Each week during the 2023-24 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.
[Last week: What if Kevin Durant sours on the Suns?]
This week’s topic: You have every right to be upset about NBA officiating
It has been a wild season for all of you big-time fans of NBA officials.
Toronto Raptors head coach Darko Rajaković gave referees $25,000 worth of criticism following a 132-131 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday, when his team shot 21 fewer free throws in the fourth quarter.
“What happened tonight, this is completely B.S.,” Rajaković said, 38 games into his rookie season. “This is shame. Shame for the referees, shame for the league to allow this. … They had to win tonight? If that’s the case, just let us know, so we don’t show up for the game. Just give them a win. This was not fair tonight.”
Two months ago, Memphis Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins welcomed the same fine for the same complaint, describing “interactions right now with the officials” as “complete disrespect” and calling a loss to the Utah Jazz, “One of the most poorly officiated games I’ve ever seen. Record it. I’m fine with it. F***ing atrocious.”
NBA superstars Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokić might agree with that “disrespect” sentiment. Both were ejected earlier this season amid dubious circumstances. The same Lakers who benefited from the free-throw disparity Tuesday have objected to officiating all season. They filed an official complaint in early November, and LeBron James spent his 39th birthday publicly ripping the referees for (correctly) confirming via replay that his foot was on the line for what would have been a late game-tying 3-pointer.
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“Stevie Wonder can see that, champ,” James said of a still frame that showed space between his toe and the line (before he rolled his shoe into the line). “They said it was out of their hands. The Secaucus whatever over there in the replay center, somebody over there eating a ham sandwich or somebody made the call.”
James raised the issue again earlier this week, when officials made several controversial calls in the final seconds of the Boston Celtics‘ 133-131 loss to the Indiana Pacers. Indiana’s Buddy Hield caught Celtics wing Jaylen Brown‘s head on a block attempt, prompting a whistle, only for officials to reverse the call upon review. The NBA’s last-two-minute report confirmed that ruling but determined that Boston center Kristaps Porzingis was incorrectly called for a similar shooting foul that decided the game on its next possession.
“I think that needs to be investigated,” said Brown. “Cost my team a game. Of course I’m pissed about it.”
This is shame. F***ing atrocious. Stevie Wonder and ham sandwiches. Investigations. These are spectacular rants and might even be hilarious until you realize that calling the integrity of a sport into question is serious business. You know just how serious it is when the Lakers and Celtics reach an agreement on its veracity.
What better time, then, to revisit The “Sleepless Nights” Index, our annual review of the league’s last-two-minute reports, prompted by the National Basketball Referees Association’s admission that its members had lost sleep over a controversial call at the end of a (you guessed it) Celtics-Lakers game last season.
(We should probably mention that Eric Lewis, the official involved in that controversial call, retired this past summer, closing an investigation into an alleged burner account and potential bias. Pay no mind to the involvement of Ben Taylor — a target of Toronto’s criticism before — in the Raptors’ latest incident, right?)
Who among those furious with officials has a right to be? Folks, the updated “Sleepless Nights” Index, a table of each team’s close games, the amount of incorrect calls or no-calls in those games, the number of those calls that went in favor of each team, and the percentage of favorable calls that each team received:
A few observations:
The defending champion Nuggets have received 80% of the NBA’s self-admitted incorrect calls or non-calls from the last two minutes in their favor. Break out the tin foil hats, folks: It’s conspiracy theory time.
Dallas is the only large media market to receive more than 60% of these calls in their favor — just in time for Mark Cuban to sell his Mavericks. Hmm. And have you stopped to consider that the league might now rig outcomes to favor smaller markets, just to throw us off the scent? Kidding, of course. Or am I?
Seriously, though, 25 of the 30 teams are within two calls — or a single last-two-minute report — from a 50-50 split on calls in their favor, including the aforementioned Raptors, Grizzlies, Lakers and Celtics.
There is no evidence, year over year, that any one team is being deliberately helped or hurt by whistles.
The Sixers have a serious gripe with how they are being called in close games. They have also taken 96 more free throws than their opponents in 36 games, so maybe officials are just fallible like the rest of us.
Determination: Fiction. You’re probably just mad that the bad call didn’t go your way this time.