referees “may assess a technical foul, without prior warning, at any time. A technical foul(s) may be assessed to any player on the court or anyone seated on the bench for conduct which, in the opinion of an official, is detrimental to the game.” Use of profanity is defined as one of the “unsportsmanlike acts” for which officials can give technicals.

The league has been proactive against anti-gay language in recent years. Former Sacramento Kings guard Rajon Rondo was ejected from a game in 2015 by referee Bill Kennedy. After the technical, Rondo let loose with several homophobic slurs toward Kennedy, who soon after disclosed that he was gay.The NBA fined Kobe Bryant $100,000 in 2011 for directing a gay slur at a referee; that same year, the Chicago Bulls’ Joakim Noah was fined $50,000 for yelling a gay slur at a fan. In 2006, a fan who yelled a racial epithet at Houston Rockets center Dikembe Mutombo was ejected. I suspect, though, that if any player used a racial slur toward someone of a different race, they’d get nailed by a referee pretty quickly.

Send your questions, comments and other examples of the grace that is the human animal todaldridgetnt@gmail.com. If your e-mail is funny, thought-provoking or snarky, we just might publish it!

MVP WATCH

(Last week’s averages in parenthesis)

1) Russell Westbrook (41.3 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 7 apg, .398 FG, .931 FT): Sure he’s crushed that Mark Cuban doesn’t think he’s an MVP finalist.

2) James Harden (28 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 10.7 apg, .447 FG, .816 FT): Great cover story on "The Beard" in Sports Illustrated.

3) LeBron James (30 ppg, 12 rpg, 8 apg, .533 FG, .640 FT):  He threw the ball to Donyell Marshall in the playoffs; why wouldn’t he throw the ball to Deron Williams, even if he just got to town? It’s what he does.

4) Kawhi Leonard (32 ppg, 9 rpg, 4.3 apg, .452 FG, .893 FT): Fox Sports came up with this gem: almost six full seasons into his career, Leonard has more career steals (678) than fouls (664).

5) Kevin Durant (13.5 ppg, 4 rpg, 2 apg, .444 FG, .909 FT): Dodged a bullet. The initial word was that he was likely to miss eight weeks with the MCL sprain, which would have taken him out of the first round of the playoffs.

BY THE NUMBERS

$415,000 -- Amount the Warriors paid free agent guard Jose Calderon, who was on the Warriors’ roster … for about two hours last week. Golden State had initially planned to sign Calderon, who was released late last month by the Lakers, for the rest of the season. But soon after agreeing to terms with him, the Warriors had to bring in Matt Barnes to replace the injured Kevin Durant, so they had to cut Calderon. But they agreed to honor the contract that Calderon had signed. After being cut by the Warriors, Calderon signed over the weekend with the Hawks. Props to Joe Lacob and the Warriors, though, for doing something they didn’t have to do.

20 -- Points needed by Dirk Nowitzki, after scoring 18 Sunday against the Thunder, to become just the sixth player in NBA history to reach 30,000 career points. The Diggler is already sixth all-time in scoring, and needs 75 points to pass Julius Erving for sixth place on the NBA/ABA combined all-time scoring list.

2:20

Relive key milestone baskets from Dirk Nowitzki's storied career.

27 -- Active players in the NBA who are 20 years old or younger -- and thus have never seen the Spurs miss the playoffs. Saturday’s win over Minnesota ensured San Antonio of its 20th straight postseason berth, the longest current mark in the league and the second-longest current active streak in all of the four major pro sports in the U.S., behind the Detroit Red Wings’ current run of 25 straight playoff appearances.

I’M FEELIN’ …

1) Good to see that Adam Silver understands how awful the All-Star Game was from a competitive standpoint. I like Steve Kerr’s idea to assign charities to the Eastern and Western Conferences, and have them play for those charities to ensure some kind of competitive pride seeps into the contest. We don’t need radical changes; we just need a little bit of defense to return to the game to make it more palatable for everyone, both in the arena and watching at home.

2) Nikola Jokic is quickly becoming must-see TV.

3) Kerstie Phills, the daughter of the late Bobby Phills, was named NEC Rookie of the Year and second-team all-NEC as a freshman. That is beyond cool. Her brother, Trey, is a sophomore guard at Yale. Kendall Phills, you’re amazing.

