It’s Official, NBA Playoffs Are a Mess

As I settled in to watch Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, I was certain of three things:

1. The Indiana Pacers would put forth max effort and would continue to try to bully the Miami Heat into submission.

2. Miami's three-headed superstar monster of LeBron James/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh would ultimately be the deciding factor of this game at home.

3. The referees would be less official and more participant as their bad calls would continue to shine the spotlight off the game itself and onto the periphery.

Sadly, on all three counts, my expectations were exceeded.

The 2013 NBA playoffs have had more than their share of enthralling action and phenomenal play. Young teams featuring rosters loaded with role players from Houston and Memphis made the Oklahoma City Thunder — the best team in the West — sweat a bit (Houston) and ultimately start their offseason before they were ready (Memphis). A grizzled veteran San Antonio team cake-walked through a Lakers team that continued to shock in their disinterest, battled a tough Golden State team for a six-game win, and eased on by that very same Memphis squad that had just a round earlier knocked out those Thunder.

In the East, the Heat impressed with their efficiency in rolling Milwaukee and Chicago. Those pesky Celtics showed the heart and effort that proud veterans show but came up short in their round one series against the Knicks, who went on to show the lack of heart and effort that me-first, selfish play typically exemplifies as they were hammered by the Pacers.

Throughout these playoffs, stars-in-the-making have emerged and established superstars have wilted under pressure with similar frequency. Big-name players have fallen to major injury. Role players have excelled in the execution of those roles. But even with all this good, the one point of fact that consistently mars the recollection of these playoff games is an undeniable failing of the officiating crews in letting the players decide the games.

I cannot recollect a time in the past where such a poor job was done en masse by the league's officials, and that's saying a lot considering that past includes a religious following of Michael Jordan's time as a Bull where a mere hard breath in his direction often elicited a tweet from the whistles of the men-in-stripes. That past also includes those Utah Jazz teams that would just as soon kick an opponent in the "huevos" than execute their flawless pick-and-role in search of their playoff wins and the "Bad Boy" Detroit Piston teams that may as well have brought panty-hose to games to wear over their heads as they assaulted their way through the playoffs annually. This, in a word, is pathetic.

To put the awfulness of this year's officiating crews into perspective (albeit a very subjective perspective), I'm not even a fan of any of the eight teams that made it past the first round of the playoffs, yet I spend half of each game I watch literally yelling at the television and throwing my hands up in the air in disgust as the Zebras do whatever they can to shape the outcome of games and make sure they get the attention they apparently feel they deserve with a consistency that would lead that fabled storybook tortoise to say, "Wow, those guys sure know a thing or two about maintaining a steady pace."

Even as I prepare this article, I'm forced to rewrite its content to capture the most recent ridiculousness as it occurs. Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals featured an inexplicably botched shot clock non-violation, a curious traveling violation on a play that we see dozens of times a game without penalty, two foul calls on King James, the game's best player and most scintillating star, that are tough to call on a team's 12th man in the flow of play, and no fewer than three replay-aided calls due to referees simply not cleanly observing what they are paid to observe; and all of this came in the fourth quarter alone!

Though in the example above the Miami Heat are the clear victims, the bulk of these playoffs have offered much more Miami-favored officiating, with no-calls galore dotting the landscape of their games and with a seemingly obvious tendency to let the game "flow" when flowing in their favor, but break up that flow with constant whistle-blowing when they found themselves on the wrong end of a run. This pattern repeats itself in each and every series that has been played and each game of each of those series produces its own list of head-scratching decisions by the officiating crews.

The motivation behind these absurdities is as unclear as many of the calls themselves. Is there some deep-seeded conspiracy at hand (doubtful)? Is the league feeding its officials "stupid pills" (probably not, but if such things exist, perhaps I could get some to dumb down my know-it-all teenage son)? Are the officials just bad (probably partially true)? While it is unlikely we will ever have any answers to what has gone on throughout this postseason, I do have a theory...

In recent years, professional sports have had to deal with similar strikes and/or lockouts that impact players among the officiating bodies of those leagues. The two most recent examples, in the NFL in 2012 and the NBA in 2009, are interesting case studies that I think relate directly to what we are seeing in the NBA today.

During the 2009 NBA referee strike, a well-respected NBA figure (head coach Rick Adelman) passed a seemingly harmless sentence to reporters. Coach Adelman, in speaking to the efficacy of the replacement referees during the preseason, said, "They just call things differently than normal officials. They are going by the book." To the untrained ear, this doesn't seem like much, however the implication goes much deeper than just a passing sentence; the regular refs do not go "by the book" when they are officiating games. That simple statement clearly indicates that there is a presumption that NBA refs are typified by the coaching ranks as officials that add a dash of themselves to their trade. While that may not necessarily be a bad thing, it certainly breeds some sense that this individualism — which could well manifest into a lust for the spotlight — is an important part of the culture of the NBA official.

The second, and probably more damning, truth about how labor unrest may have played into today's landscape is the reaction to the return of those NFL referees after their 2012 strike. Throughout the four weeks of "scab" refs, all the major sports media outlets dedicated plenty of their attention to the failings of those refs. Returning NFL refs (the "real" ones) were greeted with standing ovations across the land and those officials, who are by all official accounts supposed to be as anonymous a figure as there is during the games, suddenly became household names and were pariahs no more, even if only temporarily so.

The manifestation of these two realities is a situation where NBA referees are driven by a combination of ego and job security to identify themselves within professional basketball. The first manifestation is a desire to be seen and noticed. This has created a sense that a referee needs to create a "reputation"; some officials play to the crowds, some offer star treatment, some are harder on superstars, and so on.

The second manifestation is a tendency for one ref to look to overrule another, thus exhibiting dominance over their partners within the framework of a game. It is this condition that truly creates an untenable situation as it has more of a snowballing affect on the quality of the games. As one official gets overruled, he becomes more forceful in protecting their own reputation which in turn leads to further conflict within a game and the end result is a whole lot of "look at me" moments being generated by the officials, and this, I think we can all agree, is never a good thing.

This situation has likely been going on for years, right under all of our noses, but it was never recognized as anything other than a minor seam rip in the otherwise sound fabric of the game. As with anything, the more energy an object in motion has, the more energy and less likely it is to stop that object when it gets to the threshold. We're simply at the point now where the typical NBA referee has over-officiated themselves into irrelevance. Pair that with the "slap-in-the-face" that is instant replay being implemented, further impugning an official's perceived ability to get the job done, and you have yourselves an old-fashioned powder keg that was bound to ignite.

The good news in all of this is it is a very correctable condition that is negatively impacting a great sport. The bad news? Correcting that condition would require admittance of guilt, and in the ego-run-amok world of professional sports, that's about as likely as us getting through a game without throwing our hands up in the air in protest of a terrible call.

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