Monday Mailbag time! Today we tackle one of the most controversial aspects of the just-completed NBA Finals. Congratulations to the World Champion Cleveland Cavaliers and to the Golden State Warriors for their record-setting season. Now on to the juicy stuff...
Big news over the weekend was Ayesha Curry tweeting that the NBA is rigging the finals. [ed. Tweets since deleted but a summary of the story (and much more) here.] Tonight the Warriors lost. So how much credence do you give to this? Any chance it was really rigged?
Highly doubtful. But the question is intriguing because of the vast distance between a solid "yes" and solid "no".
Any discussion of this subject has to start with the obligatory hat tip to Tim Donaghy, the NBA referee who accused the league of rigging games back in the '00's era and still pops up like Bloody Mary/Candy Man/Beetlejuice every time questionable events mar an NBA contest.
Donaghy was discredited because his denunciation of the league came in the context of a legal investigation against him. He was accused of passing privileged information to organized gamblers for pay...charges to which he eventually pleaded guilty. Even so, his accusations against the NBA struck a chord with the general public, many of whom believed that the league was tampering with games through its referees. The 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings stood as Exhibit A, but pretty much every fan base had taken up the hue and cry at some point.
Donaghy's description of how the NBA exercised influence was persuasive. He alleged that referees received reprimands for calls the league didn't like...technical fouls against star players, for example. When a review reel of "blown" calls featured one side predominantly, the message got through: you'll be disciplined for fouls against this team, approbated for calls against the other.
The NBA denied Donaghy's charges and continues to do so to this day, for obvious reasons. Enough smoke rolled out of the turn-of-the-millennium bonfire to make many observers--including me--give Donaghy credence despite his ulterior motives. If you don't think something was cooking in that 2000's decade (and likely before), I have a bucket of sand for you the exact size of your head.
That said, the 2000's were also a peculiar time in league history. Michael Jordan had just exited the stage, taking with him guaranteed ratings and hype. It was the beginning of the Spurs Era, now revered after two decades of constant enshrinement but then known mostly for the lack of glitz that had accompanied the success of Jordan and the Bulls. Viewers were deserting en masse and no new superstar shone on the horizon. In this environment, pinning hopes to the league's marquee franchise (then helping those hopes along) could be seen as a smart business move for everyone involved in the league. With ABC and TNT taking over television rights that very summer, courtesy of a $4.4 billion deal, the league needed ratings more than it needed a Kings-Nets Finals series. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Byrant provided a story that nothing in a Sacramento uniform could match.
Though superficial parallels endure (hello, multi-billion dollar TV contract) several things are different in 2016 than they were in 2002. These include:
1. We now know that the L.A.-based bid for visibility didn't really work. Finals ratings hovered near 3.0 for the Lakers' three-year reign as champs in the early 00's but those numbers were a far cry from the 4.5-5.0 in Jordan's heyday. Ratings would continue to sink throughout the remainder of the 2000's, hovering in the low 2's before a brief resurgence to 3.0 territory in 2011 and 2012 when LeBron James and the Miami Heat headlined the bill. The numbers remain in the lower 2's today. They've never approached Jordan-era levels since.
2. The advent of the internet and global communication has made big cities less important to league success. They've also made propagating rumors of cheating exponentially easier. The league has more incentive to display quality, clean games now than they've had at any time in their history. Parity is one of the bywords of the era.
3. Donaghy's accusations about the 2002 WCF were couched in terms of "extending a series" but really we're talking about promoting a team: the Lakers. The series was extended because L.A. trailed in it. Had the Lakers led, it would have been over in 6. Had the Kings been playing the Nuggets, the shelf life of the contest wouldn't have mattered. There's no analogous team to 00's-era L.A. in 2016. The league probably got marginally better ratings having LeBron James face Stephon Curry than they would have with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, but nobody's under the illusion that the Eastern Conference opponent made the difference between a 2.3 rating and a 4.7.
