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Mark Cuban: Pro-Ref Apologies

Cuban is very positive about the league's policy of correcting officiating mistakes the day after.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

To be clear, I began writing this column before last night's Clippers disaster, and my point is about Mark's interview, mentioned below, not about the state of officiating in the league, which is generally excellent given how hard basketball is to officiate.

But last night did end an interestingly personal touch to a somewhat academic issue.

Earlier this week, Mark Cuban went on record saying that he is very happy with the league reviewing important, end of the game calls. On the one hand, as the man many credit with a lot of the impetus for such initiatives, you'd expect him to. On the other hand, as Eric Freeman notes in this column, the Mavericks have in fact won two games in the last couple of weeks on no-calls that the league office later apologized for. In neither case did the call clearly cost the other team the game, but especially against the Wolves OT, at least, was nearly a given had the foul been called.

Last night, the shoe was on the other foot as Marion almost certainly did NOT foul Jamal Crawford, to put him on the line for game-winning free throws. I don't know if the Mavs will get a public apology, but it does add a personal touch to the issue. We can certainly ask whether the league's gesture towards transparency, in this direction, is something we generally think makes us feel better, but not we can consider the question far from the abstract: if the league comes out to say that the foul on Crawford should not have been called, would you feel better?

No one actually could, I think, like the league refusing to admit fault because no one is more often the beneficiary than anyone else, other than the Lakers in the playoffs any time in the 00s, the Miami Heat in the 2006 Finals, and Harden and KD in any given game. Generally, bad calls are as fairly distributed as Rush Limbaugh thinks Obama wants America's cash to be. There were so many other reasons for the Mavs to lose to the Clippers, that the fact that the Mavs were probably just reaping the karma harvest they sowed against the Wolves was almost enough.

Really though, the interesting question isn't whether transparency makes us feel better, but whether it helps. Because I don't need a sop to a bad loss, I need the NBA to keep improving.

Let's say there's a level on which an aggrieved fan base does feel better hearing the next day that they were right. That's probably true sometimes, even though it still goes down as an loss. Let's say, additionally, that it keeps the officials on their toes, knowing that the crucial calls they make will be scrutinized, and that they will be shown up if they screw up.

In that case it would help so long as the refs are, for some reason, not trying their hardest at the end of games anyway.

But it's hard to know if there is or could be evidence that transparency about calls produces better officiating. Indeed, the argument could be made that what it does is make us feel like the league office is doing something to improve officiating while keeping them from actually having to do anything at all. The league has never, at any point, addressed certain bad REFEREES. In the Wolves game, the general sentiment on twitter was that the Wolves had once again been victimized by Ed Malloy. Mavs fans have certainly felt victimized by Bennett Salvatore and Danny Crawford. It's not actually good when you know the names of referees. And, as Cuban noted, the league isn't telling us how the refs do the REST of the games.

To that end, transparency is one thing but actual repercussions are another. Just as players are additionally penalized after a certain number of technical fouls, I certainly wouldn't mind  seeing some form of repercussions if the same refs keep making mistakes, would you? The league hates the idea of a ref witch hunt for obvious reasons--complaining about the refs is the world's second oldest pasttime and appearing to take such complaints seriously legitimizes them. On the other hand, if the league is indeed now collecting any data on how many calls refs miss, but not, apparently changing anything they do, it means they're learning a lot more but they don't actually care.

I don't know much about the process by which refs get NBA jobs and I assume the new guys get scrutinized pretty heavily and don't make the cut sometimes. But I feel like I would know about if any veteran referee had ever suffered any discipline from bad calls.

I am not one of those people who thinks unpredictable reffing is just part of the game. Honestly, I can't wait until they all get replaced by cyborgs, hastening the end of civilization as we know it. My least favorite basketball plays are those where a guy tries to draw a foul instead of taking a shot or tries to draw a charge instead of playing defense. Charges are especially insane, these days. The sense in which the rule is about rewarding people who sacrifice their body is ONLY the sense that it's possible to get run over in the course of actually playing defense. It isn't about generically rewarding body sacrifice, about putting yourself where someone with the ball can't see you or, worse, leaping into a spot where they can't see you seconds before they arrive. It's embarrassing. Down with refs. Bring the cyborgs.

And, I'm not one of those people who think calling the game differently in response to emotion is a good idea. There were perfectly good ways, last night, to handle Griffin, and Dalembert,and Vince, without calling every ticky-tack foul. Throw them all out, if you want to. The other stance treats officiating as an art, when it should be a science. The league's palliative, at least, does treat it like a science.

But ultimately we're not closer to answering the question whether increased transparency means better reffing. We can ask similar questions--would knowing exactly what the US Government or a multinational corporation is up to mean they'd do things differently? The answer is "only if they either felt the need to create a product more responsive to the people, or felt financially threatened by claims against them". In other words, it probably wouldn't.  Would anything? League officiating is actually generally pretty good, and far better than we think it is on days like today, but is there even a conceivable sense in which our being let in behind th ewall of denial would strike the league as useful?

I think no. And, generally, I think accountability without consequences is a sop to the soul, not an actual solution. The league generally does not have a reffing problem, and therefore does not need a reffing solution. But reffing is a product like any other, and it can be improved. It seems to me that admitting that mistakes were made is the smallest step the NBA could take towards improving that product and maybe not a step at all.

But if it makes anyone feel better, it's worth it.

PS, Here's Cuban vowing to get fined one last time, brought to my attention by Doyle Rader.