Sorry this column’s so short and opinionated– it’s IB testing month, and I’m spending all my time trying to remember what happened in The Handmaid’s Tale. So this will just be a short look at something that both Dave Deckard at Blazer’s Edge and David MacKay at this site have looked at: NBA officiating. Specifically, why I don’t care.
There are several components to this argument, and you should feel free to get off my train of thought at any time. In fact, I’d like to hear where and why our feelings diverge here.
1. Reffing in the NBA is not rigged. Probably. The thing is, if the league hands down notes to the refs before each game that say “Do your best to make Team X win,” we will never find out about it. Not until years after the fact, anyway. It would be the NBA’s most tightly-guarded secret, and they would be super, super careful about it. In fact, that’s why it’s probably not happening. The revelation that the NBA is rigged would represent a legitimate existential threat for the league, and the powers that be are smart enough to avoid that risk. The more typical “officials-are-corrupt” theory (the Tim Donaghy type) is a bit more compelling, but it is still not worth thinking about. One guy has been caught ever, which has to indicate some level of integrity, and again, we have no way of knowing.
2. If the refs are not deliberately rigging games, the only issue is their competence: A referee might still call a game that puts your team at a disadvantage. If you’re the Grizzlies and you rely on Tony Allen to jostle and shove Kevin Durant, and you end up with a ref who calls the game tight, you’ll end up in foul trouble. But that’s not a problem with the refs–it’s just a feature of the game, just like the dimensions of a stadium a baseball team visits. Your team might be at a disadvantage because of it, but it’s something you can adjust to. So the ability to call the game correctly remains important, but calling the game fairly is assumed.
3. The refs blow equal calls on both sides: This is a logical extension of them not being corrupt. Even if they are incompetent, if they aren’t actively throwing the games, there is no reason that over the course of a game/series/season, the calls won’t even out. Of course, they often won’t over small samples. Calls will be imbalanced over single games or quarters. That’s fine because that’s how probability works. Damian Lillard didn’t hit 40% of his threes in the last second of game 6, he hit all of them. That same logic applies to the refs. Yes, it’s terrible when one dramatic call sinks you season, but it’s also terrible when one dramatic shot sinks your season. Speaking of which…
4. One dramatic call can’t sink your season. I tend to think that one of the biggest flaws in our thinking about the NBA is the assumption that the fourth quarter and the end of the fourth matter more than the rest of the game. When the refs failed to realize that Damian Lillard had reestablished position inbounds in game 6, that call didn’t screw Portland any more than a missed shove in the back on a loose ball in the early second quarter screwed Houston. Both take away a position that might have resulted in 2 or 3 points, so there’s no reason to say that one was more important than the other.
5. Therefore, all we should care about is how the refs impact the entertainment value. A game can still be poorly reffed. If the referees gum up the flow of the game, or send stars out of the game with touch fouls, that’s an issue. But it’s unlikely that the refs will actually steal a win from your team, and if they do, that’s just part of the unwritten contract of NBA fandom. The stadiums are too loud, the refs occasionally screw things up, and Derek Fisher will never, ever retire. There are many annoying things about the NBA, and this is one. But Derek Fisher doesn’t ruin your NBA experience. Let them fade into the background, and neither will the refs.