Among NBA hot topics, the discussion about referees remains among the hottest for fans.
Ask anyone in San Antonio, and they'll tell you that Joey Crawford's alleged hatred of the San Antonio Spurs is as inevitable as death and taxes. Folks in Sacramento remain convinced that Dick Bavetta — who played such a pivotal part in their Sacramento Kings' painful 2002 Western Conference finals loss to the Los Angeles Lakers — has it out for them. Then there's the ghost of shamed former official Tim Donaghy and his 2007 betting scandal.
But the mystery that always surrounded the officials, the lack of transparency from the league and the fact that the system for evaluating their referees was kept mostly behind the curtain, always fed this fire of conspiracy theories and conjecture. Until now.
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New NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has vowed to have an open dialogue about officiating that he hopes will bridge the gap between fact and fiction. And while his new methods have caused some early concerns that this will lead to even more criticism than before, the most ardent critic on the other side sees this as a significant step forward.
"I love it," Dallas Mavericks owner and resident pain-in-officials'-sides Mark Cuban told USA TODAY Sports via e-mail. "We are the only top league where some fans question the integrity of the league. That will change under Adam."
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Mike Bantom, the NBA's executive vice president of referee operations, participated in last weekend's MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston to discuss referee analytics.
As Bantom described on the panel, the days of having an on-site observer in every arena are over. Now every game, every call and even the non-calls are watched twice by someone in a centralized location in the New Jersey/New York area. The NBA, Bantom said, has "close to a million events logged for every referee on our staff."
"We've built up a database of all of our officials across different categories and … what percentages of incorrect calls (exist)," Bantom said. "We learn to identify individual areas for improving staff, areas for improvement. And then we conduct our training regimen to address those needs."
Technology is playing a bigger part than ever. In-arena video information provided by STATS tracks the movements of players and officials alike by cameras that shoot at 25 frames per second. While this information is no longer shared with team officials now that the NBA contracts with STATS directly (the company previously had individual relationships with teams), the league has the ability to monitor everything from a referee's position on individual calls to the tough-to-quantify hustle factor.
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There is more frequent acknowledgement of mistakes that are made as well. Internal memos are occasionally sent to teams about controversial calls and some re-evaluation of events even being released to the media. It isn't just the blown calls being emphasized, however, as there is also a new charge to highlight pivotal calls that were made correctly. This is to emphasize the positives.
Yet as Bantom told USA TODAY Sports, it's not just the fans who need to be convinced that the league is doing everything it can to improve this part of its product. Owners and executives have been complaining for years that they didn't know enough about the ins and outs of the officiating world, and they're eager to learn more.
"At the end of last year, we just said, 'What are some ways in which we can make our teams feel that we're really not trying to hide anything from them?' " Bantom said. "That's the attitude that a lot of people (with teams) had, that ... the officiating department, they're over there by themselves and they're doing stuff and we don't know it. No, we work for you, too. So what do you want us to do? We'll do what you want us to do. There has just never been that kind of open conversation before, and I think now we're having it."
The internal consensus, Bantom said, is that there is mostly good work being done by the league's 60 officials.
"Our best guys do it at a remarkable level," he said. "And the difference is small percentage points, so how bad can our worst guy be? There are too many common misconceptions out there, and I want to change that by revealing the facts."
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John Ball is hoping to take this conversation took to the next level.
After spending more than 20 years in the technology industry, Ball decided to embark on a bold adventure three years ago. Through his company Beyond Box Scores, he tried to shed new light on officiating inefficiencies from outside the league's umbrella. With his home base in Phoenix, Ariz., a business partner in San Francisco and a host of game-watching contractors at his disposal, he built a database that boasts 99.5% coverage of calls from the past two seasons and which continues to grow this season.
Ball's research paper, which was titled "Refs Revealed: Many NBA Referees are "More Equal" (and Less Equal) Than Others," was published at the Sloan conference and could be the only known third-party contribution to the officiating debate. In much the same way that player statistics are being used to portray the meaning behind their every move, Ball is advocating referee analytics that could further improve transparency while offering a competitive advantage for teams and players on the floor.
In his paper, he explores the frequency (and vast discrepancy) with which referees call everything from defensive 3-second violations to technical fouls and block/charge calls. His business pitch is fluid, with Ball having considered everything from partnering with individual teams (he had one team as a client in the regular season in 2012-13, and a second team during that postseason), media companies or individual players to perhaps serving as a complementary service to the NBA. This is, potentially, the next wave of the movement that is going a new direction under Silver.
"Season ticket holders, ticket holders, they are paying good money to see a good product on the floor," Ball told USA TODAY Sports. "And there are a lot of people who care about the outcome of games.
"Every vertical market has some kind of feedback mechanism, a check and balance system for third parties to try to improve or at least inform other patrons about the quality of the service provider. ... I don't know to what extent the numbers should be published or made available, but I do think that having some information is useful. I think a third party who is doing it like we are, and who does it responsibility without just dumping a whole bunch of information out there, is probably a good way to go. What we do is try to provide a sliver of information — who's calling the fouls? — and then letting readers or users of this information decide for themselves."
It is, apparently, the new way of their shared world.
Sam Amick covers the NBA for USA TODAY Sports. He would love to hear from you on Twitter at @sam_amick.
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