Heat/Pacers and the Unnecessary Visibility of NBA Officials

For better or worse, Game 4 of the Heat-Pacers series put a microscope on officiating and how the subjectivity of NBA rules affects (ruins) games.

Of course, since the Heat lost, ESPN loves to bring the officiating into question (Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C), focusing on two specific plays: the 6th foul against LeBron James and the traveling call against Dwyane Wade with about 27 seconds left. ESPN loves to point out that both of these calls went against the Heat and probably shouldn’t have.

Sure, I’m a Pacers fan, but I’m also generally a ref hater, so moments like this pull me in a couple of directions. Here’s what I have to say about those two calls.

The Sixth Foul on LeBron
To start, this wasn’t a foul. It has nothing to do with the time left, the player in question, the team in question, the tendency of the foulee to exaggerate contact, the rarity of that type of call, whether or not Dwyane Wade actually used the screen or any other useless qualifier. It just wasn’t a foul. Here’s what does matter: the Heat didn’t lose this game because LeBron fouled out. They were down by four with less than a minute left already. I don’t have the data on this, but teams down by four with less than a minute left probably win games somewhere along the lines of 10% of the time.

Here’s something else that no one is talking about: the same call went in favor of LeBron and against Lance Stephenson in the third quarter. In a loose ball situation, Lance was called for a trip with about the same level of incidental foot-only contact. Sure it was the third quarter and not the end of the game, but if you think the game should be officiated differently in different quarters, you don’t have any ground for argument in this conversation and you might as well just stop reading now.

For comparison’s sake, here are photos of both fouls. Sorry for the misleading play button, I had to pause a video to grab these and that’s what you get. The one of the left is the sixth foul on LeBron and the one on the right is the fourth on Stephenson. Both are plays where one player incidentally stepped on an ankle without looking at it and neither should have been called. In the interest of fairness to both players, these were both blown calls by referees in perfect position.

LeBron James Lance Stephenson

Personal fouls in basketball are some of the most subjective penalties in all of sports and it’s definitely a shame that we saw an NBA playoff game end without the reigning MVP. That said, this isn’t just a problem at the end of games, players are forced to miss time throughout most games because of arbitrary fouls.

The Travel by Wade
I’ve heard quite a bit of interpreting on this one, and so far, there’s plenty of evidence both ways. However, the only source I’ve read that actually quoted the NBA rulebook was Sports Illustrated, which concluded that he DID travel. The video from that post is here:

It’s pretty heavily into gray area, and I’m not even sure you’d be wrong for arguing that Wade traveled before he started dribbling too. Either way you look at it, he dribbled the ball once and took six steps. No matter how you break it down, it seems to me like there has to be a travel in there.

Again, by the book, I think this should get called. Also by the book, there was an in-bounds play that involved DJ Augustine taking four steps before dribbling. I’m sure there are dozens of other close traveling calls in this game, I just didn’t catch all of them. No matter what, there’s a way around this. The NBA just has to write rules that eliminate subjectivity rather than introduce it.

If you think blown calls are only affecting the Heat, you either didn’t watch the game or you work for ESPN. Here are two pretty objective calls that were blown in favor of the Heat:

The Shot Clock Debacle
This one is pretty horrendous. I don’t know who is responsible for deciding these things, it could be the clock operator or any of the three officials on the floor. Whoever it is, they messed up in Game 4 and it cost the Pacers a second-chance possession and very likely a couple of points.

It blows my mind that this play wasn’t reviewed. In a perfect world, this mistake doesn’t happen, but even after it did, the call could have been corrected and the refs could have given the Pacers the ball out of bounds with the shot clock reset.

The Ball out of Bounds
I couldn’t find a video of this play, and a photo doesn’t do any justice to it, but on the Pacers possession in between the LeBron foul  and the Dwyane Wade travel, Paul George drove the lane and kicked a pass out in the direction of David West with the shot clock winding down. The pass didn’t make it to West and bounced out of bounds. A video replay showed the ball clearly went off Ray Allen between leaving George’s hands and landing OOB. The refs even reviewed this call before blowing it, taking another shot attempt away from the Pacers and giving the Heat an extra five-ish seconds of game time.

What does it all mean? Let me say this in the simplest way possible: One play, called correctly or incorrectly, is never, ever, ever, ever the reason a team wins or loses a game. Officiating is an entirely imperfect art and officials routinely blow calls in every single basketball game at every level of competition. That’s the way it is and every person whose ever watched a basketball game knows that. It’s the hardest sport to officiate because the most common call is one that has no definite meaning. To try to retroactively recount all the ways the game would have changed if a 50/50 call went the other way is a waste of time.

On every play of every basketball game, all 10 players on a basketball court will touch someone. It’s a game full of legal contact. Setting screens, boxing out and backing down are fundamental, physical parts of the game. In 48 minutes, there are probably more than 1,000 instances of contact in an NBA game, and we’re supposed to believe that there are only 40 or so of those that are fundamentally different from the rest? It’s a rule that’s just not clearly enforceable.

Is there an easy solution to officiating error? No. Is there one simple rule change that would help limit a lot of the damage? I’m glad you asked.

Here’s all the NBA has to do to cover itself in the case of some referee blunders: Eliminate fouling out. It’s that easy. Don’t allow players to be eliminated from the game because of personal fouls. To avoid turning games bloody, just institute a penalty for individual players that collect more than six fouls in one game.

For each non-shooting personal foul after six: Award the fouled team one free throw to the on-court shooter of choice and then the ball out of bounds.

For each foul after six that is either a shooting foul or a bonus foul: Award the fouled team one free throw to the on-court shooter of choice and then continue with the usual free throws.

Seems easy to me.

There’s another solution somewhere in all of this. After every NBA game, the officials watch the tape of the game together and review what calls they got right and what calls they missed. It seems like the Association is going pretty far out of its way to separate this review from the actual game action. If someone is going to review it anyways, why not have that reviewer working in real time? Why not use dead balls and TV timeouts to instantly adjust?

If the NBA can review Dwyane Wade’s elbow and David West’s screen/punch AFTER the game, why can’t they review them DURING the game? There are only so many camera angles and it can’t take long to do the actual watching of the film. It wouldn’t add any time to the referee review process, it would just move it forward.

In the playoffs, the penalty for flopping is a $5,000 fine for the first flop. This morning the NBA fined David West, Lance Stephenson and LeBron James for flopping in Game 4. That might help the problem, but even after those three, only seven players have been assessed this penalty. Watch any game, the rule isn’t discouraging flopping. Shane Battier and Dwyane Wade are called out by the announcers every game for effective flopping. What does the NBA review when they look at these games for flops? How was the Lance Stephenson flop in Game 4 (exaggerated contact after an elbow brush from Ray Allen) worse than the Wade dive out of bounds in Game 3? Does the NBA really think they can pick and choose a handful of flops to penalize and that will work? They love to be loud about new rules they’re making, but get horrendously gun-shy about actually calling them.

You know what might discourage flopping more? Someone reviewing the plays in real time and handing out technical fouls at dead balls. A free throw, a loss of possession and the public shame of receiving a technical for it in front of tens of thousands of people might make the penalty a little more real.

How do you feel about referees? What suggestions do you have? Let me know in the comments.