No sport is dictated more by the whims of a referee than basketball. Whistles can swing games, series and ultimately championships.
What is unfortunate is that in the NBA, refs get it wrong. A lot.
Some people cry conspiracy, claiming the game is rigged. They believe that the referees act in the best financial interests of the league and David Stern.
Can that be true? Let's try to find out. Let's look at the 10 worst officiating moments in NBA history and what they mean in the grand scheme of things.
By the way, I'd be remiss if I didn't give some credit to Grantland's Bill Simmons, whose recent column on titles needing footnotes provided some valuable information for this piece (and saved me some big research time).
In Game 5 of the 1997 Eastern Conference semifinals, Charlie Ward and P.J. Brown got into a fight. Patrick Ewing, Allan Houston and Larry Johnson were all suspended despite not being involved.
In Game 4 of the 2007 Western Conference semifinals, Robert Horry checked Steve Nash into the scorer's table in a game that was already decided. Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw were suspended.
What was their crime? Getting off of the bench.
That's right, they didn't get involved in the fights; they just stepped off of the bench.
This would make the top five of this list, but it's technically in line with the rules.
Why this gets an honorable mention is that it's the single dumbest rule in all of sports.
If you watched your friend get punched at a bar, would you get arrested for walking towards the person who did it? Of course not. Because there's nothing wrong with being angry when someone attacks your friend or teammate.
I'm willing to give a slight pass to the NBA for what happened in 1997. They'd never dealt with such a situation before, and even though they robbed fans of a Knicks-Bulls bloodbath in the Eastern Conference Finals, they probably didn't change the course of history too much. The Bulls weren't losing in 1997.
But what happened in 2007 was completely inexcusable. The league had dealt with something like this before, they had seen the effect it had and they went forward with the suspension.
What's worse is that the Spurs initiated the fight. Robert Horry checked Steve Nash out of nowhere. It was a classless, unprovoked move that ultimately resulted in the Spurs winning the series.
But what's worst of all? This swung the 2007 title. This was Phoenix's year. The Suns had home-court advantage. They had just finished beating the Spurs to tie the series. Kurt Thomas was able to contain Tim Duncan enough to keep him from destroying them.
Even without Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw Phoenix almost beat the Spurs in Game 5 anyway. With both I think they win the series. Waiting for them in the playoffs would have been a mediocre No. 4 seed who lucked out and avoided No. 1 Dallas, and then an underwhelming Cavs team in the finals.
The fact that the NBA let a technicality swing a championship is just flat-out wrong. We'll remember the careers of Steve Nash, Tim Duncan, Robert Horry and Amare Stoudemire differently because of it.
In the waning moments of Game 5 of the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals, Charles Smith was blocked four times on potential game-winning layups.
The controversy here is that many people believe Smith was fouled on at least one and as many as three times in that sequence. There appears to be contact particularly on the fourth attempt.
The '93 Knicks were the best team of the Ewing era. They won the first two games of this series at home and if Smith would have gone to the foul line here and made both free throws, they would have won Game 5.
Is it so crazy to think they could have beaten the Bulls at home in a potential Game 7?
However, I'm willing to overlook this call. I don't think it's a 100 percent clear foul, and refs are generally supposed to let players decide games in the final moments without whistles. I personally think that the fourth block was a foul, and it was a bad non call, but I'm not going to cry over this one.
It was a fitting way for Michael Jordan to end his career. Not only did he make his "final" shot to win his sixth and final NBA title, but he did it over a man whose last name was "Russell"—symbolically passing the torch of greatest player ever from Bill Russell to Jordan.
What is lost here is that Michael Jordan blatantly pushed off of Bryon Russell. Had an offensive foul been called, the Bulls would have lost Game 6 86-85 and been forced to play Game 7 in Utah.
Considering how much was on the line in terms of his legacy, I'm guessing that Michael Jordan would have led the Bulls to a win.
But that amazing "final" moment to Jordan's career wasn't real. It was allowed by the referees. I'm willing to look at this as just a bad call, but an asterisk should always be next to this moment.
Jordan was wide open because of an illegal move. As much as I love Michael Jordan, this has to be remembered.
Look at the image above. There is no contact whatsoever.
Yet a foul was called and Larry Johnson got to shoot a free throw in addition to the three-pointer he just made.
That free throw turned a tie into a one-point Knicks lead and victory. The Knicks would go on to win the series and make the NBA Finals.
This is the first call on this list that feels a little fishy. Watch the replay. Look out for the delay between contact and the call.
This looked like a panic whistle. In other words, the delay signifies that the referee panicked and gave a call to the Knicks that he shouldn't have for reasons we can't quite be sure of. How often do we see calls made that long after the initial contact?
But still, this call only came in Game 3. Indiana was the better team (the Knicks were the No. 8 seed) and they shouldn't have let one bad call ruin the series for them, but they folded, winning only one more game in the series.
