When Damian Lillard went public with his comments about officiating, and specifically, the remarks from third-year referee Ray Acosta toward him, after Thursday night’s loss to Dallas in Moda Center, it was a bit uncharacteristic.
Lillard usually does most of his complaining about calls on the court to the officials themselves, rather than to the media. Neither course is likely to be effective, however.
But I would say this in his defense, officiating in the NBA this season is at a low point and there are reasons why.
No. 1 is that due to injuries and retirements, the league is lacking experienced referees. There has been a big influx of new officials over the last few seasons. I cannot recall a time when I’ve seen so many names on the list of game officials that I’d never heard before.
I’ve talked to a few former NBA officials and they all tell the same story -- young officials are being put in positions that they aren’t able to handle, because they just don’t have enough experience. Even the crew chiefs are often unprepared for the games they are assigned.
An attempt to reach the NBA Referees Association for comment Friday morning got no immediate response.
This is one of the toughest jobs in sports and learning the craft takes time. It isn’t just knowing what to call, it’s knowing what not to call.
And then there is the whole problem of handling emotional situations on the court with players and coaches.
It’s tougher these days than it used to be, too, because it’s obvious referees’ powers to control the combatants have been taken away. I’m seeing coaches and players get away with behavior on the court that surely would have brought ejection and/or suspension a few years ago. Technical fouls are becoming rare these days.
Coaches routinely wander 5-10 feet onto the court during live-ball situations to complain about calls or non-calls and players seem to whine about every call.
With no penalty in most cases.
I think that comes from the league office, which has gone soft on the players and coaches. But my goodness, the officials of yesteryear could not have functioned in an environment like the one today.
Compound the difficulty of officiating in the NBA with the pressure of calling the game differently from player to player, and you have an impossible job.
Frankly, LeBron James and James Harden and other perceived superstars play under a different set of rules than the average player. Rookies -- unless they are anionted as future saviors of the league, such as Zion Williamson -- get NO calls. But watch, Williamson will soon get away with traveling on offense and assault and battery on defense before the whistle blows, just because of who he is.
He is being perceived as the next Lebron so you aren’t going to see him get tagged with the kind of phantom calls that you might see whistled on the likes of Nassir Little.
The game is called differently in the final quarter than it is earlier (try to get a defensive three-second call in the final minutes of a tight game!) and called differently in the playoffs than in the regular season. Then there is the old cliche of referees not wanting to decide a game in the waning moments by making a call -- when, in fact, they decide games by NOT making calls.
How in the world are inexperienced officials supposed to know how to do their job amid all the inconsistency?
Frankly, they don’t.