A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

The Problem(s) with the NBA

with 4 comments

Below are the major problems I see with the NBA right now.  I’m including issues of all kinds here, so don’t take this simply as a list of things David Stern has done wrong.

Fouls and Referees

No sport generates the quantity of fan frustration due to referee calls that basketball does.  Take any close game that matters, you probably have fans from both sides saying the refs were against them.  This results in allegations of the games being fixed by the powers that be, and in general gives some fans the belief that basketball is not fair.  Many of these fans still seem to follow the game (which I’ve never understood), but I’m sure some abandon the sport.

This is a problem for the sport, but it’s really not anyone’s fault.  Beyond that, I would argue that the problems here are minor compared to some other sports.  Take soccer, there you actually have 0-0 single elimination World Cup games decided by whether the referee gives a penalty kick or not.  The amount of controversial and/or blown calls in basketball is very high compared to other sports, but because each basket counts for so little, the effect of a blown call is much less powerful than in a lot of sports.  Good luck trying to convince everyone of that though.

The biggest problem with fouls that I see with the NBA, and basketball in general, is that there are so many of them, and every single one of them makes the game less fun to watch.  Of course, calling fouls is necessary.  Without them, the game would devolve into jungleball.  But there is no one who likes watching a game be decided by possession after possession of one guy shooting a free throw while everyone else stands around looking bored.

Now the key question:  Is this just another inherent flaw in the game that there’s nothing to be done about?  No.  I’ll grant that there’s no obvious fix, but there are things that could be tried.  First and foremost, change the penalties for rule violation so that it rarely makes sense to intentionally foul a player.  Beyond that, consider changing the refereeing emphasis so that they really only make the calls they’re sure about.  Credit where credit is due:   The NBA has done some tinkering with rule enforcement in the past.  And I also realize that when you’ve got a successful multi-billion dollar product, you don’t want to mess around with it too much – but hey, that’s what the NBDL is for, right?

Rule Design and Evaluation

There’ve been a couple times in the past few playoffs where it’s become quite clear that the guys running the NBA are just that…guys, doing the best they can on the fly, without thinking things through.

2007, Western Conference Finals, Spurs vs Suns

A Spur (Robert Horry) delivers a hard foul on a Sun (Steve Nash), and two Suns on the bench instantly jump up and take a step onto the floor before realizing they aren’t supposed to do that and sitting back down.  The rules state that bench players who step on the floor in what could be a fight situation get tossed out of the next game.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that rule – as long as you’re looking to use it as a guide for what the punishment for those players should be.  The problem here is that the NBA insisted on sticking with the letter of the law instead of the spirit, suspended those players, and probably cost the Suns the series.  Why is it a problem to stick with the letter of the law?  2 reasons:

1)      The purpose of the rule was to keep players from getting into brawls.  No one actually cares if a player steps on the court momentarily, they just want to make it so that he’s not hanging around in an explosive situation.  When players instinctively move toward their hurt teammate, and then rationally realize they can’t do that and correct their actions, they ARE doing the right thing.

2)      When a player can instigate a set of events by doing something against the rules that actually ends up helping his team, then it opens the door for abuse of the rules.

The reason why an organization like the NBA should have an executive in charge of interpreting rules and giving punishment is that people are smart and complex.  There’s no way to write a rule that captures all of the context, and there’s often no way to write in such a way that a human being can’t bend it to his advantage.  The smart executive needs to step in to make sure that common sense prevails.  The NBA has an Executive Vice President who has this job, and he completely blew this call.  I have great sympathy for a referee that blows a call in the heat of the moment – but when you have days to make a decision and you make the wrong one, then that’s evidence of serious organizational problems.

2010, Championship, Lakers vs Celtics

Instant replay gets implemented – partially.  It’s there to judge things like who touched the ball last, not whether there was a foul on a play.  Sounds perfectly reasonable, right?  But here, on the biggest stage of basketball, it becomes clear that the NBA didn’t think this through at all.  On two occasions we see that a player on one team was the guy who touched the ball last…because his opponent fouled his hand, making him effectively push the ball out of bounds.

Now, this is the type of play that all of us who played basketball all the way back to grade school remember.  Two guys go for the ball, neither means to foul the other, but it happens.  It’s clear to everyone what needs to happen.  Either you call the foul, or more often, you just pretend that the fouling player is the one who hit it out of bounds, because after all, he is the one who caused that to happen, right?  Referees on all levels have been dealing with this undoubtedly for as long as there have been referees.

It’s perfectly reasonable to do a partial implementation of instant replay, for the very reason that you want to limit the scope of the project to the things you know you can get improve.  And yet, the implementation of instant replay here didn’t deal with this scenario at all, and resulted in situation where it wasted time only to make things worse.  Consider also that this wasn’t some strange scenario here.  It’s being implemented specifically for situations where it’s not obvious who touched the ball last.  What’s the most common situation where that’s in doubt?  Well, the situation where two guys are going for the ball, and they appear to touch the ball (and possibly each other) at about the same time.  So of the few situations where instant replay can be used, a large chunk of that time the use of the instant replay will by definition make things worse.

