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NBA FINALS GAME 5: Officiating Stats

by Roland Beech, Founder nbatop.com

NBA Game 5 Official Bennett Salvatore NBA Finals Game 5 Ref Joe Crawford NBA Finals Official Joe DeRosa I come not to bury the NBA, but to praise it.

...or something like that.

Let's face it, with basketball you are always going to have a certain amount of controversy regarding the officiating since there are so many plays which are far from clear-cut. This isn't tennis, with a simple in/out decision.

No, basketball features ten players moving simulataneously with all kinds of incidental contact along the way, a variety of obscure and seldom enforced rules, and it's all played out from end to end at blazing fast speed.

It's a tough game to call on many occasions, and reasonable individuals can agree to disagree on the appropriate ruling on a play, even after seeing it in slow motion replay multiple times! It's clear then that referees should be extended a margin of error and can't be held accountable for the occasional missed call, just as we can't fault a player for missing a shot every now and then.

Still, the rancor surrounding the pivotal game five of the recent NBA Finals suggests a more detailed look at the calls (and non-calls) is warranted. Moreover one of the big problems with evaluating the refs is that no one is publishing detailed numbers on the calls -- it's either griping about one specific play, or general comments about "star treatment" or "bias for one team" without any factual evidence. I hope to change that today...

The Analytical Approach
I reviewed the complete game five from tape, noting:

  • which official made the call (not always easy to tell) or had primary view on a non-call
  • whether a call/non-call was in my view the "right call" using the following categorizations:
       YES - the right call
       PROBABLY - seems like the right call, but may have less than optimal camera angles to tell
       MAYBE - more of a 50/50 situation where the call could reasonably have gone either way
       DUBIOUS - appears the call is wrong, albeit I have the benefit of slow motion replay!
       VERY DUBIOUS - to my mind the call is wrong
  • which team the call favored
  • and other notes, including the commentary by Hubie Brown and Mike Breen who were broadcasting the game when appropriate
For a while I was indicating whether the players involved complained about the call, but that proved to be mostly the case and often a little difficulty to read much into since I can't pick up what was being said.

For those who want to see how I ruled on each specific play, see the game five calls details, but on this page I'll move to the summaries.

"Right Call" Stats
So after I grade every call (and "non-call") the obvious place to begin is by seeing what percentage of the time the officials' calls agreed with my view, and how often in the questionable calls each team got the benefit. It should be noted that having replays, slow motion, and the commentary of an NBA veteran like Hubie Brown all give me advantages which the officials can't have. At the same time, camera angles are often poor, and I can't hear the conversations between players, coaches, and the refs.

Please Note: some calls I assigned as 'joint' to two refs, and in those cases the plays are "double counted" in the individual ref totals, but NOT in the ALL totals. (Intentional fouls are ignored.)

Official -- ALL Salvatore Crawford DeRosa
Right Call Calls Favor
Calls Favor
Calls Favor
Calls Favor
Yes 42 21 21 13 8 5 18 7 11 14 8 6
Probably 28 16 12 13 9 4 6 3 3 11 6 5
Maybe 12 8 4 7 5 2 3 1 2 3 2 1
Dubious 3 2 1 1 1 0 1 0 1 1 1 0
V.Dubious 3 3 0 2 2 0 0 1 1 0
Totals 88 50 38 36 25 11 28 11 17 30 18 12

I should offer the disclaimer that I was trying hard to be objective on rating the calls, and did use the opinions of the supposedly unbiased commentators in my evaluation, but it is indeed a difficult task to remain entirely neutral. If you have the game still taped yourself, it would be great to have some alternative gradings for comparison.

Ultimately, by my standards, 80% of the officials' decisions on calls and non-calls were either 'yes' or 'probably' the right call, and only six plays (7% of all calls) were either 'dubious' or 'very dubious'.

Just because Miami had more calls in their favor (and not surprisingly as a result more free throws attempted) this should not be viewed by itself as a claim of unfortunate officiating, since they could have been legitimately the right calls. Indeed of the yes/probably gradings I gave out, Miami was the team that benefited more often: 37 to 33. However, in this game, again by my subjective viewing, it does look like Dallas got the worst of the calls, just 5 "maybe" or "dubious" plays in their favor to Miami's 13.

As for the specific officials, if this were boxing judging, we'd say that Miami won on two of three cards, with Crawford being the lone ref giving more breaks to the Mavericks.

