Veteran NBA Officials vs. Replacements: Which Refs Would Make the League Better?

Rich KurtzmanSenior Analyst IOctober 21, 2009

A story was broken yesterday by our friends at the worldwide leader, ESPN, saying how a “Ref agreement closer” in the NBA. After both NBA Commissioner David Stern and referees’ union representative Lamell McMorris separately pulled out of negotiations weeks ago, many believed replacement refs were an undeniably sad reality.

But now, referees are planning to vote on a newer version of an NBA/ref agreement, which may bring the referees back this year. The vote is scheduled to happen this Friday at league offices in New York, as the league is hopeful to get veteran referees back in time for the NBA regular season’s start, next Tuesday.

And while NBA officials declined comment Tuesday, NBA Players’ Association head Billy Hunter expressed his true feelings about the possibility of the veteran refs returning as he told the AP, “I think it’s great. We’d welcome them back.” And with those words, it’s obvious Hunter is not only speaking for himself but for all of his players, including the Nuggets’ Kenyon Martin.

Martin voiced his concern with the replacement refs last month saying he thinks the replacement refs will be “terrible” and, “There are going to be more ejections. Tempers are going to be even worse. Attitudes are going to be even worse.” Sure, there will likely be more technicals not only because referees may be more quick to blow a whistle, but players are likely to be angrier at blown and missed calls than usual.

And no, even with the practice of the preseason, it seems the replacements are not getting better. They called 72 fouls in the Suns-Kings game last night, enough for 82 free-throw attempts and even Grant Hill got thrown out. We’re not talking about a rough and tough playoff battle, this is a preseason game between two of the softest teams in the NBA.

Following the debacle, Sacramento guard Kevin Martin said , “It was just an ugly game. It was like the ball was deflated and we were stopping every second and that’s all I’m going to say about that.”

Denver’s Anthony Carter may have made a better point on the subject saying, “It's always going to be tough when you have a whole new set of refs. The other refs kind of know what other players do and what their moves are. Who's flopping? It's going to be a big challenge for them.” The refs won’t know who the biggest flopper's are, and they won’t know other players’ special moves either—but this could actually be better for the game.

No more LeBron crab-walking legally for four or five steps (in my day we called that traveling). Maybe the new refs would even call the game as it was supposed to be, no one is allowed more than two steps, no matter what the name and number on the jersey say. We could even hope for an end to ticky-tack, no-touch foul-calls that superstars like Kobe get when they miss a shot.

Changing all the refs, from ones that obviously favor certain players (stars) for whatever reason (the league tells them to) to new refs may actually make the game better, with a more even result.

Then again, maybe not. Along with the backlash from some players, many coaches have already voiced their displeasure with the replacement referees on and off the court.

Memphis Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins was fined $25,000 for publicly criticizing officials this preseason. Charlotte Bobcats coach Larry Brown was docked $60,000 for verbally abusing the replacements and refusing to leave the court in a timely manner after he was ejected, and for publicly criticizing officials after the game. The organization was fined an additional $60,000 for Brown's actions during a preseason game.

Orlando Magic head man Stan Van Gundy spent $35,000 for his thrashing of the refs, and the team was ordered to match his fine as well.

Even Maccabi Tel Aviv coach Pini Gershon was thrown out of a game earlier this week when playing against the New York Knicks. The scene was made even worse when the coach refused to leave the court and a Rabbi that set up the event petitioned the replacement refs to allow Gershon to stay on the sidelines to no avail. The incident looks even worse in the eyes of David Stern, since he has already mentioned his intentions to expand the NBA to Europe with some European-based teams.

And along with all the fines and player gripes come negative attention from the media, something else Stern doesn’t want.

The solution? Bring the veteran referees back, and fast. Which is exactly why he likely called McMorris, and wanted to get the ball rolling to resolve the referee issue.

But even if the veteran referees are back in time for the regular season, one thing is for sure—since the vets missed their training camp and have yet to call a game since June, the officiating in the NBA will be bad at the beginning of the season.

So, the NBA tried to save a buck and now the fans will be forced to struggle through horribly called games. That is, until the refs get back into the usual swing of things, making their superstar calls, and missing travels night-in and night-out—when we can all remember how much we loathe them anyway.

But in the end, it has become quite evident that the veteran refs are actually good, no, the best in the world at what they do and we all need them for there to be an NBA.