Portland Trail Blazers and NBA Officiating

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers and NBA Refs: How's the relationship working out in 2013-14?

Dave,

I'm the last guy who tries to make excuses for losing, but I have a real concern with the lack of late game officiating. Without trying to sound too much like a homer, Batum was clearly hit on the elbow against the Warriors, causing his arm to be completely redirected; yet no foul was called.

The usualy argument is that they aren't going to give you those calls, but here's my question: why not? The NBA has made it a point of emphasis to get the last two minutes of the game correct, which is exactly why the implemented the review process for out-of-bounds calls. But the "you're never going to get that call" argument seems to completely contradict this.

My belief is that a foul is a foul, regardless if it's during the 1st two minutes of a game, or the last. Any ref who's considered professional enough to work in the NBA would've seen Batum's elbow being pushed skyward, and should've made the correct call.

Why, with their firm stance on getting the calls right, does the NBA not do something about this "unspoken" lack of officiating?

BlazedInRipCity

Wow.  There are about 12,000 possible layers to your question.  Let's unpack some of them.

On Whether Batum Was Fouled on His Shot

When I watched the play in real time I didn't see obvious enough contract to justify a foul.  Only after the shot lame-ducked did I wonder.  I reviewed the replay several times and I see where  there could be contact, but every time I run it back at regular speed it still looks like a gray area.  I think there was contact but the refs calling the game in real time get some wiggle room on this one.  It's not airtight.

On Whether the Call Should Have/Could Have Been Reviewed

I'm not a fan of the "last 2-minute rule".  I believe replay should be used whenever the situation merits without changing the parameters as the game winds to a close.  However I also believe in the limitations of instant replay.  It's useful when comparing a moving object against a stationary one.  Did the foot go out of bounds?  Was the shot before or after the buzzer?  Did the ball hit the backboard before it was swatted away?  Those calls should be reviewed and corrected at all times.

When two animate objects meet, particularly if they are body parts, you start getting into a judgment call situation.  How much contact was there?  When did it occur?  Did it create an advantage for one side or the other?  It becomes more Rorschach Test than precise measurement.  Five people can look at the contact on Batum's shot and see it five different ways.  The refs could have stared at that replay all year without coming to a clear consensus.

This is precisely why you can't review for this type of call.  The system doesn't let the refs review their way into or out of a foul.  Either it's whistled or it isn't and everybody lives with it.   Debating fouls over instant replay wouldn't eliminate imperfections but compound them.  When they uphold the call after 10 minutes of review because the evidence isn't conclusive Blazers fans will still be up in arms, the game will be slower by half, and exactly nothing will be solved or improved.

On Whether Calls Should Be Interpreted in Context of Time or Effect

In a perfect world "A Foul is A Foul" would be the only guiding principle necessary to officiate in any league.  In practice contact is generated, received, and interpreted by human beings on a constant basis during an NBA game...too much for any rulebook to regulate.

Imagine you and I trying to review every instance where a player touched another in any way in a single game.  We'd be in front of the screen for a week.  Referees have to cram that week's worth of review into seconds.  With 10 world-class athletes running at full speed trying to gain any advantage possible over each other the old cliche, "They could call a foul on every play" is true.  They could probably call four.

We actually saw a contest where the officials called the play tightly on Portland's recent trip to Houston.  The result was 61 personal fouls, 78 free throws attempted, and fans screaming to high heaven about the officials ruining the game, claiming we don't pay to see the refs but the players, and voicing some of the most strident accusations of crooked officiating we've seen all year.  The irony was, that was actually one of the more consistently-called games of Portland's season.  It was equitable, standardized, and frustrating as heck.  Neither justice nor regularity made the fans of the losing side happy.

Truthfully, we want the referees to make judgment calls.  Interpretation preserves the flow and balance of the game along with its sanctity.  That balance includes the notion that a guy dribbling directly away from the hoop, pursued by defenders, racing the clock, and lofting an incredibly low-percentage turn-around 25-footer needs to be fouled clearly before a whistle blows.  I have no problem with the refs requiring clear evidence in that situation, nor with the assessment that whatever contact occurred didn't rise to an actionable level in that situation.  Their judgment may be debatable, but that doesn't make it unacceptable.

Besides, if we change the standard by which that judgment is made, are we sure we'd have been in the same situation when Batum attempted his shot?  Eliminating time and context from these discussions, claiming that a foul is a foul every second of the game, requires you to go back and judge every whistle during the contest, not just the final one that appeared to disadvantage your team.

I listened to the Golden State broadcast of this game.  They were livid about an earlier moving screen call on Steph Curry underneath the bucket, whistled for impeding Robin Lopez.  They had a point.  The refs interpreted that play differently than they do most moving screens, differently than had been called the rest of the night.  Credit Batum with the elbow bump and you have to go back and take away Curry's offensive foul, allowing Golden State to run that play again.  Would they have scored?  How about on other disputed calls?  If Portland's deficit had been 6 when Batum's shot went up, would that change our feelings on the matter?

