Celtics disproportionately impacted by poor refereeing

We've all seen bad officiating in the NBA — where the crew in charge doesn't seem to know what it's doing, where fouls appear to be called randomly, traveling calls are obviously wrong (per video), and phantom ticky-tack whistles on one end are matched by no-calls for outright muggings on the other — and then vice versa. When that happens in a game, BOTH teams suffer — because despite what fans often believe, bad refs are equal opportunity abusers. They mess things up all over the place.

Conventional wisdom has it that the mistakes refs make tend to even out over the course of a game. Therefore, it is thought that those mistakes are not a big deal. (Btw -- is that any way to run a pro sports league? A subject for another time.) The unhappy truth is more complicated than it seems.

Let's examine a game where the refs are clearly bad. It's filled with excessive foul calls, many of which are whistled for no good reason, plus too many other mistakes to count (no-calls on egregious on-court muggings, travel calls/non-calls, goaltending, out-of-bounds, etc.). Note: The Celtics recently had a game similar to this vs. Indiana.

Now, it's true that referee mistakes tend to even out over time, so that each side in a full game often gets roughly the same number of bad calls that help or hinder its cause.But that does NOT mean that the IMPACT of bad refereeing is roughly equal for all teams involved. The truth is that one team often gets the short end of the bad-ref stick — even though the number of bad calls per side is approximately equal. How does that work?
  • There are two broad ways in which bad officiating impacts teams. One is the obvious direct impact of the refs' mistakes. The other, much less obvious effect, relates to how styles of play are impacted.
  • The aspect of the game most severely affected by bad refereeing is defense. It becomes very difficult to play tough, aggressive defense when the refs are on one of their rampages. Bad refs whistle everything that LOOKS like a foul. They whistle every flop they see too. And as always, most fouls are called on defenders. I.e., bad officiating typically favors offense over defense.
  • Most observers agree that the Celtics' main weapon in any given game these days is their defense. It is not for no reason that they got to be the 4th/5th best D in the land. Defense is how the Cs win games. Note: this has been going on since last season — because that's how Brad Stevens wants it. (Correctly so, btw. Good D is the hardest aspect of the game to imbue into young players. And the most important.)
  • In contrast to their ~elite-level D, the Cs' offense is currently still struggling to improve. It sits today at #21 in the league.
  • Therefore, when defense is inhibited in a game by out-of-control and/or talentless refs — the Celtics are more likely to suffer than their opponents, because the Celtics DEPEND on their aggressive defense more than just about any team in the league. They do not have the offensive horses to win on that side of the court. (Heck, the Celts get their best offense FROM their defense — when they're allowed to play D, that is.)
  • As noted, we recently witnessed a case in point of all this in the Celtics-Pacers game (Nov 11). The refs were awful. The bad calls basically evened out. Both defenses were variably inhibited, as the refs were not biased, just incompetent. But the Celtics are the ones who expect to win games with their defense — and were therefore impacted the most. The Cs rely on their D so much because they can't rely on their O, because their O sucks, most of the time. (Cs' offense was especially bad against IND. With a ridiculous Offensive Rating for the game of just 92.5 – equivalent to #30 in the league – the O was monumentally sucky.)
  • There is no NBA team that comes to mind that depends more on its defense than the Celtics do.
  • Occasional bad refereeing is part of the NBA game that teams must plan for. When the refs go south on a great team, it will dial back its D as necessary, and focus more on the offensive end. But if a team only has great D, but no reliable O to draw on — well, then they're the Celtics — and they will probably lose.
  • NBA champions have to be great on both ends of the court. When a clueless crew of refs takes much of the defense away — great teams find ways to win that the Cs currently cannot.
Danny: as you well know, the Cs need to upgrade their O. Get on it, buddy.
P.S. This is not to imply that the Celtics lost to the Pacers "because of" the refs. That is way too simplistic. The point here relates only to the question of how different teams are affected by poor officiating, assuming the bad calls are evenly distributed. It should be possible to discuss the (highly) variable competence level of NBA officials, and the impact they have on teams, without being accused of "making excuses." Note: this article was originally outlined weeks before the recent Cs-Pacers game.

Photo: Brian Babineau/NBAE

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