The NBA: where will "fixed" happen this year?

We watch sports for a variety of reasons. To revel in the thrill of head-to-head competition. To marvel at the athleticism. To root for the home team, in which we have somehow invested a piece of our own identities. To mark our place in the timeless ritual. To learn, even.

With the NBA, there’s one more reason: to see which narrative the league has decided is the most compelling.

Now, I’m not generally a conspiracy theorist. I don’t think the world is biased against me personally and I don’t believe that the refs are out to get my team. In most cases, my attempts to explain bad officiating, whatever the sport, need go no further than “basic incompetence.” Sometimes the zebras’ ineptitude balances out, and sometimes one team gets buggered a lot harder than the other, but usually it’s just a matter of chance, of which player or team was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And yes, refereeing is hard. Very hard, in some cases. So we cut them a little slack, if we’re educated fans. But even in our most charitable moments, there’s just no defending the whistle jockeys in most NBA games. And as we get deeper into the playoffs the agenda grows more and more transparent.

Recently, as I did my best to sit through game 4 between Dallas and Denver, I noticed how the closer we got to the end of the game the easier it became to predict every Dallas possession. The Mavs were going to bring the ball up and give it somebody, probably Dirk Nowitzki. (Hey, if he were on my team I’d damned sure give it to him every time down the stretch, too.) There would be a few dribbles, then the closest blue shirt would be whistled for a foul. Make no mistake – the Mavericks were going to win that game, no matter what.

Fine. I get the drill. But still, I marveled at the theater of it all. Case in point: the ref’s abject refusal to call Dirk for an offensive foul when he’d elbow his defender in the chest. In one sequence he did it three times in rapid succession. I honestly have no idea what you’re supposed to do if you’re guarding him. You establish position, he backs into you hard. You hold your ground and take an elbow in the sternum. You try and defend yourself, you take another elbow and get whistled for the foul. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Why even play defense? Let him have an uncontested layup, thereby minimizing the damage to two points. If you play D you risk an “And 1″ call.

In any case, I didn’t sweat the ultimate outcome. The Nugs were going to win the series for two reasons. First, they had a better team, and that always helps. Second, the league has decided that theirs is a powerful narrative this year. Melo wins gold medal and matures as a player – big element. And “Chauncey Billups comes back to his hometown and miraculously transforms the entire culture of a punk-ass franchise” is one of the league’s top stories this year. The only issue going into the series was whether Denver had a sweep narrative working or whether Dallas deserved a bone. In the end, the rank conspiracy theorist came away concluding that preserving at least a little of Dirk Nowitski’s star cred outweighed the league’s hatred of Mark Cuban.

The question then becomes whether the league thinks there’s more magic in the Nuggets narrative or in the Kobe/LeBron story they’ve been stoking all year. The smart money says Lakers in six or seven – stick to the script, but wring all you can out of this wonderful Chauncey story. (If you’re thinking that Orlando is crashing the party in the East, stay tuned. Dwight Howard has major mojo, but neither David Stern nor Nike wants to see LeBron sent home early this year. That would be bad for business. I mean, does Nike have some Kobe muppet vs. Dwight muppet commercials ready to roll?)

The Five Sets of Rules You Meet in the NBA

So, Sam is a more or less rational guy, you may be thinking. But what he’s hinting at here, despite his “I’m no conspiracy theorist” protestations, is the sports world’s answer to The Da Vinci Code. Is he actually serious? Good question. Let’s answer it this way: I’m writing all this mainly because the NBA has made it impossible to believe that its games are reffed cleanly.

What I’m saying about The League is not true of Major League Baseball, the NFL, the English Premiership, MLS, WPS, the NHL, the NCAA or the Australian Football League. Those leagues have their good officials, their bad officials and their barely trained monkeys with whistles, but they do not, as best I can tell, have scripts. The various leagues might have dream scenarios – I mean, it’s always good for the league if New York is in the mix, right? – but you don’t necessarily get the sense that the league office goes over these scenarios with the officials before the games.

Let’s face it, there are at least five sets of rules in the NBA, and these rules are routinely applied in ways that we might charitably characterize as “inconsistent.” Or “capricious.” Or “worthy of a RICO investigation.” In ways that strain our willing suspension of disbelief.

The rules can be applied so as to effect any number of desired outcomes, should one, you know, have a desired outcome (*wink wink*). And everybody knows it. League officials have gotten pretty good at keeping a straight face when they swear that the refs are calling it straight down the middle, but you hear players and coaches and analysts, time and again, saying things like “you’re never gonna get that call on the road” or “X is going to get the benefit of the doubt.”

