When it comes to NBA officiating, criticism and conspiracy theories abound: the referees favor the stars, they make sure playoff series go longer to derive more gate revenue and product for TV, they don’t call traveling, they stick it to the small market teams.
NBA Senior Vice President and head of referee development and training Monty McCutchen sat down with Heavy Sports to answer some of these issues. Having spent 25 years as a league ref before taking his current position, he also took the opportunity to unburden himself of some thoughts and what he believes are misconceptions about the profession and those who call games in the NBA.
The discussion began with an invitation to vent. McCutchen was asked what perhaps bothers him most when he hears the shots aimed at referees. He didn’t so much vent as explain. In great detail.
“I think one of the things that frustrates me the most is this idea that NBA referees don’t go through a process to get to this point through hard work and training that they achieve,” he said. “And, you know, we work really hard at training. We have an accountability system that is really high. Teams have input. We have analytical feedback on every official, both calls and non-calls. Obviously, referee operations and basketball operations has a view on whether they’re serving the league at the proper level.
“And the amount of vetting that our officials go through, wanting to get hired… We start with 3,000 to 3,500 officials a year that are viewed by our scouting program. Then they have to get narrowed down into the top 100 to go to our first camp, which is a grassroots camp. Out of that 60 or so get to go to a mid-level camp. Then our top 30 get to go to an elite camp. That’s just to get hired to the G league out of that pool of 3,500 a year. And from there, then the G League process of being vetted through 50 G League games a year over several seasons.
“Finally, you get to be hired into the NBA. And we haven’t even started talking about all the vetting and all the accountability that goes in to work your first playoff game, become a crew chief, get to the Finals. And so I think that one of the things that frustrates me is that there can sometimes be a view that we pick through a capricious means instead of true process. We have a really strong process at the NBA: teams have a say, analytics has a say, referee and expertise has a say. And I think that what I’d like people to know is that there’s a real process that we come to to get to the best people.”
Extreme Vetting for NBA Refs
The vetting of which McCutchen speaks gets even finer when it comes to the officials in each game. Everything is checked, he said. Everything.
“From an analytical standpoint, yeah, every decision and non-decision — because non decisions, at least in terms of a whistle being blown, are a decision; you’re saying that nothing illegal took place. Every decision and every non-decision in a whistle capacity is graded,” McCutchen said. “That’s thousands of decisions per year, per referee, all graded by independent reviewers, not ex-NBA referees who have a personal relationship with them. That’s absolutely not how we do things here. They’re trained reviewers to the principles and standards of the NBA, who grade independently and that produces a profile of play calling that shows who is the most excellent and who needs to continue to grow to see the best parts of the profession and to serve the game at the highest level.”
And there is a value to refs for getting good grades. Just as some teams advance and others are eliminated in the playoffs, so, too, is it with officials. Experienced referees made into the mid-six figures, and there are bonuses for each postseason round worked. For example, there’s an extra $25,000 for being chosen for the first round, whether for one game or more.
“There’s this view that NBA officials want series to go to seven games because they potentially could be, you know, compensated for more games. That’s not how it works,” McCutchen said. “You obviously receive a bonus to be into the playoffs, but it’s based on your entry into a round. Whether the round goes four games or seven games, the union has negotiated a level of compensation for making the round. So a second-round referee makes more than a first-round referee, etc. But how many games within that round occur don’t impact the compensation of our referees.
“Now that’s just the compensation piece. There’s a whole pride piece to making the playoffs. You know, referees want to serve the game at the highest level, and it doesn’t get higher than NBA playoffs. And each round with more pressure becomes more, you know, you work for those opportunities to gain the trust of the NBA, so that if you are being chosen for the conference finals or the Finals, you can know that you’ve really put the time in over multiple years to provide consistent work that we can trust at the biggest moments.”
In other words, there are star refs. Which is a good segue into the question of whether the more prominent players get more favorable calls. Having looked into that matter with hoop science, McCutchen seemed more than ready for this one.
“All right, so we have all the analytical data points on that,” he said, “and our stars have the ball an inordinate amount of time because they’re really good at what they do. Playing basketball is what they train for and what they really do well at. Analytically, we have found that our stars are slightly disadvantaged, because it’s difficult to see everything, and when you have the ball that often it’s often difficult to see every possible infraction that has occurred to you.
“When you have the ball that much, you clearly are a central focal point of not only the game itself for your team, but you’re also the central focal point for the opposing team. And those fan bases have a really strong desire to see themselves successful up against that standard of excellence. So often, no matter when we make a mistake, it often gets lumped into this idea that we’re taking care of a high level player, when the same mistake may have been made with a player that maybe is in their first year and hasn’t established themselves, but it’s received differently. Most of our errors — all of our errors; I’ll be very clear about that — are human errors… standing in the wrong place, looking at the wrong place, not being strong fundamentally to our principles. Those are what drive error so much more.
