Authors: Kevin Sigler
Kevin Sigler, PhD
601 College Road
Department of Economics and Finance
Cameron School of Business
Wilmington, NC 28403
Kevin Sigler is Professor of Finance in the Cameron School of Business, UNC Wilmington
NBA Referee Missed Calls: Reasons and Solutions
This paper examines officiating in the NBA to determine if it has kept pace with the changes to the game. This research concludes that since the game is so fast now with athletes that are bigger, stronger and faster than any time in NBA history, NBA officiating should consider changing as well. Some possible modifications are adding more referees, allowing each official to sit out a portion of the game while being replaced by a fresh alternate, and using more cameras with referees viewing them remotely.
Keywords: National Basketball Association, referees, officials
Remember the first game of the National Basketball Association (NBA) Finals in 2018. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers were taking on the Golden State Warriors. It was a very close hard fought game. The outcome of the game really hinged on one play when LeBron drew a charge on Kevin Durant. But minutes later the call was changed to a blocking foul on LeBron. It was a controversial call and even long time NBA referee Steve Javie, working for ESPN as an analyst, was surprised the call was reversed. Friction between the NBA players and referees has never been higher. This paper examines officiating in the NBA to determine if it has kept pace with the changes to the game. This paper concludes that since the game is so fast now with athletes that are bigger, stronger and faster than any time in NBA history, NBA officiating should consider changing as well. Some possible modifications are adding more referees, allowing each official to sit out a portion of the game while being replaced by a fresh alternate, and using more cameras with referees viewing them remotely.
The National Basketball Association was founded in New York City on June 6, 1946, as the Basketball Association of America (BAA). The league adopted the name National Basketball Association on August 3, 1949, after merging with the competing National Basketball League (NBL) The NBA referees banded together in 1973 to form the National Basketball Officials Association (1). This informal union challenged the league over inadequate salaries and benefits. Still lacking a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) and with an ongoing need to advocate for improved working conditions, an official union was founded in 1977 called the National Association of Basketball Referees. Today, it is known as the National Basketball Referees Association (NBRA) (2).
The NBA used two person referee teams to officiate games until the `88-89 season when it began assigning three referees to the crew. Table 1 contains a diagram of the position of the three officials with the lead (baseline) official (L) determining the position of the other two officials. Normally, the lead referee will move to the side of the court on the ball side, called the strong side. The official (T for trailing) that is on the same sideline as the lead official lines up in a position approximately level with the top of the three-point line and is called the trail official. The third official, called the center or slot official (C), will stand across the court near the free throw line in the center position. The idea is to form triangle coverage of the court. Often, the lead referee will switch sides of the baseline during a play, requiring the trail official to move down to be level with the free-throw line and become the new center official, while the center official will move up and become the trail. As the ball moves to the other end of the court in transition, the lead official will become the trail, the trail will become the lead, and the center official will remain in the center (unless the new lead moves across the baseline to cover the strong side, in which case the center official and trail would then switch positions).
With the proliferation of three point shots and with fast break early offense, NBA officials have made subtle changes to facilitate more accurate calls. The trail official has moved closer to the sideline for better angles on three pointers. The officials are also focusing on plays in the paint because with today’s modern game there are many times multiple defenders are trying to prevent shots in that area.
The three game officials are required to do a multitude of tasks. They have to keep track of any violations of the rules for 10 players at all times as they move over a court 94 feet by 50 feet. And these 10 players are not normal humans. They are possibly the best athletes in the world and their athletic ability surpasses the players of past eras for many reasons.
Basketball is now an international sport, and it allows NBA teams to select players from around the world. The best coaches in the USA are now instructing young players abroad, closing the gap between the United States and the rest of the world. The number of non-U.S. players in the NBA has been at a record high every opening night over recent years – from a record-breaking 83 players at opening night in 2009, to 84 the next year, 92 in 2013 and 101 in 2014 (3) .
Better training regiments, improvements in surgeries and recovering from them, and increased focus on rest andinjury prevention have impacted the length of time player can perform at a top level. This is illustrated by how the length of player careers has increased. In the 1980’s, less than one season was played per year by someone 37 years or older. In the 1990’s, it was about three per year and over the past few seasons that number has ballooned to seven. LeBron James spends $1.5 million per year on his body through training and conditioning (money well spent)
The salaries in the NBA have exploded with a salary cap per team in 2018-19 jumping to $101.9 million. The pay incentive has only spurred more athletes to become basketball players and has increased competition and the level of play Referees are required to keep up with these athletes and must transition from one end of the court to the other for all 48 minutes of the game and be in position to make the correct call. With all of this asked from NBA officials, this paper next examines the accuracy of NBA referees’ calls at the end of games.