Well, let’s look at those statements. What, literally, is being said? The officials have discretion about what they call, and the decisions are situational. That’s a far cry from “we all play by the same rules and the rules are the same in all cases.” Nobody except David Stern and his merry band of bookers even pretend anymore.

In one of the first two Lakers/Nuggets games – I can’t recall which without the video in front of me – we had a couple of moments that strain all credulity. In one, you had Melo guarding Kobe down low, and what was going on can only be described as “a UFC championship bout.” A few minutes later we had the same kind of exchange between Nenê and one of the Laker bigs. In both cases you could have called four or five fouls and a couple misdemeanors against all participants. The results: no foul in the first case, and in he second the mayhem finally settled down, at which point we got a whistle for a touch foul that I still couldn’t find after watching the reply twice.

What the fuck? Even if we assume that I’m okay with the NBA being harder hitting than the NFL, wouldn’t it be nice if the casual fan had some way of understanding what was and was not against the rules? I still have no idea what the hell is going on in cricket, but I know that there are rules and if I wanted to study a little I could figure it all out. But this? This is a cross between Calvinball and The Warriors.

Yes, I’ve written about this before, back when the whole Tim Donaghy mess erupted. And I may write about it again, just because there’s only so much my innate sense of fair play can abide. So at the risk of repeating myself, let’s review…

The various sets of rules used (or not) in the NBA:

1: The official rules. Somewhere the official laws of the game are written down. No one knows why.

2: The interpreted rules. The official rules may say that X is a foul, but X can happen 45 times in a game and you never hear a whistle. The refs all have interpretations of what the rules mean, so don’t get hung up on what they say.

3: The home team rules. You get calls at home that you don’t get on the road.

4: Established star rules. If you’ve been in the league awhile – and especially if you’re a marquee player – you get calls that rookies and journeymen and lesser beings don’t get.

5: Late in the game rules. It may have been a class A felony in the first quarter, but all’s fair in love, war and the last two minutes of the game. After all, you have to let the players decide the game, not the refs.

I’ve spent years playing along, years watching great games ruined when the rules changed in the last few minutes of the game. I remember a game some years back when the then-Charlotte Hornets had Michael Jordan’s Bulls on the ropes. A Hornet player beats his man, heads to the time and is preparing to finish the Bulls off when Jordan comes sailing in from the off-side and absolutely murdelizes the whole play. If it had happened in the parking lot it would have been jail time for MJ. There was nothing close about the play, either. It was a clear mugging on the floor, it was a clear mugging from the cheap seats, and it was a clear mugging on replay from every camera angle in the building.

No call. Bulls win. Because that was Michael Jordan, bitches. You want a call? Fine. You make the league as much money as Money has and get back to us.

If you watch The League, you realize that what I describe here isn’t anomalous. It’s the norm.

If it walks like a fixer…

Ultimately the league seems to care more about the narrative than it does anything else. Other leagues leave results to chance, but the NBA just about guarantees a morality play. It’s like they sit down every year and ask themselves what the story that America would most like to see in The Finals?

So, am I really accusing the NBA of rigging outcomes? Let’s put it this way. Whether I am or not, a lot of smart people out there would bet on a WWE match before they’d wager against the prevailing NBA narrative. And it’s just about impossible to tell them they’re wrong because the NBA does business in such a way that lends credibility to conspiracy theories.

I guess my message to the Commish is fairly simple. You may be clean as a whistle, but nobody trusts you and that’s your own damned fault. You want to restore some integrity to your brand, call in your refs and make it clear that there’s one set of rules for everybody. Whether it’s a rookie in garbage time on a Tuesday in early December or your top star in the last minute of game 7 of the Finals.

If you act like a fixer, people are going to wonder if you are, in fact, a fixer. And that’s on you.

Nuggets/Lakers, game 4 tonight. At this point all I can hope for out of the rest of the series is a rip-roaring good tale and maybe that the Nugs will play well enough to make it hard on the storytellers referees.

36 comments on “The NBA: where will "fixed" happen this year?

  1. All basketball fans need to read this post to understand that their emotions (and wallets) are being toyed with for the greater good — narrative.