That was hardly the first complaint the Warriors had that night either.  Portland had some too.  Some say those things even out.  I don't believe so, at least not on a given night.  But whether they even out or not, you'll never get rid of inequity entirely.  The only way to avoid a spiral into review-induced, debate-fueled madness is to admit that a foul call is almost never absolute and will always prove disagreeable to someone.  The best you can do is to avoid being beholden to that whistle, not letting your games be decided by a single call, or lack thereof, in the final 3 seconds.  Or at least end  those seconds driving to the rim instead of floating away from it so you put more pressure on the referees to make the call your way.

On Whether the Blazers Are More Disadvantaged Than Other Teams

I have argued that officials tend to favor certain teams given the right conditions.  The latest example was last year's playoff seeding run in which the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers duked it out for the 8th spot in the Western Conference bracket.  As the race developed and its head-to-head nature became clear, Utah's foul shots per game decreased radically while the Lakers' increased.   Personally I don't believe that was accidental.  But I don't believe the league had anything against Utah in particular either.  A handful of marquee franchises are perceived as standard-bearers for league success, the Lakers paramount among them.  The Jazz just happened to get into a situation where they were standing in between L.A. and a post-season appearance.  The same would have happened to the Nuggets or any other non-marquee market in that situation.

It's important to understand that to the extent it exists, league bias works for marquee teams and names.  It doesn't work against all the rest purposefully, only as a side-effect of the "working for".   In other words, there's zero chance the league or its refs are wishing Portland ill at this point.  There's less than zero chance that they care what happens in March 16th contest between the Blazers and the Golden State Warriors.  5-seed, 6-seed, 4-seed, no seed...it just doesn't matter what these teams do until they get in the danger zone, opposed to a major team or marketable star, threatening to put them out.

If anything, the referees have leaned towards the Blazers this year rather than away.  Portland's free throw differential of +1.0 doesn't seem impressive on the surface but it's good for 9th in the league overall.   Not shabby for a self-confessed "jump-shooting team".  It's a step up from their middle-of-the-road performances the last couple years.  The Blazers are also 5th in the league in personal fouls committed per possession, 15th in opponent personal fouls per possession...more than respectable numbers.

Portland is starting to benefit from the same system that disadvantaged them in years past.  Damian Lillard is getting star calls on his drives now.  His free throw attempts are up 45% from his rookie season.  LaMarcus Aldridge's free throw rate is at a career high but not significantly enough over his average to remark on it.  But he's benefiting in other ways.  On any move besides the straight turn-around jumper he's been clearing out defenders with impunity over the last couple months.  It's not even subtle.  He turns, takes a couple dribbles, extends the arm and pushes the defender away, then rises completely unguarded for the easy jumper.  He's been whistled for it exactly once and he registered profound disgust at the call.  Aldridge is a star now.  He gets to do things others don't.

Robin Lopez has put in an amazing season, his career best and pretty much ideal for Portland's needs.  That's due to talent, work ethic, sacrifice, and fit.  But Lopez has also been allowed to play physically, especially underneath.  Had Joel Przybilla attempted half the things Lopez does, he'd have been DQ'ed in a couple of quarters.  If the officials called the game tighter--which they do on occasion--Lopez could probably scratch 10 minutes off of his per-game average and modify stats accordingly.  The refs aren't cheating, but if they wanted to define a foul as a foul no matter the player or situation they could easily find reason to tag Portland's starting center for 3 infractions per period.

You have to be careful wishing for every game to be called down the line, by the book, with no exceptions or leniency.  Would we trade three more free throws for Batum against Golden State for 3-4 offensive fouls and 6-8 fewer points for Aldridge over the last month, for fewer foul shots off of Lillard drives, for 33% less court time for Lopez?

I understand that wrongs feel wrong no matter what the situation.  Once upon a time I was known to stand in the arena and let the refs know which end of a cow their calls came out of.  I also understand why Lopez feels the need to complain about every call that comes his way, why Coach Stotts gets T'ed up every now and again, why the Blazers have mentioned officiating after the occasional loss, and why Portland broadcasters can't get through two commercial breaks without mentioning the refs six times.  But stepping back and scanning the panorama view, at few times in their history have the Blazers been in so good with the refs.  Since 2000 you have the heart of the Brandon Roy era and the two years of the traveling All-Star Squad.  That's it.  Except those teams had accomplished something.   This team's résumé is a 33-win season and the Rookie of the Year award.

Maybe it's just too many years being a Blazers fan, but I don't want them to take any closer look at the officiating.  It can keep on going just as it is right now, bumped elbow or no.  Truth be told, the Blazers and some of their players might owe some fouls back, maybe even a game or two.  If they don't check the balance sheet, they can't collect.  So yeah, I'm good with the refs so far this year.  Complaining, while understandable, seems unjustified.

The big fear is that the officiating will change radically in the playoffs.  My guess is the Blazers will have an awful time dealing with it if Lopez or Aldridge get whistled for plays they're accustomed to getting away with or if Lillard gets robbed of his customary attempts on drives.  But maybe that's part of the learning process.  We'll have to see.  In any case, Portland fans shouldn't forget to count their blessings as they're tallying their grievances.  Maybe it could be better, but it could be worse too.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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