4. Even if the league were inclined to extend the Finals series to generate extra revenue and attention, how much would that amount to? People don't always act rationally, but the risk/reward ratio of such a venture doesn't make sense. Let's say the NBA generated an extra $20 million for Game 7. $20 million is a lot of dough, but we're comparing it to a $6 billion annual rake with the new TV deal in place. Keep in mind that fixing games is illegal. If the league is caught, they lose big time. Referees go to jail, executives are fined, the NBA comes under congressional investigation, and ratings disappear along with credibility. It doesn't make sense to risk everything for a 3 tenths of one percent increase in total revenue, especially when neither overall ratings nor the perceived future of the league would change much no matter who ended up winning the series. Game 7 was good for the league, but not THAT good.
All of these reasons argue pretty solidly for a "no" answer to the "rigging" question even if the response in 2002 would have been "yes". That doesn't eliminate the possibility of fudging here and there, though. The league may not be actively fixing games, but bias is still part of the culture.
Curry's ejection in Game 6 was notable for its rarity. When's the last time you saw one of the league's best players tossed, or even disqualified with six common fouls? We can debate the merits of Steph being ushered out of that game all we want. The bigger point is, stars don't get ejected or called for fouls.
The Star System may not be as obvious as it was 2-3 decades ago but it still exists. When Russell Westbrook puts a move on Toney Douglas, that call's only going one way. Make six calls in favor of a nameless NBA player and it's crooked officiating. Make six calls in favor of LeBron James..it's because he's great. A Big Game call against the nameless player in favor of James will be forgotten by the next play. A call in favor of an anonymous guy against The King will be complained about and replayed forever. That's bias.
Despite the ability of the common person to discuss such bias via the internet, we don't have good official mechanisms to help us identify and talk about it. Nowadays the NBA and the majority of media who cover it value narrative as much as purity. As long as there's a story, it's going to sell. Selling is the name of the game. One need look no further than Kobe Bryant's 60-point exit from the league this season to see a prime example. First off, the guy took 50 shots to get his 60. Second...this:
Julius Randle admitted he was probably setting a lot of moving screens last night, laughed, said the refs knew it was Kobe’s last night.— Serena Winters (@SerenaWinters) April 14, 2016
Everybody knew what the narrative of the evening was from players to refs to reporters. For the most part nobody questioned it, even if its resemblance to actual basketball was in itself questionable. "Kobe going out in a blaze of glory" was a much better story than Kobe taking over an NBA court like it was the YMCA for one last burst of self-aggrandizement (with the league and its officials helping the effort along).
It's not 2002 anymore but even in 2016 the NBA machine will fuzz the edges of a picture if they think it adds to its style. This is entertainment, not just sport. Everyone involved is aware that the sport won't exist if people don't buy it. Anytime sports and entertainment mix you'll see trends towards the Olympics and trends towards the WWE. Which you'll get on a given night depends on the situation and how much is at stake.
Either way, there's so much wiggle room between those two poles that holding the league or its officials accountable to a standard line is impossible. Everything you can imagine is either allowed by rule or has precedent from them interpreting the rules at some point. Was Curry's ejection justifiable? Yes. Were the calls that preceded it shady? Yes. Do players like Curry usually get tossed in that manner? No. Does that matter? No, because when you want to hold the NBA accountable on rules they jump to precedent and when you want to judge them by precedent they hop to the rules.
Returning to the original question, I do not believe Ayesha Curry's accusations accurately describe Game 6 of this year's NBA Finals, much less the outcome of the series. The Cavaliers won. That was legit.
I do believe that bias still exists in the NBA culture and its officiating. The public will swallow certain stories more easily than it'll swallow others. In the big moments, whistles will tend to confirm the prevailing narrative (or what's most advantageous to sell to us) rather than challenge it. That doesn't require bias on the part of individual officials; it's embedded in the process.
There wasn't enough incentive to influence Game 6 of this year's Finals to make the accusation of "rigging" credible. But the lack of a big moment doesn't erase plenty of small moments during which institutionalized bias creeps through. Warriors fans may have a beef about the relative celebrity status of Curry and LeBron under the Finals spotlight and how that may have influenced officiating. The rest of the league can talk about moving screens and groin-area assaults along the march to a record-breaking season and near-title. The NBA isn't rigged as much as it's the NBA. For better or worse, grey area and accusations are part of the game and always will be.
You can send your own NBA or Trail Blazers questions to firstname.lastname@example.org! Thanks for the topic, Dan!