  2. Love this article. As a Suns fan I’ve been familiar with this for a number of years. NBA officiating is a joke.

  3. This is a crock. This is not Don King and the boxing game. The refs do blow some callsk, but players hack so much, it’s not hard to make an error. I watch Dwight Howard get one stupid foul after another last night, to where he had to sit most of the first half. Then he came back in, committed another stupid foul, then he got a clean block, a foul was called, but the precedent he’d already set.
    Your artlicle is bullshit.

  4. I don’t watch the NBA…mostly because it appears fixed. When i do happen to see it, i find myself wondering why there is so often no reply on a foul.

    I figure that Bettman and the NHL like the NBA model and would like to go in that direction. Gotta get Cindy Crosby a cup. Fortunately, the only sport that the refs really can control the outcome is basketball. And fortunately for me, the best organization in all of sports stands in the way of Bettman’s narrative.

  5. Hey Shag, are you serious. Let me guess you just don’t believe that there is any behind the scenes decisions being made at any level of anything. Everybody is on the up and up. Magic bullets be damned. Fire brought down not one but two super structures built to withstand such emergencies. The Warren commission had it all right on the head, and Enron was only acting in a prudent fiscal manner that just somehow went wrong. I am not saying one thing is okay and wrong and right are nebulous concepts, simply that collusion and the desire to produce the most beneficial outcome of any event seem to be very prevalent in the human condition.

  6. I’ve sent emails to the NBA to the same effect. I’m a Laker fan, so am used to watching a winning team. The mystery is why they lose so much, to Utah, to Denver and others. My theory is that the Lakers, when exposed to shitty reffing, just quit playing. Why expose yourself to injury when refs condone thuggery to get a win for their opponent. Please don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a good basketball game, whether the Lakers or Denver win. Where each can play hard and expect to get rewarded when they’re the better team that night. But that’s not the way the NBA works. Sometimes bb games are more like wrestling, not watchable. I don’t know who the refs report to, but I’m suggesting that maybe they should report to a independent organization divorced from the NBA. Meanwhile, after watching the first few minutes of tonight’s game, I turned it off. Don’t know who won, don’t care.

  7. “I enjoy a good basketball game, whether the Lakers or Denver win. Where each can play hard and expect to get rewarded when they’re the better team that night. But that’s not the way the NBA works.”

    I’m a die-hard Nuggets fan, Jimbo, and I completely agree. I don’t like some of the calls that went against the Lakers, just as I don’t like some of the calls that went against Denver. I can’t take the damned zebra interference anymore, it’s agony.

  8. Conjuring up a league-wide conspiracy in anticipation of your team’s impending elimination. Lame. Most people at least wait until their team is eliminated before crying. Nice to see you’re being proactive in your whining. Early bird catches the worm!

    When I read or hear basketball “fans” make remarks like this, I conclude that the person making the comment does not actually play basketball (and no, I don’t mean playing horse with your cousin in mom’s driveway). So many armchair fans are all about trying to litigate or lobby a win for their team. Those people can’t play in an actual game and they are tedious when commenting on actual ballers. Fouls are subjective and always controversial. Anyone who has ever played years in and out in pick-up games or actual competition will know that calls are almost ALWAYS argued over. No conspiracy, just point of view. That’s the nature of the game.

    Trying to blog your team to victory is pathetic.

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  10. I think anybody who watches the NBA is well aware that the officiating is abysmal at best, and highly suspect at it’s worst. The whole whitewashing of the Donaghey (sp?) scandal shows that they don’t want the issue to gain any more legs than it already has. I never believed the outcome of the investigation. “Oh yeah, just the one guy was on the take, and he never really managed to overturn the rightful outcome of a game”. My feeling? He did not do anything the league did not tell him to do, he just let others know what the league was telling him, so they would know how to bet.
    I still believe that if you are playing well enough, there is no real way the refs can steal the game from you. It would be way too obvious. When they do steal games, it is in the close ones, and regrettably, these tend to be playoff games. Now that there is so much dialog outside the areas that the NBA can control, they need to seriously put an end to it and let the chips fall where they may. It is only a matter of time before somebody finds a smoking gun that could completely destroy the
    credibility of the league. Of course, you cannot fake the buzzer beater from LeBron, or all the crazy stuff that resulted in seven overtime periods between Boston and Chicago. Overall, though, NBA basketball is several steps more real than the average reality teevee show.

