Now that Tim Donaghy is talking, so are NBA fans worldwide. And the question on everyone's mind (except Lakers fans) is: are NBA games fixed? What if I told you: sort of, but the problems with NBA refereeing can go away with three simple solutions.
Watching disgraced former NBA referee Tim Donaghy's interview on "60 Minutes" last night, here are my reactions - as a fan of a small market team - to Donaghy's four most debated allegations. At the end I'll give my very simple solutions to solve the many problems - all legitimate whether you believe Donaghy's honesty or not - that Donaghy has brought to light...
Based on insider information, including referee crews, Donaghy could pick the winner 75-80% of the time.
This one I believe 100%. I've talked to a number of people affiliated with the league in the past who have told me that if they could bet on games (rightfully illegal if you work for or with the NBA), they'd be right over 75% of the time. Think about your own workplace for a moment. Think about all the secrets, off-the-record and under-the-radar information you know about everyone around you. Now transplant that to the NBA, and if you were a league employee of any sort (coach, player, trainer, ref, etc), you'd know all kinds of details that the average gambling fan would never know - ranging from personal problems with the players and coaches to ref biases to health issues unreported. It's the very definition of "insider training."
Certain referees have biases - good or bad - against certain players and coaches.
I was beside myself in shock to hear this one! (I'm being sarcastic in case you didn't pick up on that.) As my stepfather would proudly say: "No shit, Sherlock". I've often written on this blog that the fundamental problem with NBA refereeing is that they ref the player and not the play (borrowing that line from my Lakers fan cousin Paul). This has been going on since the NBA's infancy and will forever continue. This is also why I can't stand players who whine with officials because I believe it exacerbates the problem. At the end of the day, refs are human beings and if they're getting barked at constantly by the same player (read: Smith, J.R.) and perhaps in an inappropriate manner, the refs will inevitably - even if it's just subconscious - screw the player with bad calls.
Even though he bet on games that he was refereeing, Donaghy didn't let that influence how he called the game.
Even though the FBI claims that this statement holds up, I'm still not buying it. As part of their "Outside the Lines" piece on this whole Donaghy fiasco, ESPN's Scott Van Pelt probed Donaghy a bit further on this one but Donaghy is standing by his statement. I just can't imagine a degenerate gambler unable to resist blowing the whistle here or there to favor a bet he made, especially in garbage time.
The NBA has a star system and refs are told to call games a certain way to ensure big market teams led by big stars end up victorious.
There's no question that the overall NBA benefits from having its big market teams and big stars competing in June every summer. That said, I've never thought that the NBA can outright fix games through their officials but rather, can "nudge" outcomes in certain directions. I've also never bought that an edict comes from NBA commissioner David Stern's office to call games in one way or the other, but do think that it's implied as to how a game should be called among the refereeing fraternity. (If a memo was sent from NBA headquarters to officials to sway games in a specific direction, don't you think one would have leaked out by now? Just ask Tiger Woods how well secrecy via digital communication goes over in 2009.)
We've seen a "star system" time and time again since the NBA's inception (mostly benefiting the Lakers recently and Michael Jordan's Bulls in years past as current examples) and as a Nuggets fan, I've learned to live with it. I've always believed that when you're playing a team like the Lakers or the Celtics and it's in the NBA's best interest for them to win, it just means you - as the small market team - have to have a better game plan, play harder, avoid mistakes and keep your mouth shut with the refs. Make no mistake about it: the Nuggets didn't lose to the Lakers in the 2009 Western Conference Finals because of bad officiating. Bennett Salvatore didn't throw two errant inbounds passes for Denver or light up the Nuggets like Kobe Bryant did in the first half of Game 6 to seal the series for Los Angeles.
But what about the 2002 Sacramento Kings, you ask? The Kings didn't lose the 2002 WCF to the Lakers due to bad officiating either, but certainly lost one key game, Game 6, due to horrendous officiating that swayed the Lakers victory (I'm sorry Lakers fans, but the 15 foul shot disparity is too great to ignore). But whomever ref'd game Game 7 didn't miss the numerous free throws - 14 missed freebies in total on 53% FT shooting - that cost the Kings that series. Now Game 7 of the 2000 WCF with the Trail Blazers is a different story. That was a blatant example of the NBA aiding and abetting the Lakers to victory. The free throw disparity was Lakers 37, Blazers 16: an abomination that the NBA should forever be embarrassed about.
So if you're scoring at home, I'm buying about half of what Donaghy is saying...but already knew/assumed most of that stuff about NBA refereeing in the first place. Which brings up the main argument against Donaghy's accusations: that he's feeding into a preconceived stereotype about NBA refs that all NBA fans - sans myopic, moronic, rose-colored-glasses Lakers fans - already believed was true anyway. In other words, he's throwing fuel on an already simmering fire.
