Spend half an hour talking to NBA vice president of referee development and training Monty McCutchen about this week’s hot topic — a divide between players and officials overshadowing the start of the league’s highest-profile series — and you get the feeling that conspiracy theories so often floated by fans, players, coaches and even general managers are mostly laughable.
“It really is,” McCutchen told Yahoo Sports by phone on Wednesday. “That’s often the case. What’s on the inside is much more normal and mundane than human. We’re trying to get plays right. We want to serve the game well. We have the same desires individually for success in our careers that other people do in their careers, and you do that by being impartial and upholding standards with a certain resolve and will. You most certainly don’t do that by being vindictive and living through your emotions. I’m proud of our group that they consistently do good work.”
The 53-year-old McCutchen speaks with the confidence of a man who earned his job from a quarter-century of work as one of the NBA’s most respected officials and with the eloquence of a man holding an English literature and speech communication degree from the University of Texas, complete with analogies based in Greek mythology, all with a timbral hint of R. Lee Ermey, the real-life U.S. Marine who played colorful Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in “Full Metal Jacket.”
Several themes ran through our discussion, none more than the constant battle against public perception to ensure the game he loves remains impartial. McCutchen is essentially tasked with molding the NBA’s referees into a robot army capable of upholding standards void of emotion.
“It’s like a race-car driver,” said McCutchen. “If you and I start driving 75 or 80 miles per hour, we might start to feel really uncomfortable behind the wheel. Like, I don’t feel like I’m able to take in the necessary information that allows me to be a good decision-maker at higher speeds, and those aren’t even high speeds compared to a race-car driver, but because they’ve trained, they’re able to process that information in ways that you and I can’t. It’s the same for referees.”
The difference between players and officials
This all runs contrary to a recent ESPN report that teams hold “organizational meetings prior to news conferences” to strategize about criticizing officials and drawing fines after games in hopes of getting a more favorable whistle the next time around. As hard as it may be, McCutchen is working to remove emotion from the officiating experience as best as he can.
“If people can’t remove themselves from those emotions, then they’re not capable of working this time of year or they expose that they’re not capable if given the opportunity and can no longer handle this, and they go backwards instead of forwards,” said McCutchen. “It’s all in the training. If we don’t train well, then we have to live with the results of giving into our emotions, but don’t mistake in my opinion the fact that refereeing is not the same as playing.
“Playing is a much different emotional experience, because you’re banging, you’re playing a physical game. It’s much different as a referee, where your job is to rise above emotion and get to standards. If we can uphold standards, then we’ve had a successful night, which is sort of the antithesis of emotion. You’re saying to yourself, ‘It doesn’t matter what the situation is, I have a standard to uphold.’ Through our process of vetting who’s having the best years, we feel highly confident — not perfect — that we have the people to rise above and uphold our standards.”
Warriors, Rockets and referees, oh my
The fallout from Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals between the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors left the NBA world wondering what is and isn’t a proper closeout, wrapped inside a larger discussion about the inherent problem of players constantly trying to bamboozle officials. National Basketball Players Association president Chris Paul received a $35,000 fine for making contact with a referee, reigning NBA MVP James Harden declared, “I just want a fair chance, man,” and two-time Coach of the Year Mike D’Antoni added, “We just need to suck it up and don't worry about how they officiate and sit there and take it, yeah.”
Ask McCutchen about any of this, and he will give you Sisyphus.
“The internet has brought an intensity to their scrutiny that I cannot imagine,” said McCutchen. “Everyone under the sun has an opportunity to comment on their lives both publicly and privately, and I think that is a heavy burden our players and coaches are under. To a lesser extent, I think it’s true of our referees — that every single decision they make, call or no-call, is dissected left and right — and that’s put some people on the edge. All of us are a little edgier, and I think what’s important to remember is, instead of viewing that rock falling down every day as a failure, look at the pushing up every day as an enjoyable process, and if we can enjoy the work of trying to build bridges and build relationships through the difficulty of us all living pressurized lives, I think we then have the opportunity for everyone to take stock and say, ‘I love this league. What can I do today to make it better?’ I have faith in our players and coaches, and I have faith in our referees that through the intense pressure that we live under that ultimately we all want to get back to the game in a proper way. We’ll get there. I have faith in that.”
On that, the players agree.
"While the players remain committed to working to improve player-official relations, there remains much work to be done,” NBPA executive director Michele Roberts said in a statement to Yahoo Sports. “We are optimistic that, if the parties continue to listen to and respect each others' point of view, we can make tangible improvements. Our game demands it."
Conspiracy theories, be damned
The 48 hours following Game 1 brought a Last Two Minute Report littered with controversial rulings and news that Houston considered sending a memo to the league office after Game 7 of last year’s conference finals that alleged 81 calls went in favor of Golden State and concluded, “Referees likely changed the eventual NBA champion. There can be no worse result for the NBA." Even the officiating assignments for Game 2 drew public scrutiny. The league assigned Scott Foster, who has a contentious history with the Rockets that included Harden declaring in February, “I don’t think he should be able to even officiate our games anymore, honestly.”
Fans figured NBA commissioner Adam Silver pulled his puppet strings and flew Foster to the Bay Area in some sadistic payback for their public commentary. More than a few pointed to the 134 phone calls disgraced former referee Tim Donaghy made to Foster during a 2006-07 season that culminated in a gambling scandal, forgetting the facts that the FBI and NBA both cleared him of any wrongdoing, and that Foster consistently ranks among the league’s top-ranked officials.
“If I feel like if a referee is taking on vigilante justice or anything like that, they wouldn’t be working in the playoffs, and they shouldn’t be on our staff, because we rise above those things,” said McCutchen. “We’ve got to be able to know with 100 percent certainty that we trust an impartial view to how we assign games, and that’s vitally important to the integrity of our league.”