  11. There is nothing I want more than a Nuggets/Orlando series, for no other reason then the fact that I think the NBA is the most over covered sport in America. No matter how much they try and push this sport down our throats, it’s simply the most un-enjoyable sport to watch on TV. I actually watched the Celtics/Bulls game 7 and I thought they called too many fouls. The game stops more than football, and the last 2 minutes takes 30 minutes. It also seems like every 2 weeks there’s the “Next Jordan”. If Jordan is your sports “Gretzky” or “Ruth” you can’t compare every above average player to him. Rays v Phillies anyone? It looks like the NHL is the big winner this year, they will get another Crosby Wings finals, although Kane vs Crosby would be a better story line, a rematch of last years finals will be very interesting.

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  13. I don’t follow basketball, but was shocked when I read the article during the Dallas/Denver series regarding the last second foul that should have been called. As I recall, the circumstance was that the Nuggets were down by 3 and needed a 3-pointer to tie. The Dallas player made repeated attempts to foul the Denver player in the waning seconds. Doing so would have gotten Denver no more than 2 points at the free throw line.

    It’s not just the officiating. Any sport where a player can guarantee a win by taking a foul needs some rulebook help.

  14. fikshun, I feel the same way. I know why it happens, but it still seems strange to me that fouling is an intentional part of the game. Especially in the last 2 minutes. It’s almost like they are trying to create a situation where breaking the rules is not only accepted, but actually encouraged.

  15. Darrell, i don’t think that the league is at all happy about a Pens/Wings finals (and the CBC certainly isn’t). I take that partially back…if the Pens can beat the Wings the league will be ecstatic. Otherwise, their “next Gretzky” falls short again. Which is funny since Crosby isn’t even the best player on the Pens, Malkin is a far better player (especially right now). The other night the Vs. announcers proclaimed that no team has won back-to-back cups since the Pens of 91-92…conveniently forgetting the 97-98 Wings teams that did it.

    And don’t even get me started on Mr. Edwardian collars Cherry and his disdain for the Wings and the Euro players drafted at slot 220 or so being better than all the next Gretzkys that the league promotes.

  16. I can’t see the league being unhappy, of course I can see Don Cherry being unhappy. I do agree that the WIngs are kinda forgotten. Maybe because they are always good????? They are kinda like the Spurs in the NBA. I watched the Pens the last few days, and I can see them winning. They seem to be firing on all cylinders right now. They may get the Wings at the right time and take advantage. The only weakness I see in the Pens game right now is Crosby’s inability to grow a playoff beard.

  17. Hey Lex,

    The narrative worked in the Wings’ favor as well. In ’98, it was “let’s get one for Konstantinov”. In ’02, it was “Scotty Bowman passes the Toe”.

  18. I must say, although the criticism of the refs is shared by many, the whole fixing-the-games-to fit-the-narratives thing is looking pretty suspect right now. An Orlando/Denver series is the leagues worst nightmare, and it is looking fairly likely, bad officiating or not. I have to concede that, when watching a game with the sound down and trying to figure out what calls I would make, It was apparent that, as far as I could tell, one can neither call everything that should be called, nor can one ignore all the cheapest of the ones that should be non-calls. It is a very difficult job as things stand right now.

  19. Howie: the problem is that there’s only so much a ref can do. The preferiti have to show up. A zebra can swing a close game, but if you try to weight a game that isn’t close you risk “exposing the business,” as they say in pro wrestling.

    So far the Cavs have made it hard for the refs.

    But yeah, you’re right. The last thing Vince McMahon David Stern wants is Denver/Orlando.

  20. I’ll give you that, fikshun. Perhaps the narrative is less obvious when it’s your own narrative. I’m not sure that Bowman passing Toe was much of a narrative though…and that team kicked everyone’s ass all season long. Still, both are – i think – different than trying to manufacture a superstar.

    As an aside, Bettman is a protege of Stern.

  21. Oh yeah, I know that Bettman is Stern’s mini-me. That’s definitely where he learned the business.

    And sure, there’s plenty not to like about Sidney. His whininess. His diving. But then, Yzerman was once a young punk, too.

    Besides, no Canadian club has won a cup since ’93. The best they can hope for these days is to have one of their own lead his team to the cup … instead of those distasteful Wings with their filthy Swedes. ;)

  22. It could be just me, but I had started to think about this before I read Dowhat’s comments. After them, I wanted to smack myself in the head and wonder what I was thinking. Nothing destroys credibility faster than the everything is a conspiracy and why did those buildings fall when they weren’t supposed to type.

