Andy Larsen: Is there something to the Utah Jazz’s complaints about small market officiating?

(Matt Slocum | AP) Utah Jazz's Rudy Gobert sits on the bench in the final seconds of overtime during an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in Philadelphia.

Man, the officials were bad in the Jazz/Sixers game on Wednesday night.

This game was a close one down the stretch, and the referees straight up ruined it. The crew of Sean Corbin, Michael Smith, and Brandon Adair made some really bad calls down the stretch that turned a game that the Jazz would have won into a game that they lost, and the Jazz were pretty rightly furious about it. Indeed, they were so mad that they’re definitely going to pay tens of thousands of dollars in fines, thanks to comments they made after the game.

My Tribune beat writing partner Eric Walden’s story from the game focuses mostly on Donovan Mitchell’s quotes after the game, but I wanted to look at Rudy Gobert’s comments on it. His full quote on the refereeing were 700 words long, so I’ll discuss the highlights in bullet form.

There are some really notable thoughts in there!

• “When you’re a small market — I don’t want to say that, but I really believe it — after playing in this league for eight years, it’s a little harder. And that’s one of the things that we’ve got to overcome. That’s why I told the guys you know, that when you’re a small market, we got to be got to be better than just better.

Gobert full-on asserts that there’s a referee conspiracy against small market teams. This is a complaint Gobert first made three years ago (the previous fine is why I think Gobert will receive a larger fine than Mitchell tomorrow).

Is that true? Maybe the best thing we have to go on is the league’s last two minute reports. The biggest database that I know about for those is here at a website called pudding.cool, but it only has data from 2015 to 2018. We can count which teams were more frequently disadvantaged by calls the NBA admitted it screwed up on during that time:

Well, that’s not great. Four of the top five most disadvantaged teams are small markets. On the other hand, four of the top seven most advantaged teams are pretty small markets too.

Of course, that analysis has problems of its own: the data ends in 2018, so we don’t know if the small-market conspiracy occurred since then. It also trusts the NBA’s own grading of its calls — and boy, have I thought the Last Two Minute reports made some weird decisions on calls.

• “That can’t happen because we’re nice guys. You know, Mike Conley has never had a technical in his life and they don’t (expletive) respect him. So maybe he should get more technicals, I don’t know what he should do, Mike Conley, to get more respect. At some point, I don’t know what he has to do.”

Gobert also specifically says that he believes Mike Conley is being unfairly officiated. He says that this is inexplicable, because Conley is pretty well regarded as perhaps the nicest human being in the league. He’s never earned a technical foul in a 13-year NBA career.

Is this true? Again, we go to the L2M data at pudding.cool to see the full player list. Russell Westbrook is hellacious to officials, so is Draymond Green. Both got the benefit of the doubt on wrong calls more often than they got punished. Meanwhile, Mike Conley is disadvantaged more often than he gets wrong calls in his favor, as do other relative non-complainers like Damian Lillard and Kemba Walker.

That needs to be fixed, and fast: officials can’t kowtow to players who yell at them, while giving bad calls to players who play respectfully.

• Gobert says he’s put in the work that people say should lead to better respect from the officials — respecting them first, knowing their names, etc. But he says he doesn’t feel that same respect back.

Look, officials should be above this. I don’t care if a player thinks Sean Corbin’s name is Con Shorbin, every player should get the same whistle no matter what.

• Gobert says “If we don’t say it now, it might be too late,” and that “there may be some people that don’t want to see us go as far as I believe that we can go.”

That’s a pretty clear sign that he’s most afraid of this referee bias occurring during the playoffs, and frankly, that’s where I’d be most concerned too. The league doesn’t really have a huge financial interest in the Jazz losing one of 72 games. The league does have a huge financial interest in putting big market teams in marquee games in the playoffs. I don’t think we’ve really seen that thumb on the scale since the Kings playoff loss to the Lakers in 2002, but I don’t think it’s a completely ridiculous worry.

20 years ago, a refereeing crew led by Dick Bavetta blew two crucial calls in the NBA Finals, two obvious 24-second shot clock violations that cost the Jazz Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals. Replay would have changed those calls now, but they’re worried about more un-reviewable calls going against them later. Yes, the Jazz might be overreacting now, but if it really can save them during the playoffs, the rant will be worth the huge fine that’s coming.

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