What’s been your favorite moment of the NBA playoffs so far? Mine was probably when former referee Steve Javie appeared on my television screen to explain to me why a call was or wasn’t going to be overturned while no one actually played basketball. This has happened a lot of times; they are all tied for first. Or maybe it was the time that officials huddled around a replay monitor before ejecting a crucial player in the second quarter of an opening series game, despite almost no one who saw the play in real time initially thinking it warranted an ejection, including the officials themselves. Or maybe it was the time a coach complained about the officials in a postgame press conference and a bunch of highly paid basketball analysts went on TV to speculate how much the coach would be fined, because that’s basketball analysis. Which coach, you ask? By this point, pretty much any of them!
In case you haven’t picked up on my sarcasm, all of this has actually sucked, miserably. Halfway through the second round of the NBA playoffs, it’s become clear that the league has an officiating problem. By that I don’t necessarily mean that the officials have done a bad job, although no one’s ever gone broke selling that take. I mean that the conversation around officiating in these playoffs has become so incessant in every corner of basketball discourse that it is increasingly overwhelming the (mostly very good!) product on the court. This situation is not, in fact, the officials’ fault but rather the NBA’s own, due to the league’s self-serious insistence on an ideal of fairness and “accuracy” that is, in reality, laughably childish.
Officiating basketball is incredibly difficult, in large part because so much is subjective. If you were to call games to the exact letter of the rulebook, much of what makes the sport exciting would effectively disappear. Dazzling ballhandling moves would be called travels or double dribbles; posterizing dunks would be called charges; physical post play would be all but legislated out of existence. No one wants this, so it’s up to the NBA referees to make judgment calls, which they are mostly very good at doing. When you hear a fan protest “you can’t call that!” after a late-game whistle, what’s usually being voiced is a dissatisfaction that the ref is being overzealously literal in their application of the rules, in a way that the aggrieved party feels violates the competitive flow of the game.
Instant replay review first came to the NBA in the 2002–03 season, meaning it’s almost 20 years old. It was initially used to review clock situations—i.e., had a shot left a player’s hand by the time the shot or game clock had expired, things like that. That’s a fairly straightforward situation, but the system has only expanded since then; currently there are 16 situations that can trigger a replay review, including the Coach’s Challenge, which was approved on a full-time basis in the 2020–21 season. Replay review is now used to adjudicate things as nebulous as whether a common foul rises to the level of a “hostile act,” as if trying to find video proof of “hostility” in a basketball play was any more of a reasonable pursuit than trying to draw dignity.
I used to be in favor of instant replay. The drama of sports hinges on our shared belief that they are fair, after all, and I once thought that replay would only enhance this ideal of fairness. In the abstract I still think this is correct; the problem is that in practice it’s unattainable hogwash. When it comes to officiating, “fairness” is often intensely subjective and context-dependent. No right-minded person would argue that video replay has led to the extinction of blown calls, at least in any sport that I watch; if anything it’s led to more dissatisfaction, because of the illusion of fairness and accuracy it so disingenuously promises.
The increasing prevalence of replay review in the NBA has created a sort of ideological crisis in how the league itself relates to the people who officiate it. The ubiquitous broadcast appearances of Javie, the automatic or coach-requested replay reviews, the flailing attempts of announcers to speculate on what the “correct” call was in a given situation—all of these further the impression that officiating basketball games is a science, when in fact it’s an ongoing act of interpretation. The best officials interpret masterfully, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re interpreting.
The silly and bad-faith notion that officials should be infallible, that any inconsistency in the application of rules is tantamount to some malevolent hypocrisy, has opened the door to all sorts of gamesmanship and in-game and postgame drama between players, coaches, and referees. A hallmark of these playoffs is star players twirling their fingers in the air after being called for an infraction, pleading for their coach to challenge what’s often a fairly meaningless call. (Tuesday night Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker called a timeout to implore coach Monty Williams to challenge an out-of-bounds call that had gone against his team; the call was successfully overturned, but the Suns were up by 19 points with less than five minutes left in a game they’d ultimately win by 30.) It’s also led to telecasts that are almost neurotically preoccupied with officiating: whether calls might be challenged, why they are or aren’t reviewable, endless commentary on players’ and coaches’ interactions with refs. It’s all incredibly boring, and it’s only getting worse.
To take just one high-profile example: Last Saturday I was watching an otherwise thrilling Game 3 in the Bucks-Celtics series, only to see it briefly devolve into an excruciating mess of insufferable pedantry. Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo is, in many ways, the quintessential example of a player who requires an interpretive framework of officiating. If you called him by the letter, either a charge or block would be called almost every time he goes into the post, but of course doing that would deprive us of watching one of the most exciting talents the sport has ever produced.
Nevertheless, late in the first quarter, Giannis committed an obvious offensive foul against Boston’s Grant Williams. Williams’ feet were clearly set to take the charge, and Giannis appeared to throw a forearm at him for good measure. To the clear dismay of the announcers, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer challenged the call, leading to a lengthy stoppage in play that resulted in the call on the court being reaffirmed. At some point during this, broadcaster Hubie Brown speculated that Budenholzer might have used his challenge knowing that it would be unsuccessful, as a sort of psychological ploy to make the referees second-guess future possible charge calls on the Bucks’ superstar forward later in the game.
I am admittedly a Celtics fan, but this whole episode made me want to throw a brick through my television. Mike Budenholzer makes a lot of money, and the reason he makes a lot of money is because he works in a business that produces a very lucrative entertainment product. No one outside of Wisconsin (and probably not even many of them within it) wants to waste minutes of their life sitting through a deliberately frivolous replay review in the first quarter of a playoff game! Blown calls (when they are even blown, which this one wasn’t) are part of the game; having to sit around watching refs watch television every 15 minutes or whatever should not be part of the game.
I don’t know what the solution to any of this is, and I don’t know how you’d change it, because dialing any of it back would be the NBA conceding fault and admitting that maybe certain things are more important than genuflecting to some naïve ideal of accuracy and fairness. Maybe you could make teams pay a stiffer penalty than just a lost timeout for an unsuccessful challenge; maybe you could make refs assess things like flagrant fouls and clear-path violations as they happen, rather than dutifully parsing video footage; maybe you could ask announcers to quit talking about Scott Foster like he’s more interesting than Ja Morant. Just stop letting all this watching basketball get in the way of my watching basketball.