The Mazzola Minute
Issue   |   Tue, 01/30/2018 - 19:44
Jaime Mazzola's lovely visage
Clarus Studios

On Tuesday, Jan. 23 Kevin Durant, the reigning NBA Finals MVP, was having a career night, setting a new career-high of 14 assists. With 2:50 remaining in the game, Durant’s night turned sour.
He was hit with his second technical foul, triggering his fourth ejection of the 2017-18 season.
Although he later apologized for his “out of character” remark, Durant’s initial accusation of referee James Williams targeting him has become commonplace in this season’s NBA landscape.
Since Durant began his career in the 2007-08 season, only four other players have received four or more ejections in an NBA season. Durant, however, reached this mark after playing a mere 42 games.
Prior to the 2017-18 season, Durant’s only other ejection occurred in the 2012-13 season. In response to that first ejection, Durant had claimed “[the referees have] a quick trigger now,” a comment then-uncharacteristic of the (formerly) mild-mannered star.
Player-referee relations in the 2017-18 season have been abysmal.
Superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis received their first career ejections in back-to-back nights on Nov. 28 and 29, 2017. On Jan. 10, Chris Paul, head of the National Basketball Player’s Association, singled out referee Scott Foster after receiving what he believed to be an unjust technical foul, saying, in reference to Foster, “that’s who they pay to see.”
Following an ejection of teammate Russell Westbrook on Jan. 10, Carmelo Anthony angrily exclaimed, “I’m done with the refs.” On Saturday, Jan. 6, Draymond Green stated that player-referee friction is “ruining the game.”
While players’ response to recent officiating has been largely inappropriate and overblown, there is evidence that NBA reffing in the 2017-18 season has been subpar.
During the final 72 seconds of the Christmas Day rematch between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, a pair of teams who have contested the past three NBA finals, the NBA Last Two Minute Report showed a whopping four missed calls (three on Durant, one on James). In a close game (99-92 Warriors), these types of calls are true difference-makers.
Perhaps the most egregious and representative altercation occurred between Warriors guard Shaun Livingston and official Courtney Kirkland in a Dec. 4 game between the Warriors and Miami Heat.
In the second quarter, following what Livingston deemed a no-call, he and Kirkland quite literally went head-to-head. Video replay indicates responsibility for the confrontation belongs to both Livingston and Kirkland, as both initiated contact.
Kirkland was given a one-week officiating suspension, while Livingston was issued a technical foul, ejection and one-game playing suspension.
Recognizing the deepening tension between players and referees in the 2017-18 season, the NBA created a five-pronged initiative to salvage the working relationship between players and referees:
1. Michelle D. Johnson, Monty McCutchen [Leaders of the NBA’s Referee Program] and their staffs will conduct meetings with all 30 teams to discuss rules interpretations, on-court conduct and the expectations of NBA referees. These meetings will begin before the NBA All-Star break.
2. The league will re-emphasize its “Respect for the Game” rules with referees, coaches and players to ensure consistent enforcement of those violations.
3. The NBA Referee Operations department will expand its overall rules education initiative for coaches, players and team personnel to ensure clarity of the game’s rules and their proper interpretations.
4. Johnson and McCutchen will conduct enhanced training for the referees on conflict resolution. In addition, they will more closely monitor the on-court interactions of coaches, players and referees to ensure referee decorum meets league standards.
5. Through the NBA’s Officiating Advisory Council, the league will create opportunities for engagement with all key stakeholders to find common ground between all parties.
Hidden in the initiative’s legalese are some serious implications for the future of NBA officiating and player-referee relations.
The fourth piece of the initiative will likely prove most valuable.
Players have and always will show their emotions after what they believe was a missed or incorrect call.
In the past, however, the referees seemed more adept at handling the conflict, as evidenced by the relative lack of league-wide issues in player-referee relations throughout NBA history.
Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc River views communication as central to the issue. On Friday, Jan. 26, Rivers stated that “There’s a lot of officials from the past that probably were not great refs as far as getting the calls right, but they were phenomenal at managing the game and the emotions of the game, and you never had a problem.”
It would be foolish to pin the issue entirely on referees and the manner in which they manage these conflicts, as there is certainly room for the players to behave more respectfully and appropriately going forward.
This issue does, however, raise a couple central questions. Who is to blame for the escalation of this conflict? Is the severity of this conflict endemic to the 2017-18 season, or has this conflict been brewing for many years? These questions will be central to dialogues regarding how to resolve tensions between players and referees in years to come.