8:03

The family of former Hornets standout Bobby Phills has carried on since his passing.

4) Congrats to Northwestern, the alma mater of so many sports scribes and broadcasters it’s hard to keep count -- don’t worry; they do -- for finally making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. You’re only two appearances behind my beloved American University Eagles.

5) When you’re just plain hangry.

NOT FEELIN’ …

1) I feel a disturbance in The Process.

1A) The Sixers remain adamant that Embiid’s knee was asymptomatic until he aggravated the meniscus tear in his left knee during a practice. They remain adamant that the tear and bone bruise are not career-threatening. They remain adamant that they’ve gone strictly by the book and by what their clinical findings told them. But until a surgeon goes in and can determine whether the torn cartilage can be repaired (which will likely mean a longer rehab, but a better possibility Embiid can ultimately return to the level we saw this season), or whether it has to be shaved (which will mean a shorter rehab, but also have greater long-term impact on his ability to jump and/or play without pain for the rest of his career), the Sixers aren’t out of the woods.

3) I had hoped the Buss Family could handle their business among themselves. I was wrong.This is going to get ugly. And it’s such a (metaphorical) slap in the face to Jeanie Buss, who is well-regarded and respected by everyone in basketball for how she’s stewarded the economic fortunes of the franchise since the death of the family patriarch, Jerry Buss, in 2013. She took the incredibly painful step of moving her brother Jim out of decision-making authority on the basketball side; hopefully the courts will back her decision-making authority for the franchise with finality in due course.

4) Damn, that’s bad news for my man Jarrett Jack, who just signed with the Pelicans at the end of last month after spending the whole year rehabbing a torn right ACL. Now he’s torn the meniscus in the same knee and will probably miss the rest of the season, unless New Orleans makes the playoffs.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

-- Magic center Nikola Vucevic (@NikolaVucevic), Saturday, 11:04 p.m., proving that great minds think alike, ‘cause we were watching Revenge of the Sith (on TNT) Saturday night, too! And, yeah: Anakin-Obi Wan was lit, as the kids say.

THEY SAID IT

“A little bit of anger, a little bit of frustration. This team showboating on our court because of, in my opinion, you give up those type of transition buckets, we’re not giving the effort to get back. That’s the reason I pulled the starters in the third quarter. They stopped getting back on defense. That’s not how we’re gonna play. That’s not why the fans fill this arena to watch. Obviously it’s not enjoyable to watch teams showboat on your home court, but if I’m them, then why not?”

-- Lakers Coach Luke Walton, as upset at his own team as the Celtics for allowing this rec league alley oop from Isaiah Thomas to Jaylen Brown during Boston’s 20-point rout of L.A. Friday at Staples Center.

"It's painful, but I'm also realistic. Look, if I wasn't realistic about the value of a draft pick, we would have kept D-Will, we would have kept Andrew. We would be playing an older lineup, but now we're playing our young guys. That supposedly is the definition of tanking: You play your youngest players to give them experience without the expectation you're going to win. In our case, we're playing our youngest players, but we're playing them with the expectation that they're going to win. I think that's the best type of experience. And if that means we get the eighth pick or the 10th pick instead of the fourth pick, I'll live with the consequences."

-- Mark Cuban, on ESPN Radio’s “Insiders” show, carving out what he says is a distinction between what the Mavericks did at the trade deadline -- dealing Andrew Bogut to Philly along with Justin Anderson for a 2017 first-round pick, and waiving Deron Williams outright after the deadline so he could sign with the Cavaliers -- and what those other teams who tank do. Okay, then.

“Baron sent me a text. Me and Jack talked at length. He said he teared up. This has always been a special place for us. This was the last place my Mom saw me play before she died of cancer in that 2008 season. So a lot of special memories and relationships I built here. It’s just great to be back.”

-- Matt Barnes, to the Bay Area News Group, after being signed by the Warriors for the rest of the season to replace the injured Kevin Durant. Barnes played for Golden State from 2006 to 2008, and was on that 2007 team that upset top-seeded Dallas in the first round of the playoffs, led by Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson, Monta Ellis and Al Harrington.

Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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