NBA officiating in focus: Former referee weighs in on hot topic

Jay King
17 Min Read

NBA officials were under fire even before Darko Rajaković’s epic rant.

On Monday, the Boston Celtics lost 133-131 to the Indiana Pacers after a Buddy Hield foul of Jaylen Brown was overturned by replay review with 3.2 seconds left. Following the controversial call, LeBron James hopped onto the platform X, formerly known as Twitter, not just to share his disagreement with the officials’ decision but also to use it as an example of why he sometimes loses his cool on the court.

In a last two-minute report released the following day, the NBA acknowledged that Hield did hit the back of Brown’s head, but determined the defender’s contact with the offensive player was “correctly deemed incidental.” In the same report, the league ruled that a foul on Kristaps Porziņģis with 0.6 seconds left, which allowed the Pacers to hit two go-ahead free throws, should have been considered a clean play. Jayson Tatum responded to the league’s findings with a simple message on X: “Well this was some BS.” The line echoed what Brown appeared to tell the referees moments after they initially overturned the foul call.

Then Rajaković topped all of the other criticism Tuesday night by implying the officiating crew in his Raptors’ 132-131 loss to the Lakers was biased against his team. Rajaković’s furious postgame press conference capped an interesting couple of days in exchanges between players, coaches and officials across the NBA.

It has been an interesting season on that front. Maybe every season is. Looking to find the perspective of the other side — the officials who don’t get to air their complaints publicly — The Athletic reached out to Steve Javie in late December. The widely respected former referee, who now analyzes the league’s officiating for ESPN and ABC broadcasts, said the occasional animosity is “something that has gone back to the beginning of time in probably every sport.”

“It’s always going to be that way,” Javie said. “It’s always going to be contentious. And I had to learn this too as I went along: You’re not out there to be liked. As a mentor told me, he said it’s almost like a police officer out there. You know what to expect. You can’t go out there and just be a nice guy, you just have to go by the rules and do the best you can and make sure everybody’s getting a fair shake. And that’s the key.”

Not many people are more qualified than Javie to assess the profession. After entering the league as an official in 1986, he officiated 1,780 games, including the playoffs, before retiring from that role in 2011. During the phone conversation, he gave his opinion on the current relationship between players and officials and outlined how his back-and-forth with players evolved as he gained experience in the NBA.

The NBA has gone through its share of scrutinized incidents already this season, including several ejections featuring high-profile players. Brown and Tatum both followed ejections by saying they didn’t get their money’s worth. Giannis Antetokounmpo picked up a second technical foul, and the automatic ejection that comes with it, after celebrating a Nov. 8 dunk by staring down Isaiah Stewart. Trae Young was tossed from a Dec. 11 loss to the Nuggets after clapping in disagreement over a call. The next night, Nikola Jokić was ejected late in the first half of a win against the Chicago Bulls after a single technical foul “because he directed profane language at the official that by our standards warranted an ejection,” crew chief Mark Lindsay later explained.

Nikola Jokić reacts after being ejected from a game in early December. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

After setting a blistering pace for ejections early in the season, the NBA has slowed down lately, but still had 26 ejections as of Wednesday, according to Spotrac data. That put the league on track for about 60 ejections this season, which would be fewer than last season’s 75 and the previous season’s 83, but still more than any season from 2013-14 to 2020-21. Research from Tom Haberstroh, at his website Tom The Finder, showed the NBA typically saw between 40-50 ejections during those seasons.

So what has changed? Javie, from his perch in the replay center in Secaucus, N.J., said he sees players these days with more to say to the officials.

“It’s frustrating on my part because I was always an official who took care of business and just wanted to referee the game,” Javie said. “I didn’t want to listen every time a whistle was blown and someone disagreed with me. I’d be as respectful as I could and I would try to be professional and answer their question, but after a while it was like, ‘You know what, if you’re going to keep giving me crap all night long, no, no, I’m here to referee the game. If you disagree that’s fine, but just quit complaining all the time.’”

“I just saw during (a Nuggets win against Golden State) on Christmas Day, I mean, almost every whistle there was a player over at one of the officials just trying to complain or sell his case. Finally I just said — I’m at the replay center going like, ‘Will somebody tell these guys to stop? I mean, my gosh, just tell them that’s enough.’ I’m not even saying give a technical foul. Just tell the guy, ‘Look, that’s enough.’ But what I’ve found in the last couple of years, and I don’t know why it’s changed, I’ve found there’s a lot of complaining with the players.”

Indeed, players have been fed up with some of the officiating around the NBA. In The Athletic’s 2023 NBA player poll, 25.8 percent of the respondents called officiating the biggest issue facing the league. One player said there’s “just not a system set up for (referee accountability).” Another player said he wanted more “visibility to see how (referees) are graded.” When read some of the critiques, Javie explained some of the extensive evaluation officials go through behind the scenes.