“You know how fast an NBA game is? You can’t possibly be going, wow, let me put the best player (in a great position). You can’t think that way. You’ve got to be thinking about positioning, where people are, where you’re standing, trying to get plays right. It doesn’t have an impact from status.”
And the speed of the game can be hard to appreciate from a distance or on television. Officiating, in certain difficult situations, has been described here as standing in a blender and trying to identify specific ingredients as they rush past.
“It’s hard, and, for us, we want to get plays right,” said McCutchen when presented with the analogy. “And we’re graded on getting plays right across all of our NBA players, not the status of our NBA players. And if you don’t get the plays right, then you don’t get to go to the playoffs and your job is in jeopardy.”
The idea that the league, through its referees, favors big markets over small can seemingly be debunked by noting the relative success of two teams — the Spurs and Knicks. New York is the country’s largest market, while San Antonio checks in at 31. And, for more recent success, there is Milwaukee at No. 37.
“Yeah, that’s been disproven numerous and numerous times,” McCutchen said. “We know that our officials, when we look at the data, they apply standards equitably. Errors are very similar, successes are very similar, accuracy is very similar. That’s not to say that we’re perfect at our work; we’re clearly not. We make mistakes as NBA officials, but it is equitable across all our markets.”
Moving to the charge that certain referees are assigned to extend playoff series for the league’s financial gain, McCutchen said, “I can dispel that immediately. It goes to the art of what we talked about earlier. There’s no incentive for referees. There’s no possible way our work could withstand the scrutiny that it lives under, under those conditions. There’s just too much scrutiny, and it’s just simply not true. The other thing that I would say is that we assign in a series the first four games, because we know there’s going to be four games right away. And so this idea that we assign based on what happened in Game 2 and Game 3 is erroneous. We can’t fit the matrix that easy.”
Traveling would seem to be a fairly simple rule and matter, but McCutchen got extremely technical when explaining the problem for both viewers and referees.
“Well, there’s equal parts that the people don’t understand the rule based on our interpretation of the gather and when the step count begins,” he said. “So we’ve tried to educate very highly to that. That being said, that doesn’t mean we don’t have to work on traveling as NBA officials. Feet move really quickly. When you have a lot of things to worry about — whether a person is getting fouled, whether they’re in the lane too long, whether it’s defensive three seconds — all of these things become a matrix you have to sequence in your mind. We need to sequence better the catch, which begins the count or the gather, where the pivot foot is and the release of a legal dribble.
“When we’re at our best, we sequence in that order. If we skip steps — if we break down fundamentally; we get the catch, but don’t find the pivot — it makes knowing whether the legal dribble commenced very patchwork. So for us, it’s a fundamental issue. If I follow my sequence, I’m good at traveling.”
As a tool for getting it right, TV viewers have the benefit of slow motion replay.
“And they don’t have to worry about the defensive player,” said McCutchen. “Traveling is much easier to see when you think someone has traveled and now you don’t do anything but look at their feet. The NBA referee has multiple things to look at.”
‘We Want the Focus to Remain on the Talent of Our Players’
Among the turn-offs cited by fans is the constant complaining by coaches and players about calls (or lack thereof). While some might want quicker technical fouls to stem the tide of whining, McCutchen argues for officials using more perspective.
“I think the biggest thing is that we want the focus to remain on the talent of our players — their ability to come up with strategies up against other teams trying to come up with their own strategies,” he said. “We want the focus to be on the great play of our players. Our players, I’m biased, are the best athletes in the world, I believe, and we want the focus to be there. We realize that there’s going to be disagreements between the passion that our players have up against the penalties that are assessed them by referees. We understand that what we’d like to get to is respectful forms of disagreement. And so a technical foul should never be issued punitively.
“‘Oh, you don’t get to talk to me that way’ should never be a referee’s mindset. What you should be thinking is, did this meet the standards of the NBA for a needed penalty? And if it meets that standard, we have to hold our officials accountable to applying that standard.”
But isn’t there maybe a greater problem when the steady stream of coach/player complaining feeds into fans’ notion that the officials are making egregious errors and perhaps the game isn’t on the up and up?
“I don’t think of it as much along those lines as that I want to keep the focus on the play,” McCutchen said. “Technical fouls should be used to redirect focus. And if a player or coach can’t remain focused for their task, then maybe a technical foul has merit based on our standards. I do think though that we have a different game than baseball, in the sense that our game is very passionate and played with contact and we don’t want to kill passion. But finding a balance is the key.
“A heavy hand with too many penalties would feed an authoritarian view of what passion looks like. And that’s why we’re constantly trying to find the balance.”
But as will always be the case with sports and the fans who invest emotionally in their teams, balance is in the eye of the beholder.