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Complaining About Officiating: Poor Taste or Civic Duty?

[Ed. Note:  Complaining about the officiating is always a sensitive subject, and rarely done right. Kudos to Chris, for handling the issue with class and staying away from the usual pitfalls, while still calling a spade a spade.]

I don’t like complaining about officiating.  It’s the easy way out.  It’s a way of ignoring your own team’s shortcomings.  It’s a way to make excuses.  But, sometimes, it is absolutely necessary.  This is one of those times.  Right now, I consider it my responsibility to do so.

The NBA is shooting itself in the foot.  The officiating this postseason has been so consistently bad that it could very well be causing the game to lose fans.  This isn’t about Game 4 of Nuggets vs. Lakers, although that is the impetus.  This is about the state of the game, and its referees, as a whole.  This is about making sure the NBA Finals is not a free throw contest.

Coming off of what was probably the best combination of the first 4 games in Conference Finals history, every NBA fan in the world was salivating over what the next installments of both series’ would bring.  So what were we treated to over this fine Memorial Day Weekend?  Free Throws.  A whole lot of them.  An average of 82 a game.

How insane is that?  Here is some perspective.   In 82 regular season games, the Lakers participated in a game with more than 80 free throws zero times.  They were in a game with more than 70 free throws only 5 times.  The average regular season Laker game had 48 combined free throws.  How about in the playoffs, you ask?  We’ve played two pretty physical teams in Houston and Utah, the numbers must be closer, right?  Well, the average per game has certainly increased, up to 55 per game.  But no single game, before this series, has topped 70 combined trips to the charity stripe.  The last 3 games against Denver have all hit that mark.  That is a problem.  It is something to complain about.  Not as a Lakers fan or as a Nuggets fan, but as a fan of basketball.  Free throws aren’t killing the game, but they aren’t doing it any service either.  Game 3 of the EC finals was miserable to watch, and Game 4 of the WC finals wasn’t much prettier.  I guess somebody forgot to tell the refs that the players tend to play harder when they are this close to winning a championship.

What if this happened in another sport?  They say in football that holding could be called on every play.  What if, in the Super Bowl, the refs called the game that way, with 10-15 holding penalties on each team?  It would be declared an unmitigated disaster.  Even worse, what if it were called on every play only for one team?

Playing the ref card is a delicate subject.  Complaining about how the referees cost your team the game is almost always short-sighted, because these things do tend to even out over time.  And if you are one of the awesome fans who subscribes to the conspiracy theories about how certain teams (which never happen to be your own) get the calls, I have nothing to say to you.  But for the rest of us, this is not an issue that should be ignored.  And that is exactly what the NBA is doing, ignoring the problem. 

Why do I say the NBA is ignoring the problem?  Because there are certain refereeing situations that make every knowledgeable NBA fan cringe.  Any time your team is on the road and Bennett Salvatore is the main referee, you know you could be in for a long night.  To a lesser extent, the same goes for Dick Bavetta.  We know this as NBA fans, and yet the NBA continues to trot these guys out for pivotal games.  It is either arrogance or ignorance, or both, on the part of the NBA

The best example is Joey Crawford and the San Antonio Spurs.  A couple years ago, Crawford was suspended for his interaction with Tim Duncan, a completely unprecedented move on the part of the NBA which would seem to confirm that Crawford had some sort of agenda against The Big Fundamental.  And yet, there Crawford was, the main referee for pivotal Game 4 for the Spurs against the Lakers in last year’s WC finals.  And, wouldn’t you know it, he made a pivotal (non)call in that game against the Spurs.  Why do I point this out, as a Lakers fan?  Because of how stupid it was for the NBA to let that situation happen.  Forget, for a second, whether or not that call was the right one.  Why in the hell would you put Crawford in that game in the first place?  If you have an employee that you suspect is stealing money from you, are you going to let him close down the store and count the cash register?

The mainstream media won’t touch this with a 10-foot pole.  Sure, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson will point out individual calls that weren’t so great, and the TNT studio crew is always good for that as well.  But none of them will talk about the larger issue of poor officiating as a whole, because their relationship with the NBA pretty much prohibits it.  Many of the mainstream bloggers, like Matt at HP and, to a lesser extent, KD over at BDL, will tell you that, yes, the officiating is bad, but complaining about it just comes off as annoying.  They provide a large list of reasons why these guys are doing the best they can, and nothing that we say can change the situation anyways. 

I say that’s a load of crap.  Each and every individual point of it.

The calls will even out over time.  Is that supposed to make me feel better about the situation?  I’m supposed to be happy that there is a decent chance the Lakers will be given Game 5 because the Nuggets were (allegedly) given Game 4?  That’s what I’m supposed to root for, because it’s fair?  Why is this considered a positive?  Call me utopian, but I don’t want any game to be decided by the men in gray.

The refs are only human.  That statement is true, but since when have we ever used that as an adequate excuse for not performing well.  Lamar Odom is only human, so are we going to let him off the hook for his uninspired play the last few games.  Fisher is only human, but none of us are giving him a pass for shooting that couldn’t be much worse if he were blind-folded.  The Machine is only human, and ... really, I only wanted to say that because of its inherent humor.  The point is that we’re all only human, but that is not an excuse used to remove accountability or justify incompetence.

There’s nothing we can do to fix it anyways.  Is there any other way to read that statement other than as an excuse to stop trying to improve?  I guess we should give up on curing cancer, or stopping global warming.

I don’t know what the solution is.  Maybe we need to lean heavier on instant replay.  Maybe there needs to be a fourth official who sits up in press row with a bunch of different replay monitors and has the authority to reverse bad calls.  Maybe the refs need to have a coach who talks to them during timeouts and lets them know what adjustments they need to make.  Maybe the NBA needs to do some serious analysis regarding referee performance in different situations, and actually have some teeth when following up on that analysis.  Maybe they need to put a fourth official on the court.  Maybe they need to pay referees more, so that more qualified people will want to do it. I have no idea how beneficial any of these things would be.   What I do know is that I just came up with a bunch of potential ideas in a single paragraph, which is more than the NBA appears to be doing.

That’s why I will continue to complain about officiating.  Not because it’s my right as a fan of my team, but because it is my duty as an fan of the NBA.  Without the media to make the push, the NBA might think their current strategy of ignoring the issue is OK.  They might think it’s alright for them to continue to put certain refs into situations that will have predictable (and negative) outcomes.  They need to know that we, as fans of the game, aren’t happy with the current situation.  They need to know that this does hurt the game, that it may end up costing them casual fans (i.e. money).  They need to know that the problem will not just go away.  And we, as fans, have to be the ones that tell them.

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