Saturday, June 19, 2010

Dictatorship, Transparency, and the NBA (or: How Chairman Stern has destroyed pro basketball)

So, one of the potentially great NBA Finals series just ended, with the Lakers topping the Celtics. The series, however, was a huge disappointment, largely because of the one issue that has plagued the NBA for the past few seasons: the officiating. The timing is interesting, to say the least. The league has lost a lot of money the past few years, and each extra playoff game, particularly a Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals game, generates a decent amount of change for the league. Throw in the fact that NBA Commissioner David Stern runs the league like a dictator, allowing no real dissent or questioning about anything, particularly refs, and allows essentially no transparency in the process, and it's not hard to see why there is a mounting view that there is a conspiracy in place, whereby the league does what it can with the refs to extend playoff series as much as possible to make sure they get as much money as they can. Even my mom, who doesn't follow basketball, called me up to tell me she thought the Lakers huge free throw advantage in Game 7 was very suspicious. But those who don't believe there is a conspiracy, read the whole post - I don't know that I believe in it myself!

So, first, the Finals. The refs were, at best, inconsistent and incompetent, and at worst, downright horrible. For the first three games, they let the Lakers big men play like big men should in the NBA Finals (no touch fouls), but didn't do the same for Boston. In Game 2, they almost fouled Kobe Bryant out...2 fouls on him were pretty bad. In Game 3, they nearly fouled Paul Pierce out - he got called for his 5th foul when his face made contact with Ron Artest's moving elbow (note the sarcasm). In Game 7, they finally let the players play for 3 quarters, but in the 4th, called Boston for everything (they were legit fouls, but were not called in the first 3 quarters), while swallowing their whistles on a few plays on the other end. End result: LA took more free throws in the 4th than Boston did the whole game. And the Lakers 4 points. Now, I'm a Celtics fan, but this isn't coming from pure anger at my team losing - mostly. Plenty of NBA fans have left the game, tired of the horrible refereeing of key games. And many (not in the media - they self-censor...more on that later) feel the same way about the game last night - LA didn't earn it so much as it was given to them in the 4th quarter by the refs. Truthfully, they had a huge front court height advantage, with Boston's starting center not playing, and his back-up a 35 year old playing through a bad back and hamstring issues, and probably would have just gotten offensive rebounds on the plays they got fouls called on, but we'll never know.

Fact is, LA got a lot of favorable calls, especially early in the series. Terrible calls against Boston in Game 2 almost cost them that game (Kobe had a few bad calls as well, but Boston's entire front court was in foul trouble for doing less than Gasol and Bynum did), and the bad calls against Pierce and the front line, again, in Game 3 did cost them the game. That game was also refereed by Bennett Salvatore, a guy who has been involved in seemingly every controversial playoff game in recent memory (and, to be fair, isn't really high on the Lakers' list, either) and Bill Kennedy, a man who openly has beef with Doc Rivers and the Celtics. Those two should not have been allowed to work that game, period.

So, did LA systematically get more favorable calls? A little use of data suggests they did. Adjusting for intentional fouls, the Lakers got over 60 more free throws than Boston - 198-133. That's a pretty massive differential. Now, you might say that LA was in the paint more often, and hence deserved the extra shots. Well, not including Game 7 (don't have the data for it yet), that doesn't work - Boston scored 30 more points in the paint over 6 games than LA, 248 to 218. In that insane 4th quarter in Game 7, LA had a ridiculous 19-6 (adjusting for intentional free throws) free throw advantage. Again, the real issue was inconsistency - for much of the series, or basically every game except 4 and 5, the Lakers were allowed to play playoff basketball (which was great), but Boston was not. The first 3 quarters of Game 7 were great - best officiating all series long, as they held their whistles. 4th quarter, it all went to hell.