“I don’t know what goes on with the players and their team and there’s no reason why I should know,” Javie said. “And they have no idea what goes on with the refereeing with regard to their accountability. They have no idea what goes on with how the program goes with basically every whistle, every possession being analyzed in every game, accountability-wise with their ratings (as officials) having a lot to do with how far they progress in the playoffs which is extra money in their pockets.”

Are the referees a problem in today’s game? The Athletic’s David Aldridge asked several head coaches and GMs on Wednesday whether they believe the officiating is worse this season. While the results were split, with the majority of coaches saying yes while most executives said no, a couple of themes emerged among those who believe the quality of officiating has slipped: The youth of certain referees and the lack of interpersonal skills from the officials in general.

“I feel like there are more bad crews out there and younger crew chiefs,” said one of the head coaches. “Some of the older guys have been moved down and the younger refs are learning but don’t have the same skills to interact with people. Some of them take things more personal and I feel like that is being exposed. … I do think it’s part of their training style and how much they use analytics to track refs and the human part of it is missing. The best refs are the ones you can talk to and they talk back but then everyone moves on. These people hold on to that s—.”

Another head coach said: “(I) think the influx of young refs is part of it. I also think the way they’re taught. Older officials have a feel for the flow/ability to read the room. They teach officials how to officiate, not how to play. More concerned with the correct spots and the right mechanics in my opinion. They don’t see or understand the games within the game.”

Javie detailed some of the issues young referees can run into. He said it took years for players to learn how he refereed and adjust their behavior accordingly. He also needed to sharpen his skills. As someone with an admittedly quick trigger on technical fouls, he said it took time to develop an ability to refocus after calling one or two. Later in his career, he said he would remind himself to “buckle down” and concentrate further during those moments to center himself again.

“Earlier in my career,” Javie said, “my weakness was that when I did give a couple of technical fouls, my concentration was broken on my play calling for a couple of minutes. And I had to draw myself back in. And my boss showed this to me on my tapes. He would just sit there and say, ‘See this, you had a couple of technical fouls here, it looks like you got a little upset. And watch your play calling for the next couple of minutes. And it took time for me to get my concentration back. So it is tough. It’s something you really have to learn.

“It’s something that, since we’re all human beings, we all have a level of maybe being able to block things out. Some people can block things out more than others. And I think that takes experience.”

Missed calls haven’t been the only sources of frustration for players and coaches this season. A crackdown on players hanging on the rim after dunks led to several technical fouls, including one by Tatum in late November. After that call, he said the new emphasis didn’t make sense.

“Maybe they want me to just let go and fall on my back,” Tatum said.

When asked about such technical fouls, Javie recalled a major point of emphasis on eliminating hand-checking during his time as an official. Eventually, players stopped doing it because they were punished when they did. But first, to reach that point, they needed to ditch some old habits in the way they defended.

“Players would look at you, and you’d go, ‘I’ve gotta call it,’” Javie said. “But what happened was they got the hand checking that they wanted out. Now, OK, it’s where they wanted it, so you had a touch here and there just to feel the guy but not to control the guy. And that’s basically what the league wanted at the time.”

Javie said sometimes a change like that requires a serious emphasis.

“It’s like going to an extreme to come to a medium,” Javie said. “And I think when you go to an extreme and start penalizing all the hangs, the players all of a sudden put their hands up and say, ‘OK, you know what, I really don’t need to hang on the rim so I’m not going to do it.’ So you’ll find that the players will definitely stop.”

As irritated as players grow following a late-game missed call, Javie illustrated how the other side of the situation also isn’t fun. Early in his career, he said he botched a last-second call in two consecutive games. Both times, he said he “put air in the whistle when fouls weren’t there.” After the first game, he said he experienced a restless night because he felt like he cost a team the game.

“And then two nights later I go out and I do it again,” Javie said. “And my crew chief, I get in the locker room and he’s looking at me like I have nine heads, like, ‘Didn’t you learn anything from the other night?’ My head’s in my hands going, ‘I can’t believe I did this.’ So it was obviously a sleepless week.

“But I remember the very next game comes and, of course, just as the basketball gods would have it, it goes right down to the wire again and it’s like a one-point game with 10 seconds left and the team’s taking it out. And it was the first time in my career, here comes the ball towards me in my area and I’m just saying to myself, ‘Get it out of my area. I don’t want anything to do with this call.’ Luckily the ball swings on the other side of the court, something happens and I just exhaled like, ‘Thank God I didn’t have to make any kind of call because I just kicked the s— out of it.’ So it just taught me that there was a lack of concentration on my part and not to guess at all. We shouldn’t be guessing at any time of the game, especially in the last seconds of the game that can cost somebody the game.”

The Athletic’s David Aldridge contributed to this report.

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(Top photo of 76ers star Joel Embiid and referee Nick Bucher: Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Jay King

2024-01-11 14:30:27 , Suns – The Athletic

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