In Game 2 of the 2008 NBA finals, the Lakers shot 10 free throws.
The Celtics shot 38.
Think about that for a minute. The Celtics had 28 more opportunities to score free points.
A bench player named Leon Powe shot more free throws (13) than the entire Lakers team. The biggest star in the series (Kobe Bryant) shot seven. L.A.'s All-Star big man (Pau Gasol) only shot one.
A few bad calls are excusable; refs are human. When one team shoots 28 more free throws than the other, you have to look into it.
I don't think there was any foul play here. If anything, it would have been in the league's best interests for the Lakers to win and even the series. I think the referees just did a downright terrible job.
I said there was no foul play involved in 2008, but in 2010? Now we're talking.
Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals is the first example on this list of referees bailing out a star player. It happens fairly often, but in Game 7 of the finals? Well, I'll let the numbers do the talking.
Kobe Bryant was shooting terribly in Game 7. He ended up shooting 6-of-24 from the field, but I believe at one point he was something like 2-of-17. Ask any scorer, they'll tell you that when your shot isn't falling, you try to get to the line.
And that's what happened in Game 7. Kobe Bryant started barreling to the basket in hope of calls. And the calls came. He went to the free-throw line 15 times. As a team, the Celtics did 17 times.
The Lakers ended up winning in the final moments. Kobe was given Finals MVP (side note, he absolutely stole that trophy from Pau Gasol), and people seem to forget what really happened. If Ron Artest's three-pointer bricks in the final minutes, the Celtics may have won the game and the media would never stop talking about how Kobe can't beat the Celtics.
Kobe is a bigger star than Boston's entire big three combined. He will also be around a lot longer. If you wanted to say the league's best interests were for Kobe to win this series and instructed the refs accordingly, this is probably a good place to start.
But was the game rigged? No, there's nowhere near enough evidence to support that claim. What probably happened was that the Lakers had an easier time getting inside because of the injury to Kendrick Perkins. The refs knew this and had their whistles ready because of it.
The Pistons led the Lakers by one point in the final moments of Game 6 of the 1988 Finals. They fed the ball to Kareem, he posted up Bill Laimbeer and went up for a sky hook. He missed. Game over. Pistons win. The Pistons are the NBA champions.
This is what should have happened. What actually happened was this abomination of a foul call.
Kareem makes two free throws, the Lakers win the game and Game 7 and are the '88 champs.
Only, they really aren't. If the refs would have gotten a single call right, the Pistons would have won the series.
Look at the replay again. I'd love for someone to point out where the foul is. The whole purpose of the sky hook was that nobody could block it. If nobody could get high enough to block it, how could Bill Laimbeer have gotten high enough to foul Kareem? He didn't, because, like everyone else, he didn't have the reach.
This is probably the only call in NBA history to definitively swing a title, which is why it's so high on this list.
But was there a motive behind it? Well... You could convince me of one. Bill Laimbeer was notoriously hated by everyone, especially the refs. In a play between him and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of the five best players of all time, the tie is going to Kareem.
Maybe that particular ref just has a loose definition of the word "tie," but I think there was some bias against Laimbeer involved here.
If the same play happened with Hakeem Olajuwon defending Kareem, I doubt there's a whistle. That is the mark of a true bad call.
People remember Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals for the incredible comeback by the Lakers culminating in the most famous alley-oop in NBA history.
What people don't remember are the bad calls that led to it.
The Lakers had a 37-16 free-throw advantage in that game. Two of Portland's biggest stars (Scottie Pippen and Arvydas Sabonis) fouled out. Neither were as high profile as franchise player Rasheed Wallace, but you could argue that they were more important in this particular game.
Why? Because they were assigned to cover Kobe and Shaq.
The free-throw advantage is one thing. Obviously when one team is shooting 21 more free throws than the other, it doesn't look very good. But when 12 of those fouls come at the expense of the guys responsible for holding down the opponent's two biggest stars, it starts to look really suspicious. (If you're wondering, Pippen averaged less than three fouls per game over his career.)
With Sabonis out of the game, the Blazers had to defend Shaq—at his absolute apex—with 6'8'' Brian Grant. And people wonder how the Blazers blew that game.
I'm not gonna cry wolf on this game, though. As bad as the refs were, the Blazers blew it. If you can't hold a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 7, you don't deserve to win the title. Still, a convincing case could be made for the other side here.
My reaction to Game 1 of the 2012 Knicks-Heat first-round series was brash and premature. I called it the worst officiated game in NBA history.
As it turns out, though, I wasn't too far off.
The Heat had a 28-5 free-throw advantage... in the first half! The Knicks shot the same number of free throws as times they were called for charging. In other words, they went to the line about as often as LeBron James flopped.
