It’s not just James Harden and the Houston Rockets, it’s been a league-wide issue for a few years now: Players say something needs to be done about the officiating. They’re frustrated. After a loss (always after a loss), just about every name player and every coach in the league has called out the officiating, from Harden calling Scott Foster “rude and arrogant” to Joel Embiid ending a press conference with “the referees f ****** suck” there is a lot of venom flying at officials.
What we’ve seen in the last two days flows from that, this has been the extreme version of coaches and teams working the officials, trying to influence calls in the next game. It’s not new. Phil Jackson was a master at it. Pat Riley did it. Almost every playoff coach of the last 30 years has done this. This is just a louder version of it.
However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
That venom towards referees is worse during the game — how many plays a game does a player or coach not stare at the referee or say something about a call/lack of call? It feels like a handful. At most. Everyone complains continuously, even on what are obvious fouls or non-calls. The NBA’s poster child for clean play Stephen Curry is running down the court pointing at officials. Players can be slow to get back on defense so they can bark at referees.
That disrespect to the referees fuels the fans and the situation, and the league needs to address it. This isn’t a one-way street, the players are throwing fuel on the fire. Frank Isola had this quote from an anonymous coach in his story at the Athletic today.
“It is out of control and that includes my own team at times,” said one coach of a playoff team. “The league needs to do something about it.”
At the 2018 All-Star Game, there was a meeting between leaders from the players union and referees union, but it was reportedly sparsely attended and changed nothing.
Players and coaches are right, referees are quicker now with technical foul calls and even ejections, but that’s a reflection back to the league — the referees don’t feel protected and backed by the NBA league office, so they take it upon themselves. Chris Paul got a $35,000 fine (0.001 percent of his salary) and no suspension for bumping referee Josh Tiven after a call he didn’t like at the end of Game 1. Nets GM got a just one-game suspension and a fine for actually barging into the referees’ locker room after a game to complain about the calls. You think the other referees in the league didn’t note those incidents?
Tension between referees and players has always been there, and always will be. Especially in the postseason, when players are trying to gain every advantage, while referees are trying to enforce the rules in a fast-paced, hard-to-officiate sport. Tension is built into that dynamic.
Players have legitimate gripes with some of the calls and officiating, the league needs to find ways to improve those calls (a fourth on-court referee each game?), but the referees are certainly in the right to feel disrespected. Because they are. The players treat them that way every game, not just the playoffs. And all the whining is not a good image for the sport.
The organization with the ability to rein this in is the NBA league office, but so far they have given the players more leeway, not less.