Officiating In Focus: What Happens Before A Flagrant Foul?

Credit for this column goes to Crossover Chronicles reader Robert Barnard, who made the following point during Game 4 of the Western Conference finals between the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors:

Mr. Barnard is not wrong.

Let’s look at the J.R. Smith arm-smack delivered to Jae Crowder of the Boston Celtics, one month ago in Game 4 of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ first-round series:

You can plainly see that Crowder fouled Smith before Smith retaliated. Mr. Barnard’s point was certainly affirmed in this instance.

Now, turn to Dwight Howard’s elbow-in-the-head against Andrew Bogut in Game 4 of Rockets-Warriors on Monday night:

Without question, Bogut fouled Howard before Howard’s elbow. Mr. Barnard’s point holds up really well under scrutiny.

What does this mean? Officials just aren’t good? Eh, that’s not quite accurate, and not really quite fair. It was hard enough for me to officiate high school basketball in two states, Arizona and Washington. It’s exponentially more difficult to officiate at the collegiate level. Anyone who has officiated basketball above the freshman high school level is fully aware how impossible it must be to be an NBA referee. The pressure, the stakes, the egos, the emotions — you have to be a very special creature, cut from a very rough and resilient cloth, to work NBA games with a whistle in your mouth. It’s tough.

This is not intended to cast NBA officials in a dimmer light.

The point of this piece — having already established Mr. Barnard’s point about fouls preceding flagrant-level blows — is to show that while NBA officiating is populated by plenty of competent individuals who perform a largely thankless task, it is not delivered consistently.

This is the legitimate grievance of the commoner, the average fan who vents on Twitter or yells in front of his (or her) television set during a game. The casual basketball watcher who might parachute in on an NBA game might not bring an overly specific line of reasoning to any discussion on NBA refs, but s/he (perhaps in the same way that a broken clock is right twice a day) winds up being correct on the matter of inconsistent NBA arbitration during games.

It’s hard enough to know what a foul is from game to game and ref to ref. It’s harder still to know what a flagrant foul is from game to game, in light of what’s transpired in these playoffs. The fan’s lamentation about a lack of consistency is little different from the complaints of the coaches and players who want a reliable standard each time they compete in the arena.


“All right,” you might be thinking, “so there’s little if any consistency in officiating. News flash — what are we going to DO about it, however?”

In light of the fact that fouls were committed by Jae Crowder and Andrew Bogut before they were clocked by J.R. Smith and Dwight Howard, let’s start with a point about the fouls that occur before the flagrant fouls.

First off, officials need to catch those fouls, but that’s not a policy — refs just need to be better.

In terms of rules or policies, the NBA might need to consider one or more of the following:

* Have an additional category of flagrant foul, one which stops short of an ejection and recognizes the fact that a flagrant foul — while obviously recognized as such — was provoked by an action from an opposing player.

* Have a non-flagrant foul category for actions (such as Bogut toward Howard or Dellavedova’s leg-lock of Taj Gibson in the Cleveland-Chicago series) meant entirely to provoke. Set up a limit for the number of “provocative actions” allowed for a player in the playoffs, perhaps five. If a player reaches that number, he is automatically suspended for the next game.

* If fouls such as Bogut toward Howard (before Howard’s elbow) are missed in real time, charge them to the player for the next game or give the other team the choice of having that player sit the first five minutes OR shoot two foul shots and get the ball to start the game.

You might have other suggestions on how to move the ball forward with respect to rule enforcement and punishment. You will probably disagree with most of these recommendations as well, or at least find flaws in them. (Side note: These are meant more as discussion-starters than as finite, end-stage proposals that are ready to go. Tweaking is recommended for them.)

The larger point, though, is that reform is needed in the offseason. Let’s bring critical thought to the table now, before the NBA Finals and the draft bring the heart of this NBA cycle to an end.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |