Wednesday, October 14, 2009

For Whom the Whistle Blows

No player is an Iland, intire of it selfe;
every manis a peece of a team, a part of a game;
if one Ocotbre basket bee washed away by a replacement referee,
the division is the lesse, as well as if a playoff game were,
as well as if the favored team of thy friends or of thine owne were denied a title;
any bad officiating diminishes me, because I am involved in Association;
And therefore never send to know against whom the bad whistle blows;
It blows for thee.

Not that you would know it by reading this website, but the NBA preseason is in full swing. In fact, it's nearly over. Knicks fans have already booed the team for poor performance. It's on. Everything is in its place. Except for one thing: the refs.

The Association has locked out its 57 referees after a contract could not be agreed upon. David Stern rolled out replacement whistlers from the WNBA, D-League and the NBA layoff-line (two previously fired refs were given back their stripes) to keep the foul line occupied. From what I can gather, the NBA brass wanted to reduce the referee budget by 10%, about $32 million. The refs didn't want to give up that much and were willing to come within $70,000 of Stern's demand. For reference, the minimum rookie contract is more than six times that figure and the minimum yearly salary for a veteran with 10 or more years of his experience is more than 18 times the disputed amount. The money is around.

On the other hand, the NBA had to layoff about 80 people from it's domestic workforce this time last year to the economic downturn. It's tough all over and the notion of a 10% budget reduction from one group within a company when about 9% from another group were recently laid off doesn't seem out of line. Generally speaking, I'm pro-Union and all for standing up for one's rights (says the guy without health insurance) but I'm also for people making sacrifices for greater good when times are tough. Which means, I'm not even going to attempt to pick aside in this dispute.

What I am going to do is wonder how this affects me. First things first. Right?

And the way this affects me and you is through the games themselves. Will the replacements be terrible? Tolerable? Will we even notice? Will they also become involved in game-fixing/point-shaving scandals? Or will they rise to Shane Falco-esque heights, ultimately replacing the previous class of officials.

As much as I would hope/assume that the replacements are up for the task, I am fearful that it will be bumpy first few weeks. I expect in the short term that we'll hear more whistling as they try to assert themselves. We'll probably see more free throws, more arguing, more ejections and such as players and coaches alike try to pull the "well, the real refs never would have called that" card as much as possible. We've already seen some of this. Former Knicks coach Larry Brown is with the scabs during the preseason. He was tossed the other night from an exhibition game and was vocal about his belief that too many fouls were being called by the newbies. The numbers are in Brown's favors. Two recent Bobcats games had 77 and 61 fouls respectively. The league average last season was 49 in the preseason and 42 during the regular season.

"Without getting myself in trouble, I think the older refs knew how to not take the rules literally all the time. It created a flow," Bobcats guard Raja Bell told "Some of that stuff they're going to let go for the benefit of a good flow to the game. I think the younger guys, it's not unlike an NBA player, you have to learn the rhythm of the game."

This quote gets an interesting subplot in this labor dispute. Do we want experienced refs who know what players expect and that know to swallow their whistles on certain things and in certain situations? Or do we want fresh-faced go getters who will call someone for carrying the ball on flashy crossover dribble? Jamal Crawford I'm looking southward in your direction. Personally I want a little of Column A and Column B because I'm difficult and unpleasable like that. I want the players to be allowed to play physically in the paint. But I also wouldn't mind if we finally put our foot down on traveling, for example.

Also, per LB's problems with over-eager officiating, I feel like we see that at the start of every season. For the first few weeks there are lane violations and travels called at a rate that feels (read: I have no actual evidence) for more frequent than it does later in the season. I would imagine that we're in store for a more extreme version of that this season. Once the neophyte whistle blowers get their nondescript shoes wet then I would hope that we can get back to normal. Or, perhaps even better than normal. Because, after all, how good are the refs that we've had in recent years? To be honest, I'm not sure. For years, we've complained about them? About the non-calls and the phantom fouls when star players were involved or in Game 3s when a team (and a television network that has already sold ad time) needs a miracle to avoid falling into an 0-3 hole. Maybe they're not that good. Maybe they are largely old and past their prime. Maybe they are too familiar with the players, the coaches. And maybe they've grown too aware of the grand stage and the television cameras.

For the long-term health of the game, I hope this lockout forces the NBA to develop it's pipeline for officiating talent. As noted Sports Fella, Bill Simmons, pointed out in one of his best and least-self-involved columns in recent memory, "The NBA's failure to develop a new generation of decent referees might be its single biggest misfire of the past 20 years." I couldn't agree more. The league's reliance on increasingly older officials seems to have been tolerated, in part, because fans, players and media members grew sentimentally attached to certain officials. The modern NBA has been built on the shoulders of individual superstars, unlike the NFL which is built around loyalty to a franchise. This emphasis on recognizable and marketable faces seems to have permeated referreedom. We know Dick Bavetta. He jogs every morning. We know Joey Crawford. He doesn't get along with Tim Duncan. My boy Bob Delaney used to be an undercover cop in Jersey.

I shouldn't know these things about these men. I shouldn't have fond memories of Chuck Barkley kissing Bavetta on TNT. Like, for sure I shouldn't have that memory. But I do. We do. Or at least lots of people do. While there are 50-something refs that I don't know by name there are at least a dozen more that I would recognize. Maybe that's not a good thing. Perhaps these pangs that Brown and likely all of us will experience in the next whistle fueled

Or perhaps we should just bet the OVER on every prop bet involving free throws made or attempted. Yeah, probably that one.