League officials wrapping up test run of more referees calling games

Executives see possibilities in experimenting with four or five officials on call at D-League games

Scott Howard-Cooper

They are still experimenting with the experiment. Executives are tweaking alignments on the court from game to game and are about to enter an entirely new phase next week for two games of the trial within the trial. There is no bottom-line assessment as the NBA and D-League test the concept of crews with four and five referees.

Through seven games of the test run in the minors it looks like executives are mildly encouraged that the plan could work and could be used more in the D-League next season. But it will be a long way before it could be rolled out onto NBA floors.

There is enough positive feedback that indications are the evaluation will continue in 2017-18 but not so positive anyone is ready to make a strong case for integration into the NBA.

The idea of expanded crews is the latest in the NBA using the 22-team minor league it runs as a laboratory, a place to take new ideas out for a test drive. That is often the case with rule changes being considered, as with the timeout that allows a team to advance the ball without taking the time to huddle, in theory speeding up the game while giving a coach the ultimate benefit. Other times, it has been used for research and development as referees tried wearing small headsets to be able to better communicate during games, also with the intent of increasing the pace.

The primary hesitation by executives in both leagues to draw a conclusion on adding possibly one or two referees is the small sample size. The expanded crew has only been used seven times, all with four game officials, the last time on Wednesday. The final two will be the experiment within the experiment: five refs as the Canton Charge visit the Long Island Nets on Feb. 8 and when the Raptors 905 from Toronto travel to play the Nets on March 19.

“We’re just in the gathering stage,” said Bob Delaney, the NBA’s vice president of referee operations. “I don’t think I could even speculate (whether it could become permanent). We want to know if more fouls are being called. The length of the game. How is the game flow being impacted?

“From an eye test, it’s plausible. I’m still at that juncture. I think that it’s a possibility that it could take place, but it’s also something that has to continue to be researched. You’re not at the point to say, ‘OK, here’s the stamp of approval and off we go.’ I think that you just keep gathering and gathering and gathering. The best decisions you make are when you have everybody’s thought process, so this shouldn’t just be a referee-operations decision, even though we’re the one that are going to be the impetus behind it…. I’ve asked all the D-League coaches that come in and play to send me their thoughts on it so that when we compile all this research that it’s not just from a referee’s standpoint. We want to get it from a coach’s standpoint, we want to get it from a player’s standpoint and general managers. (Brooklyn GM) Sean Marks is there every game. ‘Sean, what are you seeing and what are you thinking about this?’ The more that we get that the better we’re going to be.”

All of the test games have involved the Nets’ affiliate and been played at Barclays Center to allow as much of an NBA simulation as possible, from the arena to being able to use SportVU to collect data to the direct link to the Replay Center in Secaucus, N.J.

The Brooklyn location also gave NBA executives, especially from referee operations but also other arms, easy access from their Manhattan offices. The Long Island Nets hosting day games several hours before the Brooklyn Nets in the same arena allowed NBA coaches and players to come early to watch the D-League, which, Delaney said, several did.

“My fear initially was the whistle’s going to blow a lot because you have another person doing the game,” said coach Steve Gansey, whose Fort Wayne Mad Ants had one of the four-ref games. “But it actually didn’t feel like that. As coaches we always complain about every call anyway, but to have another set of eyes that can say, ‘You know what, I’m in position to make that call,’ if it makes the right call, I think it’s a win.”

Can the system work in the NBA?

“I think so because I don’t think it affected the game,” Gansey said. “When you make changes you want to know how it’s going to affect the game. But in this situation it really didn’t affect the game. The hardest part is remembering that other person’s name. Instead of three, you’ve got four to remember. That was the biggest struggle for me. But it didn’t seem like it effected the game. I don’t think there were extra calls in the game. To me, the flow was perfect.”

The next step will be to collect data after the nine games, to see if the additional referee(s) led to more calls and slower contests, while also weighing logistics.

Was a fourth or fifth referee able to move freely or did more bodies create a traffic jam?

What other tweaks are necessary to put the refs in better positions?

Were the three referees catching enough that a fourth person is mostly redundant?

Where is the NBA getting 16 to 20 more officials able to work at the highest level, the number likely required if the move was introduced in the majors?

From there, the experiment could move to partial use in the Las Vegas Summer League and then back to the D-League next season, perhaps with a much longer run than nine games in one location. The one certainty among the many possibilities is that the concept is not about to be introduced in an NBA regular season.

“I think it’s too early to say, until we have completed the tests,” D-League president Malcolm Turner said. “But assuming we like the results and we feel like it’s a strong test and it does have some true merit and potential application down the road, I think absolutely you could see it spread as testing. Do I see that rolling out across the league in full? No, because I think you can still effectively test without having to expand your crew of referees across the league in its entirety. We would just have more meaningful sample sets, if you will. I think it’s too early to speculate in terms of to what degree we do it. We’ve only done it with a small sample size.”

It’s a start far from a conclusion. It’s still experimenting with the experiment.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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