Now, why did LA get so many more calls? Well, back to the revenue issue. The NBA has apparently lost a lot of money the past few years. Czar Stern reported the league would lose $400 million this year alone. It has lost money the past few years as well. Well, you know what helps generate revenue? Extra playoff games. Each game brings in money from ticket sales (since playoff tickets are much more expensive than regular tickets) and TV advertisement dollars. The longer each series goes, the more compelling (usually) it becomes, potentially bringing in more TV viewers and, thus, probably increasing the money made off it. So, longer series = more money. These are basically the allegations former NBA ref Tim Donaghy leveled on the league, claiming that refs fixed Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Final between the Lakers and the Kings, widely viewed as one of the worst officiated games in league history. Many in the league seem to agree with Donaghy's charges, even though they can't say so on-the-record, or else they face Chairman Stern's wrath. Okay, so back to the point - why hook up the Lakers? Is it because Stern himself is an unabashed Laker fan? When asked what his dream NBA Final would be, Stern replied Lakers vs. Lakers. But no, that's not why. Stern's all about making the league money.

The issue is, the NBA playoffs are traditionally refereed more liberally than the regular season, by a bit. You have to do more to get a foul in the postseason than normal. There are glaringly bad moments (the 2006 Finals come to mind), but that's generally true. This year's Lakers, while a better team on paper than Boston, were not tough. The Finals basically proved that. When the normal physical play was allowed, they lost. They're a soft, finesse team. Nothing wrong with that...very skilled players. But, with the playoffs meaning more physical play, they wouldn't have made it past Game 5. And, that's arguably what would have happened. The terrible refereeing in Game 3 in Boston, with the aforementioned Salvatore and Kennedy, killed the Celtics. If they win that game, the series ends in 5. But, by making sure that game went LA's way, the league ensured themselves a Game 6. LA flat-out beat Boston in that game to force a game 7, which is where the refs interjected themselves in the 4th quarter. If the series had been called the way the rest of the playoffs had been, there is no chance LA would have lasted. But by throwing in some shady refereeing, they got extra Celtics-Lakers games, which mean a lot of money. And, no surprise, this series had pretty bananas TV ratings. Game 7 drew the biggest TV audience for a game since Jordan's last Finals win against the Jazz 12 years ago (which also had two terrible calls in favor of the Bulls down the stretch, including Jordan's pushing off Byron Russell to get open for his game-winning jumper).

Does this sound insane? Not really. Again, this is a "conspiracy" theory that many NBA fans believe to be real. I think it will eventually be the NBA's version of a steroid scandal - if it ever comes out. Which, unfortunately, seems unlikely. There would have to be a leaked memo, or several refs all confessing with each other, for this to be proven. Additionally, there's another factor that makes it very hard for any of this to come out (and the real point of the post): Emperor Stern's iron fist.

You see, Supreme Leader Stern is a dictator in every sense of the word. He calls the shots, doles out the punishments, and provides no transparency whatsoever. If you're a coach and you call out the refs for calling a game questionably, Stern fines you, and you have to worry about the refs targeting you the next time out. If you're a player, same thing...question the refs, Stern fines you, and you become a target. The media have effectively self-censored themselves on this topic. The only occasion they really bring it up is talking about that Kings-Lakers travesty, because it was so blatantly obvious. During the 2008 playoffs, the home teams won almost every home game, somewhat unprecedented. The reason? In almost every case, the home team got preposterously better calls. Everybody knew it. Star point guard Chris Paul openly complained about the obvious refereeing issue. Yet the press didn't say a word...they were "shocked" how almost no road teams could win a game. Either they kept their mouths shut, or they were morons.

When they do talk about the refs, they say things like "the refs had a bad day" but nothing deeper than that. Often, they opt for the cop-out "they were equally bad for both teams" line, which usually isn't true. It's what they're saying about this Finals series. Why is the press so neutered? Shouldn't they be calling this out? Well, let me just say this - I don't expect ESPN analysts to openly question refereeing that seems to prolong a playoff series so that it might make more revenue for the league. Why? I don't know, because Disney owns them and is the station (ABC) broadcasting the Finals? Yeah, that wouldn't go over so well, would it. Oh, the fun overlap of corporations and media (if we want to consider sports journalism as media, which, if you watch ESPN, it isn't - I could do a better job than most of them battling a severe case of laryngitis).