    I guess it’s a possibility that the NBA is rigging results, but then why bother with the Tim Donaghy scandal in the first place? Why would the NBA risk exposing themselves in that why? I don’t know, it just seems like it’d be almost impossible to keep quiet.

    Anyway, someone tell Joe Crawford to get a Twitter account:

    “Reffin the Lakrz n Nuggits 2nite lol itz game 6 time soz kobe”

    After the game

    “Lotz of key fouls down the stretch but don’t worry Lakeshow I got a feeling you’ll win Game 7. Los Angeles is a bigger market and more $ than Denver”

  23. Ahem, the only Newfie to win a cup did so with the Wings.

    It should be a good series…Sid’s diving notwithstanding and assuming he keeps his head up when Kronner’s on the ice so that Bettman doesn’t have an aneurysm if the Golden Kid gets the Havlat treatment.

  24. I was torn between watching the NBA and the WWE – both are all about entertainment , nothing about actual real sports competition…

  25. I just tortured myself and watched the Kings Lakers Game 6 again on YouTube. It brought back all the memories of when I first decided to stop watching the NBA. I’m sticking to NCAA basketball and other sports. The NBA has lost a die hard basketball fan. I just don’t enjoy the product with how they choose to use the refs.

    Phil Jackson who gets the benefit of the doubt more than any other coach has even suggested how much he’d prefer a 3rd party or more transparency.

    What can the average person do? We need a ground swell to demand change.

  26. @ Alan Danielson: I’m going to torture myself too (downing it).

    Just finished watching the 1998 Bulls – Jazz finals, with Jordan’s game&series-winner where he allegedly pushed off Bryon Russell before the shot; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GcBxCdZDWBQ

    I remembered that one of course but to be fair, I couldn’t spot a foul on the regular angle, I don’t even know if he really pushed him (although his hand was clearly on his butt). Nobody protested either. Two shot clock violation calls (one call, one non-call) were actually much more shocking to me and that + google let me here.

    Nice read. Thanks.

  27. Well written and full of valid points. When stars receive preferential treatment regarding calls, the game is no longer fair; the same rules no longer apply to all the players. So if certain players have an unfair advantage, bestowed upon them by the very people who are paid to police each game, what is the point? Traveling is traveling. Three seconds is three seconds. Charging is charging. Why is it never called this way? Why do broadcasters openly admit that rookies don’t get calls, that calls need to be earned. Earned? What the fuck is that?

    I’m not sure I agree with an all-out conspiracy theory or scripted outcomes, but anyone who thinks refs cannot change a game is mistaken. They can call phantom fouls to slow down a running team. They can call fouls on players that result in a mismatch when that player has to sit down with foul trouble. They can call traveling randomly. Let fouls go. Call a cleanly blocked shot a foul. Let things get physical which benefits a more physical team. They can can do any of this.

    And they do. All the time. And it changes a game’s outcome. Momentum is real. And we’ve all seen three or four quick fouls called against one team, and the flow of the game is turned. Subjective fouls they decide to enforce, seemingly at random, do impact a game.

    And the reason they don’t replay many fouls on television? Because in many instances it would clearly contradict the original call. Fans would go berserk. I’m not saying the NBA sits down in a room and decides these things before a game starts. But they do favor stars, because they assume that’s who fans came to see.

    They’re not going to call a foul on Lebron James if they can credit him with a sweet block against some scrub. So they let the stars play, and they let lesser-known players rack up the fouls. That’s why teams have a bench, among other reasons, to absorb fouls.

    All in all, it doesn’t matter. There is a much bigger problem. In the past 30 years, nine teams have won it all. Nine. I’m not going to say that is by design or not, but it sure makes the game uninteresting. There are 20 teams I can eliminate from contention right now and the season hasn’t started. There another four I can predict won’t get too far. That leaves an entire NBA season that revolves around 6 teams.

    What if you’re a Golden State fan? Or a Bucks fan? Why bother? The season is already over before it’s started. And who cares, really. If the refs aren’t going to call it ev a star is allowed to throw elbows enroute to a bucket.

    The league created this problem, and there’s no wonder there are so many NBA conspiracy theories. The rules don’t apply to everyone. That’s almost like cheating.

    I think of it as sports-entertainment, because that’s all it is. And it’s that way by design. It’s great to watch as long as you don’t care about the outcome. Dunks. Spin moves. Alley-oops. No look assists. I watch it for that. For entertainment. But I never expect it to be called competently, accurately or fairly. Which kind of negates the point of a hard-fought competition, and that’s kind of sad.

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