How are refs actually assigned to playoff games?
The reality, McCutchen will tell you, is far more boring than all of that and begins with the selection process for playoff referees. The 36 playoff officials and four alternates are selected from “a matrix” that determines the season’s best officials based on the following input:
• Rankings of all 68 officials by every team at midseason and the end of the regular season
• Thousands of reviews of referees via TextBack from each coach after every game
• A ranking of all 68 active officials by an officiating panel of retired respected referees (McCutchen, Joey Crawford, Mark Wunderlich, E.F. Rush, Bernie Fryer and Bennett Salvatore)
• A “robust analytics program” led by NBA vice presidents of analytics and strategy Evan Wasch and Steven Angel that reviews “every decision, both calls and non-calls,” throughout the season
A similar strategy is employed to pare the field down after each round to 28 referees for the conference semifinals, 20 for the conference finals and 12 for the Finals. The matrix tells McCutchen and company who will fill the league’s three designations for a crew — chiefs, referees and umpires — and from there he starts plugging them into the schedule, starting with the first four games of every series and then for each successive game as it is locked into place. As McCutchen says, “That matrix somewhat becomes a little bit of a Sudoku problem.”
Complicating matters are the additional parameters the league has set for its officials. While trying to construct the best crews each night, McCutchen is trying to avoid scheduling referees on back-to-back nights, pairing the same crews together too often, assigning the same official to, say, Games 1 and 3 in a single series, or plugging a first-time playoff ref into a Game 7.
“Once you start plugging people in, it dictates which people go to these series and those series,” said McCutchen, who officiated 169 playoff games and 16 Finals games in his career. “I wish there was some magic formula, which is probably more interesting to your readers, but like most things in life it really just comes down to if someone had a graduation they have to be home for.”
The matrix is everywhere
All those parameters leave little room, if any, to consider a referee’s history with a certain team or their suitability for a particular series. McCutchen has to be confident that every playoff referee is capable of officiating every team in every series, or else the entire matrix falls apart.
“I wish that there was some kind of thing where Referee A and Referee B have this beautiful, fantastic relationship with this style of play, so we’re going to put them in this series. It’s not,” said McCutchen. “We expect those 28 people that are currently working in the second round to work our mechanics system, and we expect them to be able to be plugged in so that the standards of the NBA are met night to night. Now, that doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes.”
Likewise there is little time to consider statistics that might say this referee whistles the road team for a greater percentage of fouls or that referee has officiated four straight playoffs losses for a given team. Rather than computing statistical anomalies, McCutchen instead turns to the matrix, which more broadly examines every referee on every call throughout the entire season.
“It gets very dangerous to correlate this referee with a won-loss record as the direct line as to why they won or lost,” he said. “There are certain statistical portfolios for every NBA official. We are the most scrutinized group of anyone in the world in terms of officiating sports, so that information is out there. I most certainly am not charting that information when I decide to do this Sudoku puzzle or we wouldn’t have anyone who could work the games at all. This team would be 0-4 with Referee A, and this team would be 0-4 with Referee B, et cetera, et cetera, and we’d sit around and would show up having to call shirts and skins at the end of it.”
So, while an anonymous survey of players and coaches conducted by The Los Angeles Times may have deemed Foster the NBA’s “worst” referee in 2016, he has consistently ranked among the league’s best-rated referees for two decades running, and the data to rank those refs only continues to get better. The league is always considering ways to improve officiating, and recent efforts to improve player-referee relations are just one example. Another: McCutchen said the NBA is open to adding a fourth official for every game, though nothing official is on the books.
“We tested the four-person referee crew in the G League last year,” he said. “We’ll continue to test it. One of the issues that you face is: Can you create a mechanics system that is effective? You want more to also be more efficient. More for more’s sake without a proper mechanics system could be dangerous to our league, but we’ll continue to explore that.”
A glitch in the matrix
You would understand if McCutchen were to emote when public scrutiny of his profession casts a shadow over a series that many believe will produce the NBA champion again, especially since a “highly calibrated sense of fairness” led him here, where he has “dedicated my life to that sense of integrity.” But you must also understand it is his job to remove emotion from it.
“I love this league,” he said. “Not only do I love the league because I think it’s the most well-played league in pro sports or in basketball most certainly across the world, but I love it because I think we have the best people in the league. I love the character of our players, coaches, beat writers and general managers. We have the best people in play. I think because of the nature of our job, somehow referees get excluded from that sense of having the best people. Not only the best referees, but the best people refereeing at the NBA level.
“Our passion of our franchises, players and coaches is something that should be applauded. I think that passion is something that our franchises and our fan-bases are drawn to and feel a real connection to, and I would hate if we ever lost that. I can’t emphasize enough that referees serve the game. They should not be the focus of the game, and our players and our coaches rightfully should shine in the limelight of the hard work that they put in on a regular basis.
“Referees have to have a will to do the work. If you’re going to uphold standards, if you’re going to be able to withstand the pressures that come to bear at a professional sporting event that so many people have a vested love for, you have to have a strong resolve to uphold standards and not be swayed. Sometimes, that means you have to be in the forefront of the news to own your work, to own your needs for improvement, to own the successes, to own the game decorum, to own all of those things and say, ‘OK, we have areas to improve, and in these instances we really met the moment.’ It’s my job to recognize those differences and hold people accountable. ... I’m proud of our league, and I want the focus to be where it should be, which is on the most beautiful game in the world. I think we’ll get there, but there’s a small bump from time to time.”
McCutchen saw Game 2 of the Rockets-Warriors series as a positive step on the way back up the mountain. Now, we all have to hope the rock doesn’t come tumbling down again in Game 3.
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