The relationship between the players and officials has been tense for a while, but both sides may be hitting their breaking point.
The 24-hour news cycle of the NBA is a wonderful, terrifying roller coaster. Every day there’s a new malcontent All-Star, a new players-only meeting, and a back-door Swiss Diversion sneak attack (we can only hope these keep happening). But, in all the entertainment and drama of the NBA, we are missing one of the most important stories in the league.
Tensions between players and referees have been bubbling for a while now, but recently they’ve started to boil. Clashes between players and refs both during and after games are happening more and more frequently, and a solution needs to be found before the frustrations interfere with the on-court product.
Ray Chavez - Bay Area News Group
Earlier this month, Warriors’ star Draymond Green said in an interview with The Athletic that the referee-player tensions were “ruining the game” and that his solution would be to “get a new crop [of officials].” While the referee association (NBRA) didn’t respond to that quote directly, it is safe to say they agree with Green’s diagnosis of the problem much more than his prescribed solution.
Green may lack the self-awareness to see his message would be far better received if given from a different source, but his point isn’t entirely wrong. Replacing the entire referee corps is neither a good nor feasible idea, but Green is right that these problems can ruin the game if left unchecked.
The underlying problem is simple: both sides want the corrects calls made, but each has an ulterior goal; the refs want civility and the players want to win. When one side perceives the other is interfering with that goal, a conflict often arises. Usually a loud one.
Over just the last few weeks we’ve seen two All-Star starters, James Harden and DeMar DeRozan, rip officials for perceived missed calls after close games. Last week D’Angelo Russell was T-ed up for clapping in the direction of an official. In December, Shaun Livingston and Courtney Kirkland engaged in head-to-head contact resulting in Livingston’s first career ejection and suspension while Kirkland was dropped from the referee rotation for a week.
We breathlessly consume even the most trivial information about players’ relationships with each other, but we are often completely unaware of those same players’ relationships with officials. Referees are human too and no matter how hard they try to remove personal biases and feelings from their decision making, some will inherently remain. The longer these frustrations are left unresolved, the longer this black cloud hangs over the league.
While we frequently hear the players’ side of things, the referees have their own point of view. When asked to comment on the player-ref relationship earlier this month, NBRA spokesperson Mark Denesuk downplayed the role of the refs in those tensions. Denesuk said that their internal stats showed upwards of 90% of calls made on the court were correct and the frustration stemmed from a “lack of civility” rather than subpar officiating.
And those are our two sides to this debate. The players believe the referees have it out for them and the NBRA believe players have ruined the relationship with their actions. We’re stuck in a stalemate with both sides digging further in, but the reality shows that neither side is entirely correct.
According to Fox Sports’ count of technical fouls, players are on pace to be called for 704 techs this season, or one every 1.75 games. That number sounds quite high but is actually below the previous three seasons’ average of 733. Ejections are up slightly from previous seasons, but that trend is also within the expected range.
While the overall stats don’t support the idea that either side has it out for the other, they do illuminate a few interesting trends. The first being that the better a team performs relative to their Expected W-L, the fewer technical fouls they accumulate.
It’s not a perfect correlation as a few teams buck the trend (Golden State, Phoenix, and Utah), but overall it holds pretty true. Anecdotally it holds up too. If your record doesn’t properly reflect how well you’ve played in a season, then you are much more likely to be frustrated on and off the court than if the opposite were true.
Additionally, while the number of total technical fouls has stayed stable, the league leaders have separated from the pack. This season there are 15-20 players who could realistically finish the year with 10 or more technicals. That number has steadily climbed over the past couple seasons, up from just nine such players in 2014-15.
League Leaders by Year (# of Techs) & Share of Total Techs
Most importantly, though, is that star players are making up more and more of the tech leaders. Four of the five players with the most techs this season are All-Stars, and seven of the 10 players starting the All-Star game have been ejected at least once. That includes LeBron James’s first career ejection and Kevin Durant who leads the league with four.
It is certainly possible that because the techs and ejections have disproportionately affected star players so far this season, the tensions have appeared much more pervasive than they really are. When a former MVP gets ejected from a game it is a much bigger deal than when it happens to a role player, and that’s how we end up in this situation.
Alex Brandon - AP Photo
It is truly hard to tell whether 90% or 10% of the league has a problem with the referees, but it doesn’t really matter at this point. So many public faces have made their unhappiness known that the perception will be the entire league has a problem, regardless of if that is actually true.
Neither side is happy these problems exist, but neither has a good solution for them either. The heads of the NBRA and Players Union are reportedly set to meet over the All-Star break next month to address these issues, but we have to hope that tensions will cool before then.
Arguments and technicals will never disappear from the NBA, but addressing the things that exacerbate the problems and improving the relationships between both sides is a vital step for the future of the league.
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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