To top things off for Nuggets fans, several of our players - former and current - have been in the eye of this Donaghy storm. During the "60 Minutes" interview, they replayed a Nuggets/Jazz game from January 6th, 2007. A game in which Donaghy claims that the refs were essentially out to get Allen Iverson for having berated referee Steve Javie. Donaghy asserts that Iverson got hacked routinely and calls weren't made and that Iverson was called often for "palming" (i.e. traveling) more frequently than normal as retribution for Iverson's behavior towards Javie. Before you leap to conclusions, read CBSSports.com's Ken Berger column debunking Donaghy's claims about this game, citing that Iverson took more free throw attempts than any other player and was the victim of just one blatant non-call on Mehmet Okur.
The second Nugget whose name came up today was Chauncey Billups, whom Donaghy - in that "Outside the Lines" piece - claims is disliked by some officials. I'm not surprised, actually. Billups may be a great leader, great community member and great player (yes, yes and yes), but he's a whiner. And so is Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin and before this season, you could throw Iverson, Marcus Camby, Dahntay Jones and Linas Kleiza onto the All-Whining Team, too. Maybe I watch the Nuggets too much to fairly compare their constant complaining against the complaining of other teams, but other than the Spurs and Kobe Bryant, are there bigger whiners with the refs in the NBA than our Nuggets? Hence why we haven't gotten a lot of favorable calls over the years, and I've mentioned this ad nauseum on this site in the past.
But back to the title of this column: Are NBA games fixed? Sort of, but not in a way that a good game plan can't overcome (Lakers/Blazers Game 7 is an extreme example that I've had trouble finding a duplicate of). If I thought NBA games were fixed or premeditated in any way, I wouldn't give the NBA a nickel of my money for tickets and merchandise, and certainly wouldn't spend the hours I devote to covering the Nuggets and the NBA with this site.
That said, Donaghy has a lot of valid points that must be addressed and I just so happen to have solutions to the three main problems that have made NBA refereeing a running joke as of late.
Solution #1: Referee "stats" must be made transparent and available
How is it that I know how many times Ty Lawson gets his shot blocked per game but don't know how many times Bennett Salvatore calls traveling per game? Or how many times Dick Bavetta calls offensive charges per game? Or how many times Bavetta calls offensive charges against the Nuggets specifically at Pepsi Center vs. on the road? Long ago suggested by Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and recently proposed by ESPN.com's Bill Simmons, we MUST have transparent statistics for referees. The NBA claims that it keeps detailed records to review their refs. If this is true, where are these records and why aren't they online for everyone to see? Moreover, I suspect many NBA teams (hopefully including the Nuggets) keep their own internal "ref stats" so they can make the necessary adjustments when facing a Salvatore vs. a Bavetta vs. a Javie, etc. Make these stats public already, dammit!
Solution #2: Disallow players from talking to officials
I hate to legislate emotion out of the game like the NFL does, but if you want to know where referee bias comes from, it comes from interacting with the players too much. Players like Chauncey and Kobe may be perpetual whiners, but there's a method to their madness: they figure that by annoying the shit out of an official for three-and-a-half quarters, they'll get a call their way (or in Kobe's case, multiple calls) when the game is on the line in the fourth quarter. I'm not sure how the NBA would institute this and it would take a while to adjust to it, but if you made barking at officials an automatic technical foul and eliminated the ref/player relationship altogether, we might finally see refs call the plays and not the players anymore. (But don't take my word for it, watch George Karl and former NBA referees tell you themselves in this ESPN "Outside the Lines" piece that aired when the Donaghy story broke last year. Kudos to Denver Stiffs reader Big Mickey D for hunting this down!)
Solution #3: Add more referees and rotate them more sporadically
I was in the minority of NBA fans who wanted to see the replacement refs. In agreement with Simmons, I've long believed that NBA refs are too old, too short and (now clearly) too biased to fairly officiate games. Putting Donaghy's allegations aside, do you really think Dick Bavetta can call an honest game anymore? He's been around way too long. But assuming the NBA isn't going to pull a "Logan's Run" on aging officials, let's at least add more young, tall, and preferably former players to the referee ranks and have more referee crews. This way, the Bavettas and the Salvatores ref specific teams less than they do now, disabling whatever bias they have from eating away at a chunk of a team's season. (Remember when Dan Issel coached the Nuggets and Javie refereed our games it was all but assumed to be a loss? Come to think of it, whenever Issel coached a game during his second stint with the Nuggets we should have assumed the loss.)
As bad as the Donaghy story may be for the integrity of the NBA, I believe in the long run it could be the wake up call the NBA desperately needed. But don't forget the power and the voice that we have as fans because remember, we're taxpayers. When you buy that NBA ticket, NBA league pass, Nuggets workout pants (like I bought today during NBA.com's 20% off men's apparel sale), bobble head dolls, jerseys and so forth, it gives you the right as a taxpayer to voice your opinion when those who collect our hard-earned money (from David Stern to Dick Bavetta) aren't being transparent and earnest with us. All we as fans ask for is a fair fight and the least the NBA can do is prove that it's always a fair fight....even if the Lakers have appeared in half the NBA Finals ever played (I'm just saying).
The NBA should listen to what Donaghy is saying, listen to us and change their ways. It will only make the product we already love much more believable and transparent. Why is that a bad thing?
(I'll be printing this email and mailing it in letter form to David Stern's office tomorrow.)
Photo courtesy of NBAE via Getty Images