Let's talk about LeBron for a minute. His flopping was so blatantly obvious that multiple NBA players actually tweeted about it. Klay Thompson said he'd "never respect floppers." Patrick Patterson wondered, "What kind of league are we becoming?" You know the game has turned into a joke when at halftime "and the Oscar goes to" is trending on Twitter.
Even Jeff Van Gundy was stunned. It's rare for an announcer to comment on officiating, but he couldn't contain it saying "I'm just not gonna say anything anymore. You couldn't knock LeBron James over with that much force if you tried."
I don't believe the Knicks had any real shot of winning this game, even under fair circumstances, but the refs didn't exactly help. They were so afraid to play physical defense by the middle of the second quarter that the Heat basically got any shot they wanted.
I really want to throw the refs under the bus here because they did a terrible job, but something had to initiate it. LeBron has to shoulder just as much of the blame, as his ridiculous acting caused this in the first place.
Take that with a grain of salt though, because I also blame LeBron for our national debt, the cancellation of Arrested Development and world hunger.
The bottom line is, you know something's up when prominent NBA writers like Bill Simmons tweet that they "don't watch rigged games." We'll see how this plays out over the rest of the 2012 playoffs, but if LeBron continues to get calls like this, then the conspiracy theorists will get plenty of evidence of the NBA rigging games.
The 2002 Lakers (as well as the team from our next slide) are one of two teams whose championships I adamantly refuse to validate. The Sacramento Kings win the 2002 NBA championship. Period.
The Kings were flat-out better. They were hungrier. They were deeper. Chris Webber was playing just as well as Shaq. This was where the Laker dynasty should have organically ended.
Remember, if not for a miracle three-pointer by Robert Horry and the travesty known as Game 6, the Kings would have won this series five games to one (I know that's impossible, but hang with me here).
If you search "NBA rigged" on YouTube, the first three videos are about this game. This video shows every bad call of that game. It's eight minutes long (by the way, I highly encourage watching it if you're a fan of terrible calls). My personal favorite? Fast forward to around the 5:30 mark. Kobe Bryant basically punched Mike Bibby in the face without a call.
In the fourth quarter alone, the Lakers shot 27 free throws to Sacramento's nine. Convicted felon and former referee Tim Donaghy has come out and claimed that this game was rigged multiple times.
And honestly? All of the pieces fit. The Lakers had Kobe and Shaq. They were the big-market team with the superstars. Game 7 was incredibly lucrative, and an NBA Finals between two small-market teams like Sacramento and New Jersey would have been a fiscal disaster.
The infamy surrounding this game is just too severe to ignore. Having watched it live and seen the replays several times, I can say that it doesn't fade with time. But still, it was only one game, which is why it loses the No. 1 spot to...
This series still sickens me. The NBA needed a star, so they created one. Never in the history not only of basketball, but of sports as a whole, have referees so blatantly and continuously attempted to hand a championship to a player and team.
Let's look at the raw numbers. Dwyane Wade shot 97 free throws in six games, good for a record in any six-game NBA series, only two off of the record for a seven-game series. In Game 5, he shot 25 free throws, the same amount as the entire Dallas team.
If you don't think those free throws are important, remember that Games 3, 5 and 6 were all determined by three points or less.
Excuses can be made for bad calls on single plays. Even what happened between the Lakers and Kings can be excused (slightly) by saying that it's only one game, the Kings had another chance to win the series.
But what happened during those four nights in 2006 left a mark on the NBA's historical resumé so big that it can never really be erased. Miami, although technically not a bigger market, is a more nationally relevant city than Dallas. They had the two biggest stars of the series—one that was there for his last rodeo, the other ready to build a legacy at his first.
Unfortunately for Maverick players, supporters and ultimately fans everywhere, that legacy was built for him. Say what you will, but I don't think any reasonable fan or person can deny that something weird was going on.
I'd go on about this, but I'm fairly certain Bennett Salvatore would read this and call a foul on me for speaking out against the holy Wade.
The more I look at it, the more the evidence starts to pile up.
A referee has been involved in a gambling scandal.
Every questionable call seems to involve either a big-market team or a star on one side and someone or some team of lesser note on the other.
But still, I don't think there's any real chance that the NBA is actually rigged. The logistics of that would be impossible, and it would be too hard to hide.
Here's what I think really happens. I think referees are instructed on general things. I think they know that certain players are expected to shoot a certain number of free throws, and I think they know, at least in the back of their mind, what is best for the league.
I think that there is a blatant star system involved in the NBA. The refs know what players are supposed to get calls, and I think they know who is expected to get the benefit of the doubt at the end of games.
And if the refs take these things too far? Well, I don't think David Stern will complain. He never struck me as someone particularly worried about competitive balance and fairness. I don't think he actively tries to rig NBA games, but I also believe he does nothing to stop refs from making it seem like he does.
In its own way, that's worse, but still, I think for the time being we can feel pretty comfortable with the notion that NBA games are least intended to be determined by the players.