It’s hard to screw up something worse than this in either of these two situations and the NBA really needs to examine how it’s operating, because there’s really no reason at all that things couldn’t have been better.


I include the Collective Bargaining Agreement because we’re in the midst of another round of bluster and negotiation, and if it goes poorly we could face the worst thing in all of professional sports:  Work stoppage.  Nobody wants this, everyone knows how much damage it can do – but clearly there are problems right now which need to be solved to keep it from happening.

According to Stern, the NBA owners are losing money hand over fist right now, and they want that to stop.  Perfectly reasonable in principle, and him saying that has set off a parade of people talking about “those ungrateful millionaire athletes”.  But wait, does anyone remember  the last NBA work stoppage in 1998?  NBA salaries went DOWN because of that.  Kevin Garnett came into the league one year before Kobe Bryant, but because of the changes in legal contracts in 1998, Garnett’s made about 80 million dollars more than Kobe in his career.  Meanwhile, NBA revenue keeps going up as it conquers the globe.

So to summarize:  Last time, the owners got the players to cave to a ridiculous degree, the owners then started getting even more money themselves, and yet the owners claim to be losing lots of money.  Does this make sense?  Well, no and yes.  The “no” part is that Stern is clearly exaggerating the loss, but there’s still a “yes” in there.  What’s happening?  Well despite putting all sorts of rules in place to discourage owners from spending money and to literally make it impossible to spend too much money on a star, the owners are still spending like drunken sailors.

The key thing to understand here, is that while owners call this a business, their goal here is rarely to maximize yearly profit.  There are myriad ways to take half a billion dollars and quickly & consistently make gobs of profit with it, you don’t buy a professional sports team because it’s the best of those ways, you buy a sports team because there’s no glory in making more money when you already have lots of money.  Buying another building and making more money on rent isn’t going to make you a celebrity.  Buying an NBA franchise will, and owning a winning NBA franchise will make you beloved.  So owners are going to keep overpaying for everyone below the max contract level in search for that love they desperately want.

Now, I’m not saying that that means the owners should be forced to lose money.  The owners have every right to negotiate with the players union, and I’m sure there’s some reasonable compromises that can be reached.  But don’t buy anything that the owners are selling about the players being the villains.  The enemies of the owners here are not the players, but the owners themselves.

Written by Matt Johnson

October 22, 2010 at 9:10 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Auspicious beginnings. I’ll be checking back as regularly as I can.

    WRT the CBA, the questions come up as to whether or not the business models upon which teams are run is actually rational and sustainable. As you’ve alluded to, few owners seem to work purely on a profit basis (Donald Sterling, come on down!) and you have to work out to what degree the economics of the competition (which are only tangentially related to the “real” competition) are distorted by emotional investments of both fans and owners.


    October 22, 2010 at 9:42 pm

  2. Thanks Raven.

    You’re dropping of Sterling’s name is dead on, and it does beg the question: If the guy who’s actually doing this for profit is reviled, how much pressure is on these owners to behave irrationally?

    With that said, the dislike of Sterling goes well beyond wins and losses. The way he treated Baylor & Dunleavy didn’t earn him any friends. Certainly you can behave like a rational business man without screwing over your employees.

    I think that generally, the recognition of irrationality helps focus more precisely what rules need to be in place for the owners. I do think they should fight hard for a hard cap, and other things that entirely remove bad choices from the list of possibilities.


    October 23, 2010 at 2:03 pm

    • Well, I’d argue that Sterling’s trashing of the Clippers brand is irrational, but I digress…

      … I seem to recall that Dave Berri’s name is not one that you’re particularly enamoured with, but one thing I think he has picked up on is the irrational factors that drive contracting decisions, and that a lot of this comes down to the way in which fans will react to decisions (which drive entirely rational concerns like ticketing, merchandise, attractiveness to sponsors, etc) and perhaps the emotional reactions of fans have undue weight in the model of a lot of owners. This is, of course, made worse if the owners themselves are genuine fans.


      October 24, 2010 at 5:08 am

      • Ha, well I would say there’s both cold blooded capitalism and irrational pathology in Sterling’s behavior.

        Your recall of my opinion on Berri’s behavior as a basketball statistician is correct, but I wouldn’t let that frustration get in the way of evaluating his other thoughts.

        I’ll admit to not being well versed on his thoughts on the labor dispute (shocking I know since I don’t like to read his blog). Looking at his blog right I see him concurring with a great post from Matthew Yglesias:

        “Rationally speaking, if NBA teams are hugely profitable it makes sense for owners to grab as large a share of the revenue as possible. And if NBA teams are posting huge losses it . . . also makes sense for owners to grab as large a share of the revenue as possible. The state of the economy, in other words, has very little to do with anything.”


        October 24, 2010 at 2:20 pm

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