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Technically Speaking

We'll conclude the Season Preview as the week progresses but before we put the frosting on that cake, a small interlude.

No rule tweak has gotten more attention this off-season than the tightening of the leash governing player/coach complaints to referees.  Players and coaches have always been barred from talking too strenuously about refs after the game and the league has the fine receipts to prove it.  Now that ban has essentially been extended to the two hours when play is going on as well.  

I agree with the spirit of the rule.  There's been too much jawing by everybody in the past decade or so.  Play slows down.  Players stand under their basket yelling instead of getting back on defense.  Unflattering pouty baby looks grace the mugs of everyone from 10-day-contract scrubs to Mark Cuban.  People need to control themselves more (especially Mr. Cuban).  In theory this is a step in the right direction.

In practice, however, this new emphasis could easily fall apart at the seams for two major reasons:

First, nothing's been done to change the NBA star system.  Favoritism is still alive and well.  The refs will have no compunction about tossing coaches and second string point guards, but they're not going to toss the guy whose jerseys sell out in the concourse at $115 a pop.  It won't take long for the big names to realize this.  And if you think they're going to remain silent just to keep the appearance of fairness I've got some Braniff Airline stock to sell you.  You're going to end up with a lot of guys in Portland, Seattle, Toronto, and Utah uniforms getting teed and tossed while the KGs, Kobes, Shaqs, and Wades say whatever they wish.  Opposing crowds will lift irate cries for justice-bearing technicals that never come.  Eventually the whole thing will be viewed as a mockery that cements the league's image problem instead of solving it.

Second, they don't often put microphones on refs but when they do it becomes evident that many disruptions are at least escalated, if not caused outright, by the referees themselves.  They jaw at the players and coaches, occasionally use offensive language, and generally engage in banter that wouldn't be considered stylish at the company Christmas party.  It's not every ref or every situation, but it's enough that you notice.  This ruling puts far more power in the officials' hands.  The criteria for offense are both nebulous and slight.  How many words make an acceptable sentence versus a violating one?  How far above shoulders can hands be raised?  More importantly, do any of these criteria apply to the officials as well?  Since both power and judgment rest firmly in the hands of a single referee (because the conversation no longer has to be extended even to the point that anyone else can hear it) it will be relatively easy for a guy with a chip on his shoulder to bait somebody into ejection.  A bad call here, a "shut the h*ll up coach" or "don't look at me like that, you're playing like crap" so many of us at Easter a bad ref will find it easy to spend all day just asking for somebody to make a peep.  In the worst case scenario an official could merely claim that a guy said something in an off tone.  Who's to know the difference?  Sure the guy's teammates might defend him, but who's going to believe them?

For these reasons there's a good chance we see this emphasis ease as time goes by.  Like so many things in the modern league, chalk it up to good intentions, bad execution.

--Dave (