Once again a great NBA contest is being overshadowed by a controversy surrounding NBA officiating. The Utah Jazz defeated the Portland Trailblazers 117-114 on a nationally televised game on ESPN. The game was fun, Portland lead most the game but the Jazz made a furious rally and took a 9 point lead only to see Portland tie the game at 114. This is where the game goes from being a fun game that we all love to becoming a controversy.
With 20 second left Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell got to the rim and scored the game winning layup. The Blazers had 19.5 seconds to tie or potentially take the lead. The Jazz forced the Blazers to throw the ball to Damian Lillard in the backcourt and Lillard split the Jazz defenders of Joe Ingles and Rudy Gobert to get a shot at the hoop. This is the moment where the controversy happened. Gobert used his huge frame to recover and hit the ball after Lillard had put it against the backboard for the game tying layup. By rule this is a goaltend. The officiating crew missed it and Gobert got credited with the block.
Bojan Bogdanovic grabbed the rebound with 9 seconds left and was immediately fouled. Lillard and the Blazers immediately went after the officials complaining and demanding a review. Unfortunately for the Blazers, the play was not reviewable. Bogdanvic made 1 of 2 free throws giving the Blazers another chance down 3. The Jazz double teamed Carmelo Anthony and forced him to give the ball to Caleb Swanagan for the game tying three – which was missed. Following the game Lillard again went after the officials.
The Jazz-Blazers game was littered with terrible calls. The officiating crew of JB DeRosa, Brian Forte and Josh Tiven butchered a game like few officiating crews have done. They missed calls, they called calls that were not there, and overall officiated a very subpar game – even by NBA standards.
The Refs missed another issue with 1:43 to go in the game, the Blazers had an entire possession where the clock did not move. The Blazers scored on the possession.
This unfortunate ending to a game is nothing new for the NBA, who has been plagued by poor officiating this season. Oddly, 3 of the most controversial endings this season have involved the Utah Jazz and Rudy Gobert. The previous two where both games in New Orleans. The Jazz were at the end of road trips on both visits to the big easy. In the first game Rudy Gobert again blocked a shot that was close to goaltending and the Jazz escaped with a victory. The second time the Pelicans scored with less than a second less and the Jazz had 1 more chance. On the inbound the refs called Jaxson Hayes for a foul on Gobert. Gobert got two free throws down one, he made one and the game went into overtime. In overtime the poor officiating continued. Gobert was called for his sixth foul, the Jazz challenged and lost the challenge. The play shows Gobert did not make contact.
A report from last season listed the Referees who made the most missed calls inside the last two minutes. The leader is missed calls was Ed Malloy. Malloy a 17-year veteran who has called around 1100 career games. He is seen as the veteran leadership in the NBA officiating circles. So it is concerning that he is the worst call maker in the clutch. Karl Lane was number 2, he is a 10 year veteran with over 500 games called.
DeRosa, the lead official who missed the call in the Jazz-Blazers game, is a 3 year veteran with around 100 games officiated, he was in the bottom portion of the missed call report, as were Forte and Tiven. Forte and Tiven are 10 plus year veterans and both officiated 64 games in 2018-19, while DeRosa only officiated 55.
The same report also listed the officials who made the most incorrect calls in the last 2 minutes of a game. Jacyn Gobel lead the NBA in missed calls inside 2 minutes last year, he was followed by Tony Brothers. Forte and DeRosa were near the bottom in this category, and DeRosa was dead last.
But this is just the last two minutes of games, so the sampling size is small. The calls at the end the game do get the notability because they look bigger and with the time restraints are bigger, but the overall issue is much much deeper.
Basketball is probably the easiest sport to manipulate by bad calls. Unlike football, and baseball, in basketball you can take a star player out of the game and generate points for the other team to fix an outcome. This is something NBA fans know all too well. Stars get into foul trouble early, their team gets into the penalty early, and the opposing team gets free throws to build up a lead.
Poor officiating has been a hallmark of the NBA for at least the last 20 years. The most famous game is Game 6 of the Western Finals in 2002. The Lakers had a 40-25 free throw advantage over the Kings. The calls also hampered the Kings by placing Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, Hedo Turkoglu and Scott Pollard in foul trouble, where as the Lakers also only had Derek Fisher in foul trouble.
Game 6 was officiated by Dick Bavetta, who had a long history of controversial calls. Bravata was also the lead official in the 1998 NBA finals game 6 which seen a Howard Eisley three-pointer attempted before the shot clocked waived off, and a Ron Harper shot after the shot clock counted. The game controversy is of course overshadowed by Michael Jordan’s last shot as a member of the Chicago Bulls.
One of the most famous examples cited as an explanation to the officiating issue is the case of Tim Donaghy. Donaghy was an NBA referee from 1994 until 2007. Donaghy resigned from the league on July 9, 2007, after reports of an investigation by the FBI for allegations that he bet on NBA games, and bet on slot games, that he officiated during his last two seasons and that he made calls affecting the point spread in those games. His attorney filed a court document alleging that Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings was fixed by two referees. He called the two refs in question “company men” and that the league wanted the series to go 7. Donaghy said “top executives of the NBA sought to manipulate games using referees” The FBI and USAG has since claimed that they found no evidence to support Donaghy’s claims.
Despite the NBA being cleared, many fans still feel that the game is rigged to get certain outcomes. This disproportionately effects smaller market teams. In the last 20 years, the teams that represent the 10 largest combined statistical areas(CSA) in the US has accounted for 22 NBA finals appearances. The 10 teams in the bottom 10 CSA designated places account for just 8, with 5 of those being the San Antonio Spurs. In terms of titles the largest 10 cities have 13 NBA titles while the smaller markets have just the 4 won by the San Antonio Spurs in that time frame. The smaller markets also have just 20 conference finals appearances.
A third of the NBA having a quarter of the conference finals appearances may not seem to crazy, but when you add to that the fact that 4 of the teams in the top 5 largest markets in the NBA have been completely incompetent in the last two decades it looks bad. The Knicks, Clippers, Bulls and Wizards have put together a grand total of 1 conference finals appearances, the Bulls in 2011. Competent management in these organizations would make things much more unequal. The 5 smallest CSA’s of Oklahoma City, Memphis, New Orleans, Milwaukee and Indianapolis have all been the victims of questionable calls time and again.
The NBA needs to start holding the official accountable. It is understandable to missed call here and there, especially with how fast the player move. The refs are trying to watching 10 of the greatest athletes in their sport at all-times and pay attention to the clock as well. So mistakes will occur. The problem comes when you start seeing the same officials making the same bad call time and again.
This therein is where the problem lies. The same officials have been making the same bad calls for years. JB DeRosa is relatively new to the NBA, and Forte and Tiven haven’t shown too much of a propensity for bad calls. But when guys like Scott Foster, Karl lane, Ed Malloy and Ken Mauer are able to stay employed despite having terrible officiating records it makes fans uneasy.
If a player makes an egregious mistake on the court they are penalized. Trevor Ariza in the Jazz-Blazers game went after DeRosa following what he felt was a no-call on a foul. He punched the air and immediately got a technical foul, he went and got into DeRosa’s face resulting in a second technical foul and an automatic ejection. On his way to the locker-room he kicked something. Ariza will likely be fined by the NBA. But no such repercussions will be issued by the NBA to the crew who called a terrible game.