By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
Granted, it’s not always satisfying when the NBA issues an officiating verdict the day after a disputed play. Learning 18 hours later that, yes, a foul should have been called on that final missed field-goal attempt in Team A’s 1-point loss doesn’t change the W-L records of the squads involved and rarely calms fans who felt their team got jobbed.
But transparency beats opacity, even after the fact, so the league regularly has tried to review, interpret and explain its many calls and non-calls ASAP. One way to do that now, with the playoffs approaching and stakes and emotions getting ever higher, is through a follow of @NBAOfficial on Twitter. That account will provide updates and clarifications on rules and fouls in the closest thing to real time, while educating some fans on what does or doesn’t constitute an instant-replay “trigger.”
The Twitter feed was one of the reminders Thursday to media folks in the league’s 2014 basketball & referee operations WebEx online meeting. A fleet of NBA executives provided updates and answered questions about the season and looming postseason, including “points of emphasis” that will remain high on referees’ radar as the playoffs unfold.
Participating in the multi-media event: Rod Thorn, president, basketball operations; Mike Bantom, executive vice president, referee operations; Kiki VanDeWeghe, senior vice president, basketball operations; Joe Borgia, vice president, referee operations; and Don Vaden, VP & director of officials.
One thing fans might notice again this spring is a change that was initiated for the 2013 playoffs: Keeping referees together in the same crew to develop familiarity and continuity in their court coverage.
Traditionally, three referees come together pretty much randomly to officiate NBA games, compared to MLB umpires, who work most of the season in set four-man crews.
Vaden said that last spring, the league booked two referees as a tandem for each game, with the third official rotating through. “Ken Mauer and Ed Malloy worked every game together,” Vaden said, offering an example. “We’re more consistent in what we’re doing on the floor when we do that.”
This used to be standard procedure, Thorn recalled. “There was a time way back when crews were kept together,” he said. “There was a time when the same two referees refereed all the games in The Finals.”
In addition to the logical benefits of refs working together, Vaden mentioned some secondary ones off the floor in terms of reviews and communication.
“Keeping the guys together, traveling together, they can review more video of the games,” he said. “They’re easier for me to get a hold of than in the regular season. Even on off-days they’re together in the same hotels, so we can do a review from their last game and give them a preview of the game to come.”
The review process of referee performance has grown more thorough through the years, with a centralized group of eight reviewers in the office in New Jersey handling most of the heavy lifting. Teams also submit feedback, and the league has made it a priority to keep teams, players, coaches, media and fans in the loop with rulings and updated points of emphasis.
The selection process to work in, and advance through, the postseason is rigorous, Bantom said. From the regular-season pool of 62 referees, 32 are identified based on performance criteria to work the first round. That gets cut to 20 for the conference semifinals, 16 for the East and West finals and 12 assigned to The Finals. Guidelines in the playoffs include: no back-to-back games for officials, no more than three games worked in a week and, ideally, not reappearing in a series before Game 6 (loosened to Game 5 in The Finals).
Speaking about the NBA in general in 2013-14, with the transition from David Stern to Adam Silver in the commissioner’s office, VanDeWeghe said: “Our focus has been transparency and inclusion. We want to include more people in our discussions. Improve communications with teams, players, media and fans. We want to share more information and just the processes of what we go through. You can never tell where a great idea comes from, and we’d like to hear from you. This is our game together.”
The POE this postseason will largely be a continuation of those introduced back in October. Among them, Vaden spoke of:
- Freedom of movement, including illegal screens.
- Traveling calls, especially on the perimeter.
- Point-of-contact plays, before, during and after shot attempts. “We have clarified the rule for teams, that if it affects the natural follow-through, even though the ball was released, we would penalize the defender,” Vaden said. “Hits on the elbow, we’ve gotten better at.”
- Push or pull plays, physically redirecting an opponent.
- Delay-of-game calls for handling the ball after it passes through the net. Said Vaden: “Everybody complained, but after about a month of the season, everybody’s running from the ball. The players have done a great job in adapting to this.”
- Verticality. “It’s easy for us to call ‘A’ to ‘B’ movement,” Vaden said, referring to a defender who goes up in the air but not quite straight up. “As the season went on, we saw more of the defender turning in the air and [confronting the ball handler] with his side.” That’s a defensive foul too. But a scorer who wards off the defender with an arm, leads with a knee or elbow or even “displaces” the man so he cannot rebound can wind up with an offensive foul.
Borgia reminded participants that the NBA’s system of points and suspensions for flagrant fouls and technical fouls resets for the playoffs. The trigger numbers in the postseason are four points for flagrants, seven for technicals.
Several execs weighed in on “hand on the ball” interpretations, which came up again Tuesday on the final play of the Brooklyn-Miami game. That’s when LeBron James went up for what could have been a game-winning dunk, only to have the ball knocked loose – and his hand or wrist smacked, James complained – by Nets forward Mason Plumlee.
Plumlee was credited with a game-saving block and the league’s brass supported that call.
“Frame by frame, you can see that Plumlee got his hand on the ball before there was any contact hand-to-hand,” Thorn said. “That was basically LeBron’s hand coming forward and interlocking with Plumlee. A very, very close play. Very, very difficult to see. I think the refs did a great job in ascertaining what they did.”
Borgia attempted to simplify for the online audience what many folks don’t get quite right.
“If they hit a part of my hand or finger that is physically on the ball, that is considered hitting the ball and not a foul,” the referee-turned-supervisor said. “I think there is some misconception out there. … On a jump shot, most of the time the ball is more on your fingertips and not sitting in the palm of your hand. If someone hits the back of the hand, that would be a foul.”
Transparency, see. It might not alter a critic’s opinion of a call but it can aid in the understanding.