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NBA Arbitrarity

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Friday, Jun 18, 2010

I haven’t watched much NBA basketball over the past decade, and it’s not just because the team I used to follow, the New York Knicks, have stunk for all those years. It’s more that (a) there seem to be long stretches where players don’t have to give as much effort, as compared with, say, hockey, and (b) I began to have the distinct sense that the refs controlled the game more than the players—that at any point, the game could be determined by free throws because the refs are at their own liberty to enforce the nebulous rules how they see fit. That’s apparently what some believe happened in last night’s championship game. Matt Yglesias writes:
  


I do want to note a complaint from a Celtics loyalist about “how the refs inexplicably decided to call touch fouls on the Cs in the 4th qtr leading to 21 laker FTs. That’s on pace for 84 FTs for the game.” I haven’t gone back and watched the tape or anything, but it was definitely my sense during the game that the officiating standards suddenly tightened in Q4 for no real reason. There are always a lot of complaints out there about the quality of NBA officiating, and I think they’re generally a bit overstated once you consider the inherent difficulty of the job. But it really is crucial that even if things sometimes get missed that people still feel there’s some kind of consistent theory of what the rules are, and I really don’t get that from the NBA.



This is hardly an isolated incident. (Consider, for instance, Lakers-Kings Game 6, in the 2002 playoffs.) One can crunch the data on home-court advantage and easily conclude that the refs favor the home team under the pressure of pleasing the crowd, even if the refs are not flat-out corrupt. Yglesias captures well what’s wrong: the rules about fouls seem arbitrary, and this makes the refs’ judgment seem subjective, governed by their own obscure agenda. But this is not because they have an agenda; it’s just there is no “right way to call the game” that the refs’ performance can be judged against. It often seems as though fouls can be called whenever, on whoever, on any scoring attempt that is not a jump shot, and even then, a foul can typically be called when players block-out for the rebound.


Baseball umpires are surely not flawless, and they often decisively affect a game’s outcome, but you can usually have the satisfaction of pointing to exactly which calls were blown, as in the case of umpire Jim Joyce missing a call to spoil the perfect game pitched by Armando Galarraga. The Celtics fans have nothing nearly so concrete to point to; they just end up sounding like spoilsports, loony conspiracy theorists.

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