Adding insult to injury, Premier Stern doesn't really seem to punish refs at all. If he does, it is done in secret. But given the same cycle of bad calls, particularly during the playoffs, it sure as hell seems like nothing is done. Same refs, same terrible calls, same procedure again. Making matters somewhat more suspicious, refs for playoff games don't get announced 'til the morning of, which leads you to think the league picks who they want to ref games based on how the series is going.

King Stern gets away with this because he is a dictator. Nobody can really do anything to him. But wait, aren't dictators accountable to someone? Yes, actually, they are. Research on regime type suggests that while dictators may not be held accountable by the population they rule (no real elections), there is a group they must respond to. Their "selectorate" can be the military, political elites, business elites, etc. For his Highness Stern, his selectorate elites. That's right, he's trying to make the league some bank. More ticket sales, higher TV ratings, richer TV contracts, more advertising dollars - this is what he is out for. And nothing generates that kind of money like longer playoff series'. A 7 game NBA Finals between classic rivals definitely takes the cake on that.

So...there is clearly a conspiracy, right?! Honestly, I do kind of believe in it, but the fact that I say "kind of" is the real issue at hand here. Because General Secretary Stern is a full-fledged dictator, he has opted for no transparency in the process. Perhaps this is just a case of incompetent referees - a lot of them, mind you. That is a problem in itself that the NBA needs to rectify (the refs do seem pretty bad in general), but the fact remains, the "conspiracy" about NBA refs extending playoff series' to generate more revenue for the league seems pretty plausible.

The refs can't downright ensure teams win - they can't make baskets themselves, obviously. For instance, there was only so much they could do for the Cavs against Boston...the Kobe/LeBron match-up in the Finals would have made a pretty penny. But they do have a big influence. And...even if this isn't actually true, it is plausible. We simply don't know. The facts seem to line up pretty well. When the league is run by a dictator who basically silences dissent and provides no transparency, that is enough to make any theory a possibility. Hence, the iron fist of Sultan Stern has a terrible negative consequence - all crazy theories are possible. Even this one, which may or may not be true. The NBA is left much worse-off for it.


Anonymous said...

Great article. However you say:

"I think it will eventually be the NBA's version of a steroid scandal - if it ever comes out. Which, unfortunately, seems unlikely. There would have to be a leaked memo, or several refs all confessing with each other, for this to be proven."

We already have Tim Donaghy out there. Read his book if you have a chance, it's unbelievable some of the stuff that's discussed...

brown hornet said...

Agree about Donaghy (I read the excerpts of his never-released book on Deadspin), but you need more than him. His character has been assassinated so severely (a Stern hit job) that anything he says is taken with a grain of salt by most. Now, if more refs come out with basically the same info, or more info leaks corroborating him, then we've got a story. And, at the very least, fans of every NBA team need to pressure the league to make the refereeing nonsense more transparent - and pressure local sports "journalists" to do their freaking job and call this thing for what it is - suspicious. There is not necessarily a conspiracy, but there is not not necessarily a conspiracy, either. We don't know. And we shouldn't have those kinds of doubts. Stern's a dictator, and something needs to be done about it, before he completely ruins the game.

Anonymous said...

Great article and I'm glad that you included the "points in the paint" stats...

It's funny that you wrote this, because I thought I might have been out of line talking about the huge free throw disparity as the Celtics - with their poor rebounding, poor shooting and the numerous and inexplicable ISOs down the stretch - are really the ones that shot themselves in the foot.

But who's to say that a few less free throws for the Lakers might have made a difference and in a game that was consistently called for three quarters, it is strange that the refs would decide to change how they blew the whistle in the fourth...