While Salvatore had a large early lead in "number of calls" by the end of the game it was fairly close in raw number of times the whistle was blown. Let's look though at some of the individual percentages...

Official Yes/Prob Maybe/Dub. M/D MIA%
Salvatore 72% 28% 80% (8-2)
Crawford 86% 14% 25% (1-3)
DeRosa 83% 17% 80% (4-1)

I seemed to take exception with Bennett Salvatore's view on the game more often than with the other two refs, and it did seem like he was at times calling the game much tighter than either Crawford or DeRosa.

Salvatore's maybe/dubious/v.dubious calls also wound up in favor of Miami at an 80% clip. (He also was the ref who called a technical on Avery Johnson, not counted in any of the above tables.)

Various people have postulated on what percentage of NBA calls are relatively clear cut, and 80% seems to be a fairly common position, which winds up near what I found to be the case in my judgement.

Of course, not all calls count for the same value (a change in possession call counts for much more than a personal foul leading to a sideout), so to make it more insightful it's worth attempting to calculate the potential points value of these calls.

Points impact of Officiating Calls
At face value, figuring what a call led to in scoring should be relatively simple -- a foul leading to free throws is the value of the points, but it's not really as straight forward as you might think. For example on a shooting foul with a missed shot, if the foul hadn't been called, there's still a chance the missed shot would have become an offensive rebound. Similarly with a personal foul leading to free throws, if the foul hadn't been whistled the team would have still had a normal possession to go in most cases.

So In viewing the plays I adjusted the points value by what I considered the "leftover value" of the possession if it hadn't happened, using for ease of calculation 1 point as the basic expectation of a possession. So, a travel call costs a team one point since they score 0 on the possession with an expectation of one if the call hadn't happened. On the other hand a personal foul that awards two free throws, both made, is only a +1 value despite the team scoring two points: if the foul doesn't happen we still expect on average a point from the possession.

Anyway, that's a long winded way of saying there's some pretty debateable assumptions being made here. The final step is to multiply the presumed +/- points for a call by the "wrong call" chance, which I allocated as follows:

0% - 'yes' grade (has a 0% chance of being an incorrect call)
25% - 'probably'
50% - 'maybe'
75% - 'dubious'
85% - 'very dubious'

If the call was deemed a "yes" then the points adjustments are all considered to be fairly earned. On the other hand if you earn two free throws on a "maybe" call, the 50/50 category, then half the points for the call can be termed "bonus officiating points" for the team.

Official DAL Pts MIA Pts DAL FT MIA FT DAL 'Bonus' MIA 'Bonus'
Salvatore -0.5 +7.0 6-6 14-20 -2.7 +2.7
Crawford +8.0 -1.2 10-11 3-5 +0.3 -0.8
DeRosa +2.2 +8.4 4-6 10-13 -0.5 +1.4
Joint Calls +1.0 +1.8 1-2 4-7 +0.0 -0.6
Totals +10.7 +16.0 21-25 31-45 -3.0 +2.7
* note Miami had four additional free throws as a result of intentional fouls.

So when I do this somewhat involved "quantification" of the officiating impact to generate team 'bonus points', it looks like this:

+5.4 MIA - Salvatore
+1.9 MIA - DeRosa
+1.1 DAL - Crawford
+0.6 DAL - Joint Calls

Now you can argue certainly that the types of calls an official is involved with in a given game is to some extent a function of what 'turf' on the court they are covering, and undoubtedly even if you had completely correct officials you could still see some odd discrepancies in free throws awarded and 'points generated'.

At the end though, my scoring of the calls amounts to seeing Miami getting a net bonus of 5-6 points in the game, which some might take as a sign that the refs had a big role in determining the outcome of a contest with a one point final margin. Ah, but of course, if you change one call, the events that had ensued would be different. Perhaps if Harris had been given free throws after being hit on a shot, the Mavs would have wound up losing by more. So we can never be sure, excepting perhaps the very last play of a game, to what extent the calls mattered.

Did the officiating in game five have more "iffy/bad calls" than is typical? My impression having watched a zillion NBA games is yes, my statistical evidence for believing this, having done this exercise of grading each call in a game precisely once, is non-existent!

Questionable calls
Again, I have listed the details on every call/non-call I considered during the game at the game five calls details page, but here I'll wrap it up by listing the questionable calls (those I graded as maybe to dubious).

