William Rhoden, in his New York Times column today, scolds the NBA for letting the officiating get out of hand in these (wonderfully) neverending NBA playoffs. Bill Simmons, over at ESPN.com, makes the same case at considerably more length. Both men are right, to a degree: NBA officiating has been consistently abyssmal for years now, and professional basketball has paid a heavy price. Nothing in the current playoffs approach the disgrace of two years ago, when a fanastic Suns-Spurs series--a de facto championship series--was ruined by suspensions. Still, the offciating is so awful that it remains the number one topic of conversation among fans, despite the fact that both conference finals series have been outstanding.
The central point, which Simmons makes in the course of his diagnosis, is that the officials often feel forced to blow the whistle after any sort of physical contact. This allows star players to drive to the rim with the certainty that they will get to the free throw line. Lebron James' rush to the hoop at the end of game 4 of the Cavs-Magic series was only the most obvious example of this phenomenon. Meanwhile, flopping has gotten completely out of hand, largely because the refs always fall for it. The solution here is obvious: If a defensive player flops, don't blow the whistle; allow the unguarded offensive player to score. If a guy pretends to get bumped out of bounds, let him going flying into the stands. If Chancey Billups falls to the ground (30 feet from the basket) after only minimal contact with Pau Gasol, call Billups for traveling. (Another solution would be to ban European players, but for now let's stick to non-nativist remedies).
Simmons' other complaint is that the league calls too many technicals and flagrant fouls. There is no question he is correct, but a little blame must be laid at the feet of the players. Dwight Howard has been the target of the refs for a month now. This is not exactly fair, but Howard should not have flagrantly and stupidly elbowed Samuel Dalembert in the face a few weeks back. The series between the Rockets and Lakers was much too cloesly officiated after game 2. But surely some of the blame rests with Derek Fisher and Kobe Bryant, both of whom committed dirty, unnecessary fouls in games 1 and 2. Game 5 of the Lakers-Nuggets series was also marred by too many whistles, but, again, much of that may have been the result of Dantay Jones' poor decision to trip Kobe Bryant in the previous game (after shoving him in the back earlier in the series). All of this is not to say that a few dirty plays give the refs an excuse to act as they please, but coaches and fans upset about the current state of affairs should not direct all their rage at the league.
No matter--the refereeing is terrible. The television ratings have been terrific, and with the Lakers in the finals, the ratings should continue to be stellar. But, if anecdotal evidence counts for anything, fans are becoming increasingly disgusted. I do think Simmons' conspiracy theories near the end of his piece are a little bit ridiculous. In this recalcitrant and secretive league, however, overreacting with the hope that doing so may force change seems like the wise course. (Simmons suggests an army of critical bloggers who draw attention to the state of officiating).