A therapy session between NBA officials and players at All-Star weekend can’t come soon enough.
Tensions are high as fans watch one brouhaha after another unfold nearly every night.
It seems the only drama remaining is not when another flare-up will occur, but who will be involved.
The root of the drama is simple: Players want more consistency with calls and transparency; officials want to maintain a controlled environment.
At least one person with a front-row seat believes the cauldron may be ready to boil over, perhaps before a scheduled Feb. 17 meeting.
“The No. 1 issue on their minds is officiating. And it’s only gotten worse over the years, (and) probably now is about as hot as it has been,” Michele Roberts, executive director of the NBA Players Association since 2014, told USA TODAY Sports.
The list of high-profile incidents involving high-profile stars is lengthy.
Monday night, injured Brooklyn Nets guard D’Angelo Russell picked up a technical while apparently clapping at an official’s call -- from the bench.
Last week brought more flare-ups, as the Toronto Raptors were incensed at late calls in their loss to the Golden State Warriors.
Raptors star DeMar DeRozan said it felt like they were playing “five on eight,” a comment that likely will bring a fine from the league.
Chris Paul – the Houston Rockets guard who also is the president of the NBAPA – teed off on longtime referee Scott Foster with reporters after he received a technical foul in a game against Portland.
“There’s history there. He the man. That’s who they pay to see,” Paul said sarcastically.
No situation was more symbolic than the Dec. 3 head-butting between official Courtney Kirkland and Warriors veteran Shaun Livingston, with Kirkland being removed from the referees’ rotation for a week and Livingston suspended one game.
LeBron James was ejected for the first time in his career; Draymond Green has a league-leading 11 technicals and was fined $25,000 for critical comments; Kevin Durant has been ejected three times; and Anthony Davis also picked up his first career ejection.
“Players are intense and frustrated, and that’s to be expected,” Mark Denesuk, spokesman for the National Basketball Referees Association, told USA TODAY Sports. “I think the referees expect a certain amount of it, but I think there’s just been a decline in civility, a decline in respect, an increase in aggression.”
Roberts, who met for more than two hours with NBRA general counsel Lee Seham last month, has ideas she believes could soothe the tension.
“I just really think that to the extent that there are officials who adopt that absolute ‘I’m not going to comment (with players during game action)’ rule, they should reconsider that,” Roberts said. “That drives my members fairly batty, too, because guys don’t think talking to the ref is necessarily going to change the call but they want to be able to say, ‘Ref, hey maybe you didn’t see it, but he hit me here, or he touched me there.’
“The hope is that the ref will, going forward, will be more attentive. ... It’s not necessarily that he’s going to say, ‘Oh, you’re right. Let me rescind that call.’ But to not be able to engage at all is a mistake.”
Dallas Mavericks’ Mark Cuban chimed in via Twitter, maintaining his reputation as the most vocal critic in the ownership ranks: “Watching end of Warriors Raptors.
Refs can’t go back in time for a review.
They can only review the out of bounds event. #protestable”.
Commissioner Adam Silver recently said all this is more the product of interpersonal dynamics than it is anything else.
The NBA relocated one of the league’s best officials, Monty McCutchen, from the floor to the league office.
As the VP of referee training and development, he will oversee day-to-day operations of the league’s officiating staff.
“We’ve looked back at the data we have from over the years, (and) there haven’t been a greater number of ejections, a greater number of technicals; there’s nothing aberrational happening in terms of the calls being made on the floor,” Silver said. “But it’s something that people are talking about. I recognize that, and so we have a small enough league where I think it’s about building relationships.”
According to data provided by the NBA, the current technical fouls pace for players this season is slightly below last season based on games through Jan. 14: 760 compared with 781.
It’s also lower than the total in nine of the past 13 seasons. From 2004-05 to 2016-17, the technical fouls average was 821, with a high of 1,063 in the 2004-05 campaign.
Then again, there was an uptick Monday night with five ejections, including Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook and Kyle Lowry.
This relationship, quite clearly, needs work.
As to transparency, players want discipline against officials made public, just as it is for players.
“As far as whether or not official’s discipline is going to become public or not, I feel especially helpless in predicting that because that really is a conversation and a discussion that probably has to be bargained between the officials and the league,” Roberts said.
“I don’t know that I’ve got the leverage to pull that off.
I think (the NBA and the NBRA) just completed the last (collective bargaining agreement), so I don’t even know if there’s room for that.
That’s a huge point of contention, as I understand it, with the officials.
That’s a mountain that I’m not sure I have the ability to move.”
In an effort to help the public perception of officials, the NBRA hired Denesuk, the managing director of Commerce House, a Dallas-based agency, in 2015.
As Denesuk says, there is ‘’so much more public scrutiny around calls, and around issues.”
“I don’t believe it’s an issue with officiating accuracy,” Denesuk said. “Our accuracy numbers are very consistent with what they’ve been historically, at very high levels. We’re looking at high 90s in terms of calls made, averaging around 90 percent in total, and this is all kind of fact-based stuff. There is not any kind of demonstrable or measurable decline in officiating performance.”
But the players still want the public to know what goes on behind closed doors.
“We’re actually going to be publishing some stuff ourselves, just around the level of accountability that these referees face,” Denesuk said. “... I’ve heard a lot of people comment that there’s no accountability, nothing happens to these guys, and no one does anything about it. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
“These guys are held to very, very high standards, and they are hyperscrutinized by the league. ... (The accountability) all happens behind the scenes. ... I think from the NBRA standpoint, there’s obviously increasing tension (but) it’s something that can be remedied with some open dialogue.”