Could a Refs Lockout Be a Good Thing for NBA Fans?

Aside from the awesome title of his post (“Good Lockin’ Out?”), over at Celtics Blog they lead a thorough discussion of the referees lockout and its potential implications. For one, they examine some of the action from the NBA’s last experiment with replacement officials in 1995.

In their analysis, they found that often times problems arose when replacement officials called fouls according to strict interpretation of the rule book. In turn, the replacement refs were easily intimidated by the backlash they faced from players. Take the case of Dennis Scott:

Here’s what I saw from Dennis Scott in one of the games I went back and watched, though: He backed down his man in the low post and was called for an offensive foul when he shoved his man off his spot with a forearm to the chest. It was probably a foul that nine times out of ten would not be called, but on this occasion, it was. His reaction? He disrespectfully fired the ball back at the official, hitting him in the shins as he signalled to the scorer’s table.

Was a technical foul called, though? Nope. And did Scott get hit with that call again? Of course not. He continued to back down the smaller guards and went to the line for 6 shots, all of which he made en route to a game-high 30 points.

Clearly, although they weren’t refereeing “the NBA way”, the officials were still susceptible to being intimidated.

The analysis evolves from there, and raises some interesting questions. The discussion is certainly worth your time if you care about NBA basketball. For one thing, Celtics Blog vocalizes what a lot of us have been quietly wondering for the past week or so.

Many people have joked that, "It can't be any worse," and it is interesting to consider.  If the main problems in 1995 were because the replacements called it by the book and didn't overlook certain violations, then it would be very interesting if that happened again this time.  Very, very interesting. [...]

If LeBron James gets called for a travel every time he comes off a pick at the top of the key and takes three steps before taking off for a big dunk - or if he decides to add another step to his now-legal "Crab Dribble" and starts calling it a "Lobster Dribble" or something, but the officials refuse to allow it, then he'll be calling the officiating "horrible" too.  Maybe that's how it would be remembered in fifteen years, too, but the rest of us would find it a refreshing change.

Would the NBA be better off with replacement officials?

That this is even a question speaks volumes about the officiating incompetence that’s emerged over the past decade—I mean, games were fixed, but it’s impossible to tell which ones, because a solid 50% of the games featured horrid officiating. Now, that is why the referees have no leg to stand on in these labor negotiations.

Still, it seems overly-simplistic to say that simply because the system is broken, “new blood” would be an upgrade. It smacks of Curt Schilling’s talk of a Congressional run. Well, they’re not doing it right, so even though I’m not remotely qualified, I'm an upgrade. Right, Curt. Lesser officials may not buy in to the league’s political, bogus “star-treatment,” but if they’re lesser officials, there will be other problems. I’m quite sure that there are plenty of people in the referees union that shouldn’t be officiating NBA basketball, but I’d bet my life that, on the whole, the replacements are far less skilled.

Improving the NBA by replacing the referees wholesale will simply solve one problem (star treatment, traveling, etc) and create any number of other problems (for one, the replacements will be easily intimidated, to say nothing of the skepticism that would pervade any time they made a call late in the 4th quarter). No. Instead, the NBA needs to revise the system a bit, with tweaks like these:

  • Vet officials for biases—Bill Kennedy should never, ever referee a Celtics, for example, and Joey Crawford shouldn’t work Spurs games.
  • Fire bad officials—Violet Palmer was an NBA official for ten freaking years. Enough said, I think.
  • Get ride of Flagrant 2s. Judgment calls—like deciding whether a foul on breakaway is flagrant 1 or flagrant 2—place too much of a burden on officials. The players are too fast and too athletic to ask refs to make split-second decisions, and often times, those decisions can decide playoff games, or even a series. Why not to leave those to league office, and do away with the distinction between flagrants?

And those are just a few suggestions. The NBA has people whose sole job is to oversee officiating. To think that they can’t improve the system is ridiculous. And that the system’s remained unchanged and broken for this long isn’t an indication of incompetent refs, but moreso, of a hubris on the NBA’s part.

Replacing the union referees won’t erase that hubris; it’ll only make the league look more cartoonish, as we watch a bunch of lesser referees get pushed around by superstars, while the NBA plays hardball with its referees over (relative) loose change. All while refusing to fix a system that’s been broken for years now, and has fundamental, systemic issues that have nothing to do with the referees union.

This lockout is a good thing; insofar as it indirectly sheds light on an issue that's been plaguing the NBA for years now. But if it does nothing to change the system, and only leads to a few new officials, going through the same, old process, then we're essentially just fooling ourselves into a solution. The problems will persist, the league will continue to pretend there's nothing wrong, if occasionally scapegoating an official, and it'll all detract from what's otherwise rounding into quite a compelling era for pro basketball.

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