Play & Action
Right Call?
Salvatore 1 10:09 4-3 DAL: Terry turnover - palming MIA dubious seldom called
Salvatore 1 7:06 11-7 MIA: Team rebound - def layup MIA maybe Hard to tell who tipped it out
Salvatore 1 3:33 15-17 DAL: Dampier turnover - travel MIA v.dubious Ref claims no Shaq block? Hubie: "definitely see he got the ball up high"
DeRosa 1 1:11 17-23 MIA: Posey foul - personal DAL maybe blocking foul on flop, Hubie: "From this angle that was an offensive foul"
DeRosa 1 0:18 21-23 DAL: Mbenga foul - personal MIA maybe Harris complains Mourning traveled, looked that way, but contact too
Crawford 2 9:24 23-28 MIA: Walker foul - shooting DAL maybe hard contact, some level of leaning in though
DeRosa 3 9:40 55-46 DAL: Harris shot - layup miss MIA v.dubious NO CALL: Breen - "Lots of contact, Harris looking for a foul" Wade cleary bodies Harris significantly
DeRosa 3 8:39 55-49 DAL: Harris shot - layup miss MIA dubious NO CALL: drives at shaq, body contact, shaq inside circle. Hubie after Mavs get tech on next play: "They felt he was definitely hit, below the number with Shaq's body and there was a no call, at the other end they were very heated. Anyone in that same situation would do the same thing"
Salvatore 3 8:31 55-49 DAL: Nowitzki foul - shooting MIA maybe Avery+Dirk no likey…Dirk blocks shot, hits after the block?
Salvatore 3 5:15 63-54 DAL: Griffin foul - personal MIA maybe Away From Ball moving between Walker & Howard…Griffin some holding, Howard hit in face by Wade. Breen: "(Wade) got his side in on that one, that's for sure"
Crawford 3 1:35 71-63 DAL: Mbenga foul - offensive MIA maybe AFB on curl screen…third on play by Mbenga…not usually called, selective enforcement, but right in front of Crawford. Hubie "yeah there's no need for Mbenga to do that, just stay there".
Salvatore 4 7:16 77-74 DAL: Team turnover - 24 secs MIA maybe NO CALL: Dirk in corner behind 3-pt line, shaq clearly bumps him, crowds with body and then bumps again on dribble
Crawford 4 6:18 79-76 MIA: Payton foul - personal DAL dubious couldn't see well.. AFB coming round Dirk curl screen, kicked…if anything Dirk moving screen
Salvatore 4 5:06 79-78 MIA: O'Neal shot - hook miss MIA maybe NO CALL: Shaq just pushes Diop down backing in on post
DeRosa 4 3:08 86-82 DAL: Howard foul - personal MIA maybe minor bump, but pales to Shaq on Dirk in corner. Wade pushed off Harris before Howard contact.
Salvatore OT 2:42 95-97 DAL: Team rebound - off jump DAL maybe Breen: "Oh that's close, it looked like Wade touched it last" Hubie: "ah, that was an iffy, that was a coin toss" (after replay)
Salv./Craw. OT 1:15 98-97 MIA: Walker shot - jump miss DAL maybe NO CALL: Walker into paint, flop by Harris, but Harris moving
Salvatore OT 0:01 100-99 DAL: Nowitzki foul - shooting MIA v.dubious Hubie "now that was an incredible situation, mainly because he was able to keep his dribble…he almost goes down all right and now as he splits through he gets caught on the leg of Devin Harris"…Breen "they call the foul on Nowitzki"... Hubie "oh boy…ha ha ha ha! (loud laughter)." Potential off foul into terry, palming...touch foul called by Bennett at 3pt line, Joey underneath no call...

Now I don't mean this to be a "bash the ref" session since as I stated at the top, the NBA officials have very tough jobs, and it's one thing to make calls after watching the plays in slow motion several times, another to do it instantaneously as it happens. [It's also probably a good thing that no one is evaluating my work performance at this level of detail!] Still, it would be fun to have stats like these for all games, at which point you could really address the usual debates over whether stars get different treatment, whether the home crowd influences calls, and the like.

Alternative evaluations welcomed!

So that's my take on the officiating at the specific play level, but perhaps you saw it different? Send in your comments, including any disagreements with my judgement...with enough responses we could truly develop a confidence scale grading of the specific calls! How would you call it?

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