Charlotte, N.C. • I’d like to apologize.
In my career, I’ve been one of the more outspoken critics of the NBA’s officials, either with snarky barbs on Twitter or missives in my post-game Triple Teams. At times, they’ve deserved that criticism. For the most part, it turns out that my disappointment is the result of holding them to an impossible standard.
This realization came after meeting with leaders from the NBA’s refereeing division here at All-Star Weekend. Truthfully, it was impossible to come away with anything but respect and understanding about the job that these officials are doing, and the direction that they’re going to improve the league overall.
That hasn’t always been the case, as it’s come with some recent personnel changes. In 2017, the NBA decided to start managing its team of referees like its franchises manage a team of players. They hired former Air Force Lt. General Michelle Johnson to be the league’s senior vice president and head of referee operations, a fancy title that essentially means “general manager." Talking to Johnson, she’s exactly what you want from someone in that role: a leader, yes, but also someone with the willingness to think critically about improving the product, and to take hard steps in order to get there.
Like any NBA general manager, one of Johnson’s first moves was to hire a coach. Johnson did that with the hire of Monty McCutchen, taking the unusual step of moving one of the league’s best referees off the hardwood and into the league offices. Not having McCutchen available for the NBA Finals last year was a real loss.
But McCutchen is taking notable steps to improve the officiating on the floor, directly addressing the issues that fans criticize most when talking about NBA officiating.
Take traveling, for example. The common refrain is that NBA referees don’t call travels. It turns out that that’s true! McCutchen estimated, that with microscopic analysis, there might be even up to 100 missed travels in an NBA game: a pivot foot moving a quarter of an inch, a foot coming up a nanosecond before a player dribbles. The truth is that we don’t want these called: the games would take three hours and 17 minutes, the player gains no advantage from the travel, and most humans can’t really tell the difference anyway.
But McCutchen did say that there are probably five travels per NBA game that should be called that do give a significant advantage to the travelling player; right now, the referees whistle about two of them. The league found that when those travels don’t get called, they result in defensive fouls at a high rate, as the defense has to cheat a little bit to keep up.
Five to two is a big gap, but one that the league has improved in the last two years. They’ve began to instruct referees to initially look at the pivot feet of offensive players on the perimeter rather than the arms of the defender in order to get the calls right. That changes, though, if a defensive player is in close enough where a foul can be potentially committed.
Maybe the most notorious travel is the stepback 3-point shot from James Harden. Many of those, by the rulebook, are actually not travels: Harden gets two steps back, just like a driving player to the rim gets two steps forward. But he — and players like him — do often add in an extra step to get the balance right. That’s when the referees need to blow the whistle, but it’s hard to look in two places at once. A fourth official on the court might help things, but the NBA says its G-League and summer league testing of the concept has not improved accuracy.
Speaking of Harden, McCutchen can’t tell his officials to watch out for his tricks specifically — it would be unfair to single out any player, the reasoning goes. But he can teach officials on the moves he uses, and they do talk about “player cohorts," including Harden with similar foul-drawers like DeMar DeRozan or Lou Williams.
Another complaint: there’s no accountability for the league’s officials. McCutchen says that it’s his job to hold the officials accountable, and he has started to. Sometimes that means internal discipline, and sometimes it means having a referee lose out on a crew chief gig or a playoff bonus. Referee Kane Fitzgerald — one of my old primary targets of disdain — is the opposite example: he’s a younger official who has moved up ahead of some of his more experienced counterparts because of his ability to get calls correct. The league has also implemented a scouting program, scouring the WNBA, G-League, colleges, and even international games to find the best officials in the world.
Sometimes players and coaches don’t trust these young referees as much as the experienced group, and sometimes they’re simply worse communicators. That can cause friction, including coaching tirades and fine-inducing media criticism. But after every game, coaches send feedback into the league office about that game’s officials. If the league receives multiple complaints about how a referee communicates, McCutchen will have a difficult discussion with that referee.
The same is true when referees swallow the whistle late in games. The goal is to have consistent officiating from the first quarter to the fourth quarter, from game 1 to game 82. When referees start to slip, and avoid blowing the whistle in critical situations, the league notices through detailed analytics kept on every referee. Coach McCutchen, again, steps in.
In short, talking to the people in charge, they’re running the show pretty much as I would if I were in their shoes. They’re taking steps to grow and improve the referee pipeline, while giving exacting feedback and making real changes on the court for the referees they already have. Are the referees themselves perfect? Of course not. But according to the analytics, when they blow the whistle, they get it right about 96 percent of the time, an improvement over recent years and an impressive number by any standard. The goal, according to McCutchen, is well-rounded excellence.
So it won’t always be easy, but I’m going to give it my best shot: I’m cutting the refs some slack.