It is gratifying to know that Golden State Warriors fans have spent precious little time whingeing pathetically about the walking call Monty McCutchen didn’t make on Russell Westbrook in the expiring seconds of Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.
It is a sign that, while they can whine about Scott Foster in Game 3 of the Portland series all day long, they can still recognize a well-earned defeat when they see one.
And Game 1 was indeed that – a well-earned defeat. Oklahoma City was the better team in the second half, and got the reward it merited, and no rebuttals will be allowed.
That said, the NBA’s haste to explain yet again that a game in these playoffs ended in potentially hinky fashion merely tells us that they choose to be transparent about their ongoing officiating shortcomings rather than actually fixing them.
And the fact is, the deterioration of the officiating standard has been ongoing well before Adam Silver moved into the big leather chair . . . or the big leather office, whatever.
The plain fact is, there used to be a clear pecking order of elite officials upon whom you could rely to get the big games against the big teams and deliver a fairly standard game. People knew who they were, they knew how they worked, and they were rarely surprised by what they got.
There are none of those now, because the league, in a burst of top-down management that didn’t work when David Stern first thought of it and doesn’t work now, decided all of its officials should bow before the hobgoblin of uniformity – to be the same guy, looking the same, working the same way, and minimizing the individuality that made the NBA the best officiated game of them all.
And those that the league favors best – and McCutchen might be the logical inheritor of that role now that Joey Crawford’s knee has tendered its resignation – seem to be less than what they once were. Less assertive yet more standoffish, in fear of the review monitor and less mobile when it comes to getting angles, and above all other things, trying to avoid trouble rather than working the game according to the time-honored advantage-disadvantage principles that worked for decades.
The Westbrook play is a classic example. Westbrook walked. Or he got nudged by Klay Thompson and was induced to walk. Either way, something happened that required a whistle, and the only whistle was for the time out Westbrook had requested. It was the absurd don’t-let-the-official-decide-the-game nonsense that people wrongheadedly have believed forever, when in fact games get decided by officials all the time either by what they do or do not call.
A call needed to be made there, one way or another, and it doesn’t matter what it was. What it isn’t, is a no-call.
But that is part of the even more pernicious failure – the idea that the NBA doesn’t want its officials noticed.
This is absurd. Of course they’re going to be noticed. The seats are up close, unlike in football and they don’t wear helmets, unlike the NHL. The best officials have always been noticed – that’s the natural order of things, and always has been.
And when an official whose name you know vomits up a call, you go right to the default “------- sucks!” without having to wait for the league’s tepid “oops, that didn’t go the way we wanted” explanation. That was the value of Joey Crawford – you always knew him, and he always owned his work.
That is the accountability the league is looking for – that and training the new generation of officials how to move with the play better, and how to relocate their decisiveness, and how to interact better with players and coaches, and how to control a game without either something it or guiding it away from where it is destined to go. There are 50 percent more officials per game, and yet the games are not officiated nearly as well as they were when there were two. That speaks to not only training failures but philosophical misconceptions.
Officiating is an art form – albeit a weird art appreciated by nearly nobody, but an art form nonetheless. Outsiders don’t get it, and never have, but they are seeing a lot of the league’s blown-call spokesman Joe Borgia on TV these days, and that can’t be good for the league. I mean, transparency is better than refusing to acknowledge mistakes, but when that transparency is on display as often as it has been, the league has a problem that apologies alone won’t cover.
Frankly, if I were Silver (and there isn’t a day when he doesn’t take a knee and thank whatever deity he reports to that I am not so ordained), I’d hire Joey as the new head of officials and say simply, “Make them like the guys who trained you 35 years ago, because what we’re doing isn’t working.”
Because the first thing he would have done if he’d been the official who missed the Westbrook walk/Thompson foul (again, take your pick and leave me out of it) was say to anyone who asked, “I kicked the call. That’s on me.”
But more likely, he would have called something on the spot because, damn it, that’s what the officials are there to do. It’s not a job where you can defer to the second half.