INCORRECT CALLS AND INCORRECT NON-CALLS
The NBA keeps statistics on incorrect call and incorrect non-calls in the last two minutes of an NBA game when the score is within three points. The NBA has been doing this since March 2015 to enhance transparency of the game. Since March 2015 to June 6, 2018, the NBA reviewed 26,822 plays from 1,476 games. In those 4,297 minutes of action, the officials have missed or incorrectly called 2,197 plays, or about 8.2 percent of all calls reviewed. This amounts to 1.49 wrong decisions in the final minutes of each close game (4)
Table 2 presents a breakdown on which calls occur most often at the end of close games. The feature that stands out in Table 2 is the number of different calls that are made by three officials chasing 10 of the best athletes in the world during a game (4). It is amazing that the officials get it right as often as they do. CC stands for correct call, IC for incorrect call, and INC stands for incorrect non-call that occur in the last 2 minutes of a game with the score within three points. The INC is not assigned just to one official but is assigned to the three person team of referees.
Areas where the officiating team miss seeing the violation most are loose balls, offensive fouls, traveling and defensive three seconds. But with all the activity and movement up and down the court by 10 very athletic players, it seems reasonable to assume no group of three people, no matter how talented, will see everything. .
Table 3 breaks down incorrect calls and incorrect non-calls by the age for the 55 referees in this sample. Incorrect non-calls are larger on a per game basis for the officials over 50. The regression results in Table 4 confirm this result. According to the results, incorrect non-calls are statistically significant (at the 5% level) to the age of the official and incorrect calls have no significance to age. But the older official is more likely to head up a team of three referees and the incorrect non-call is assigned to each person of the team so this is result should be tempered (5).
IT’S NOT AGE – IT’S THE NUMBER
Like the eight gents in the sample this researcher is over 60 years old, was a college quarterback and is in great shape today but cannot imagine trying to change direction fast enough to be in position to make a call as LeBron is bolting to his basket after making one of his signature blocks at the opponent’s rim. Especially in the last two minutes of a game after officiating all of the previous 46 minutes. But it is hard to argue about the quality of each referee. Most think the referees in the NBA are the best at what they do.
One solution to reduce mistakes at the end of NBA games may be to increase the number of officials on the floor during the game. The D-League (now the G-League) experimented with more referees on the floor. The league in 2016 use four and five person crews in nine NBA Development League games instead of three in an effort to collect data and see if having additional officials involved affects the game. The idea is to have enough officials so they are placed on the court where they do not have run to catch up with the play but, instead, are already in position to make the call (6).
This is in line with the how the NFL officiates games. They use seven officials that are placed in position around the 22 players (in the past there was one official between the defensive backs and linebackers). In addition, it is easier for officials to keep up with an NFL game because action stops after ever play. NFL head coaches can also challenge plays that are reviewed to ensure accurate calls.
Another way to improve end of game calls is by rotating officials during games. Each referee would sit out portions of the game to rest, allowing a fresh official to take his or her place on the court. NBA players sit out at least part of the game so are they are not fatigued, especially at the end of close games when victory is on the line. The NBA could consider doing the same for the referees.
One more idea to reduce bad calls is for the NBA to add cameras and have one or more officials view the game remotely, allowing them to stop play for violations. The cameras put the referee in position to make the proper call instead of relying on his or her athletic ability to place themselves in position to make the call.
This paper examines officiating in NBA to determine if it has kept pace with the changes to the game. This research concludes that since the game is so fast now with athletes that are bigger, stronger and faster than any time in NBA history, NBA officiating should consider changing as well. Some possible modifications are adding more referees, allowing each official to sit out a portion of the game while being replaced by a fresh alternate, and using more cameras with referees viewing them remotely.
APPLICATIONS IN SPORT
The ideas presented in this paper can provide a beginning for improving NBA officiating to keep up with the way the NBA game is changing.
- 1949 the NBA Is Born, 2018, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/nba-is-born
- History of Refs, June 2018, http://www.nbra.net/about-the-nbra/history/
- Honkasalo, M, Sorry, Old School Guys: Modern Day NBA Players Are Better Than Ever, March 11, 2018, https://hoopshype.com/2016/03/11/why-nba-players-are-better-than-ever/
- Goldberg, R., NBA Last Two Minute Report, The Pudding, June 7, 2018, https://pudding.cool/2017/02/two-minute-report/
- 2017-18 NBA Officiating Last Two Minute Reports, June 1, 2018., http://official.nba.com/2017-18-nba-officiating-last-two-minute-reports/
- Reynolds, T., NBA D-League to Experiment with 4 and 5 Person Crews, December 12, 2016, https://defpen.com/nba-d-league-officiating-crews/