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Debate: Does the NBA Need to Hold Refs More Accountable for Mistakes?

Fines, suspensions, postgame interviews? The NBA’s latest officiating gaffe once again brings up the question of how to hold refs accountable for mistakes.

Los Angeles Lakers v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Portland Trail Blazers fans, allow me to turn your attention, ever so briefly, to NBA officiating, LeBron James and last night’s matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics.

With the score tied at 105-105 in the final seconds of regulation, James drove to the rack for what appeared to be the game-winning layup — until Jayson Tatum whacked James’ arm to no whistle from the referees. The no-call forced the miss and forced overtime, which ended in a 125-121 win for the Celtics.

The operatic end-of-regulation sequence has emerged as the storyline of the game. There’s James’ theatrical tantrum where he falls on his hands and knees in agony like an actor in a war epic; Lakers guard Patrick Beverley’s priceless technical foul for pointing out the hack on a court side camera to Crew Chief Eric Lewis; and this hilariously melodramatic apology released by the NBA referees’ official Twitter account today.

The saga is serving as an intoxicating bucket of Twitter popcorn, buttered with discourse, anger, laughter and entertaining R&B mashups. But along with all that spectacle, comes a topic that has been debated for years in the NBA amongst disgruntled players and fans: Do refs need to be held more accountable for their mistakes, especially high-stakes ones that determine the outcome of games?

The situation and response is reminiscent of a blown call late in a Feb. 2020 game between the Blazers and Utah Jazz. In that matchup, with the Blazers scrapping for their lives to remain in the playoff hunt, the refs missed a crucial goaltending call on a Damian Lillard layup attempt. In large part due to the call, the Blazers ended up losing 117-114 and Lillard had to be restrained by coaches from going after the refs when the buzzer sounded.

Talking to reporters postgame, a still-hot Lillard voiced his frustrations, knowing it’d likely earn him a fine.

“We get to the last play of the game, and they miss an easy call,” Lillard said. “And then they tell us that’s an easy no-call, like that was obviously not a goaltend. Cost us a f---ing game, man. Cost us a game.”

Lillard’s backcourt mate CJ McCollum took the criticism a step further by recommending a possible remedy to the reffing issue: consequences.

“It just makes me think you’re not capable of doing the job the way you’re supposed to do, which means you should be reprimanded, you should be fined accordingly,” a composed but agitated McCollum said. “When we make mistakes we’re fined and they cost us a game that could cost people money, so they should be fined accordingly.”

McCollum’s statement struck me at the time, not just because of his great use of the word “audacity” later in the clip or how his delivery foreshadowed a possible future in broadcasting, but because his logic made sense. If players are reprimanded by the league for certain mistakes, shouldn’t refs also face consequences for egregious missed calls or unjustified ejections?

McCollum isn’t the first or the last player to suggest this theory. In 2016, Detroit Pistons guard Reggie Jackson suggested a “system [of] fines, suspensions, [or] being fired” should be put in place for refs after he was upset with missed calls in a playoff loss. Just this fall, Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young, who’s ongoing feuds against officials cover multiple Google search pages, asked on Twitter for more accountability with refs by turning up the pressure with postgame media interviews.

NBA officials have made some efforts to improve transparency and communication with fans and players in the past decade. The official Twitter account that posted that apology for the Lakers no-call was created in 2014. It’s bio reads: “Encouraging communication, dialogue and transparency with NBA fans, while offering expertise from our elite group. Let’s talk. Official account of the NBA refs.”

Most notably, in the 2017-18 season, the NBA began releasing Last Two Minute Reports (L2M) for all games in which “one team’s lead over the other is three points or fewer at any point during the last two minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime.” The play-by-play reports designate all incorrect calls and no-calls in the game’s final two minutes. Here’s the purpose of the reports, according to the NBA’s official site:

“L2Ms are part of the NBA’s ongoing effort to build a greater awareness and understanding of the rules and processes that govern our game. Additionally, it serves as a mechanism of accountability to our fans and the media who seek clarifications after our games.”

That explanation is all well and good, but it seems oftentimes L2Ms do more harm than good. Once a game is decided in a controversial way, an admittance of wrong from officials — with no change to the outcome or consequences publicly identified for the officials — isn’t always what an angry fanbase or player wants to hear. It can just rub salt in the wound. I’m sure Lakers players aren’t feeling satisfied with the loss because the refs quickly admitted they got the call wrong, just as Lillard and McCollum weren’t satisfied back in 2020.

The NBA loves to tout that its officials are “correct roughly 90 percent of the time” and more accurate officials are seemingly rewarded with more high-leverage games, which in turn come with more money. But does the NBA need to put better, more public systems in place to hold refs accountable when they do miss calls?

That’s what this latest high-profile officiating blunder, with all its drama, humor and “sleepless nights” has got me thinking about.

I’d love to hear opinions from the Blazer’s Edge community below. Or, just use that space to share more joy and R&B mashups about LeBron, the Lakers and the absurdity of last night’s scene. The choice is yours.