There's been a fair amount of commentary about the referees so far in the playoffs. Doubtless since the league got its dream matchup of L*kers-Celtics in the Finals there will be more speculation about the integrity of the officials. I must confess that I have run the gamut of opinion in my fairly long tenure as a fan. I remember at one time (probably rather naively) thinking that each game was going to be called fairly, right down the middle and in accordance with the rulebook. (As if such a thing were possible…) I distinctly remember my conspiracy phase, where I was dead certain the league had the whole thing rigged. I still suspect at one point during the post-Jordan panic we might have seen some covert fiddling going on, but there’s no way that’s ever going to be proven, so you have to let that lie. I progressed into a final phase where I was fairly certain I had it down. The league didn’t directly mess with the officiating, but nevertheless the officials knew which side their bread was buttered on. The star system (a.k.a. “Give the fans what they paid to see”) that protected marquee players also protected marquee teams. However subtly, ratings and drawing power drove the whistles. That was before we all ran headlong into the ultra-plain, coldly-effective, small-market-dwelling ratings sinkhole that is the San Antonio Spurs. Nobody can doubt the Spurs have received their share of calls and breaks. It became pretty clear after their first title run that none of those were to the league PR department’s advantage. Crumple up that theory and start over.
I’m still not sure I understand fully how the complex relationship between referees, actions, teams, players, and the league works. But even with that lack of understanding I’ve come to a peace with a couple things. I’m not sure I’d call them truths or answers, but they seem to describe what usually happens:
1. Sometimes refs are just going to make mind-numbingly bad calls. The importance of the situation doesn’t seem to have any effect in curbing this habit. Much like Bill Buckner back in ’86, a whole stadium--a whole country even--can see a situation developing as if in slow motion…a plain, routine event that you don’t even have to think about twice. Everybody knows exactly what’s going to transpire. Yet somehow the one guy at the fulcrum of the situation misjudges it. He’s literally one in a million there but he’s the only one that matters. Ooops! The ball dribbles between the legs. Ooops! No call for Brent Barry. This is part of the delightful idiocy of being human.
2. Every NBA infraction not involving a clock or a line on the floor is subjective. Refs generally do a decent job in keeping their own subjectivity uniform. They absolutely stink at interpreting a call the same way as their colleagues, however. A foul on Tuesday night is perfectly acceptable on Thursday. This week’s travel is next week’s reverse layup. This is mildly annoying in the regular season when opponents change night to night. It’s fiercely aggravating in a seven-game playoff series against the same adversary. Now it’s not, “Back in
3. Refs aren’t perfectly consistent with themselves. And yes, that inconsistency often has something to do with the players they’re officiating and/or the teams on the floor. Here’s how it goes: The Spurs have won multiple world championships. The Spurs have been around forever. The Spurs have some of the best players in the league. All other things being equal, the Spurs are going to get the benefit of the doubt most nights. I used to hate this, but you know what? OK...it’s fine. If things are going to be subjective (and they pretty much have to be)
Even coming to terms with the weighted scales of justice in a profit-making league with a subjective rulebook and human beings making calls, I do have one, tiny objection. The system of credit does not work equally for every team. There are a small handful of marquee teams, including most obviously the one that wears purple and gold, that get to take shortcuts of a sort. They get near-instant credit from fans, media, and refs every time they peek beyond the basest rungs of the playoff ladder without ever having to prove it or win anything. No doubt a true L*ker fan would quickly point to this being their 29th appearance in the NBA finals and ask how much more proof one needs. Despite that, this incarnation of the L*kers with these particular players has not been anywhere near a championship in recent years. If the league were truly consistent in its inconsistencies (i.e. the things I just mentioned) they should have to prove themselves before getting benefit-of-the-doubt calls. They don’t, while others will. Those who cry about unfairness certainly have a point. But then again that point is narrower and far more submerged than most objectors would have it.
The bottom line is, it’s an imperfect system and an imperfectly refereed league, for intentional and unintentional reasons both. It’s still a reasonably good league though. The little guy does have to fight harder to make his way but that doesn’t mean that the little guy can’t make it. Just like in real life, some are born with advantages and some have to earn them. Personally I’d rather be the guy who founded Quiznos than Paris Hilton any day. It’s more satisfying when you finally do break through.
P.S. Tomorrow on Blazersedge: An exclusive night-vision video of a Phil Jackson pep talk. See it before it hits the newsstands!