Is the NBA's Officiating the Worst We've Ever Seen?

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Is the NBA's Officiating the Worst We've Ever Seen?

The line hasn’t changed.  

The refs screwed us.

And while that mantra will always stand, there isn't much credence to the idea that officials are screwing up any worse than ever.

Whistles have been blown at poor officiating for decades.

With more statistical and video evidence than ever, in addition to social media whining, it's easier to find evidence of referees making bad calls—just as they always have.

 

Just as bad as it's ever been

George Frey/Getty Images

Referrees are human, and the human element is imperfect. There’s no special sauce that keeps these slip-ups from happening in any moment, big or small.

Players, coaches and owners will all claim that it’s getting worse, and they’ll be saying the same thing in a decade.

If you listen to some, it's been getting worse with each year.

As noted last season by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who was quoted by Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas.com:

I haven’t said a whole lot about the officiating in a long, long time, but I haven’t seen it this bad in a long, long time. Guys miss calls; that’s part of the game. You’re not always going to have a great crew. Officials have got to learn that’s part of the game. But these were officials that have been part of the league for years, and it was just off-the-charts bad. And, if no one ever says anything, nothing ever happens.

Five years from now, Cuban may get fined for saying the same thing. It was better back in 2012.

And Rick Carlisle will be so frustrated that he’ll kick a ball off a fan’s head again.

But saying that refs are worse now is disrespectful to Sacramento Kings fans. They may have had a championship stolen away by poor officiating in the 2002 playoffs. Whether or not we believe it was caused by crooked officiating, as disgraced ex-referee Tim Donaghy said, is another story.

Bad calls in big moments are common in sports; just ask Oakland Raiders fans about Tom Brady and the “tuck rule.”

 

The Crawford example

For every blown call from this season, I see you a career of Joey Crawford.

He isn’t new this season and the 61-year-old has consistently made a name for himself, not a good sign for a referee.

Look at this clip of Tim Duncan being actually escorted off the floor—for laughing—after Crawford ejects him in 2007:

Crawford was suspended after that game, when Duncan said the older referee actually wanted to fight.

"He looked at me and said, 'Do you want to fight? Do you want to fight?"' Duncan said. "If he wants to fight, we can fight. I don't have any problem with him, but we can do it if he wants to. I have no reason why in the middle of a game he would yell at me, 'Do you want to fight?"'

It doesn’t take a fight to be ejected these days.

There’s been recent unrest regarding the distinction between flagrant-two foul calls, decisions by officials that have led to recent ejections of New York Knicks’ J.R. Smith and Minnesota Timberwolves’ J.J. Barea.

In both cases, the argument could be made that neither fouls deserved the boot.

Crawford was right in the mix of this call on Smith for the flagrant-two on Harrison Barnes of the Golden State Warriors.

Speaking with members of the New York Knicks media after the game, however, I was told that Smith has earned a reputation of committing over-the-top fouls when his team is being blown out, as New York was on that night. The flagrant was later downgraded to a flagrant-one. 

 

The numbers have not changed

Has NBA officiating gotten worse?

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Overall, the numbers continue to tell the same story each season.

There have been only 13 flagrant-two fouls called this season. Of the 38,580 fouls called thus far this season, it’s safe to say that any notion a flagrant-two is called too often is overblown.

Using team foul totals from basketballreference.com, there is no evidence that the league is blowing more whistles now; in fact, they're being blown less.

Of all the foul calls made in the 64.4 games played per team this season, there has been an average of 19.97 fouls called on each team. Last season, teams were whistled for an average of 20.22 per game game.

Think there have been more whistles in recent years?

Players may have become softer, but the league’s officiating has not changed. In the 1991-92 season, yup, the Jordan days, teams were called for 23.06 fouls per game.

Go all the way back to the days of Bob McAdoo, Wes Unseld and Rick Barry in 1974-75, and evidence shows even more fouls were called as teams committed 25.68 fouls per game.

Online Graphing

The same can be said for technical fouls.

Kobe Bryant leads the league with 14 technical fouls, followed by Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins, who each have 13 technicals.

In a  similar number of games played last season, Kendrick Perkins had 21 technical fouls, Russell Westbrook had 16 and Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Blake Griffin each had 14, according to the website TeamRankings.com.

Rasheed Wallace earned 28 technical fouls in 2007, followed by 18 from Richard Hamilton and 16 from Stephen Jackson.

We may see more whistles than ever, but times have not changed.

Moments of head-shaking frustration toward the human elements of the game can leave us to think that officiating is at its worse, but it’s clear that the bad officiating has been there all along.

 

Jimmy Spencer is an NBA Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @JimmySpencerNBA.

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