Questionable officiating — or at least the perception of it — has taken center stage in the opening three weeks of the NBA season.
From taunting technical fouls to the rare post-adjudication to a flagrant foul, notable players have been tagged and ejected from competitive, emotional games. These instances, some fans and observers believe, didn’t meet the standard for punitive action.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Draymond Green and Anthony Edwards in the last week alone have been penalized. Antetokounmpo and Green were actually ejected from their respective games for receiving a second technical foul.
Antetokounmpo’s second technical foul occurred early in the third quarter of last Wednesday’s Milwaukee game against Detroit, following a fast break dunk over Isaiah Stewart. Landing from his dunk happened right in Stewart’s face and the two-time MVP stared — or more so, glanced in Stewart’s direction before turning and running downcourt.
Before he knew it, he was hit with a taunting technical foul by the trail official at the 3-point line in front of the Bucks’ bench, resulting in his ejection. The official standing underneath the rim in closer proximity, not even feet away from Antetokounmpo and Stewart, didn’t see fit to blow his whistle.
NBA head of referee development and training Monty McCutchen spoke to Yahoo Sports on Monday afternoon about the calls and the “fine line” officials are walking. One thing is desperately clear from the league’s perspective: It is afraid of the prospect of a fight breaking out if a game slips out of control.
So it appears officials are giving out premature technical fouls to maintain order.
“When you start talking about taunting, there’s a fine balance and I think you’re fair to hold us accountable to what you believe that is,” McCutchen told Yahoo Sports. “What we do know historically, is that taunting gone unchecked leads to altercations. It leads to an increase in physicality. It leads to more, to put it kindly, passionate play.
“Finding the right balance of what is and isn’t a good technical foul and taunting is something that will continue to calibrate with the competition committee.”
You can’t tell players to embrace emotion during the regular season and do this. Maybe the ref didn’t realize Giannis had a tech. Who cares. Ejections should be reviewed pic.twitter.com/qhY7ULzfXW
— Vincent Goodwill (@VinceGoodwill) November 9, 2023
Some would say the league is implementing soft treatment and not trusting players on conducting themselves — hence why a large segment of fans loved previous eras where the game was more physical and occasionally, crossed over into fighting.
The NBA is walking an even finer line when it comes to stars. For decades, it absorbed criticism for its perceived star treatment from officials, making sure the upper echelon of players had more latitude on either favorable treatment or looking the other way when stars complained about fouls.
“We are often accused of not handling the status of a player in a similar way. And yet when we do, it is often an outcry of is that enough,” McCutchen told Yahoo Sports. “We do not wish to be so onerous and application of rules that we don’t allow for passionate play. And yet at the same time, I think we can all recognize there is a line that we don’t wish to be crossed on a regular basis.”
McCutchen acknowledges the league wants to apply consistency and equitable treatment to all players when it comes to that standard. However, the league has put initiatives in place to gin up more competitive play, particularly early in the season, to incentivize stars to get on the floor and stay on the floor.
The Player Participation Policy is aimed right at the stars after years of load managing run amok, which was met with universal approval from the fans. Those same fans, however, will rightfully gripe at a two-time MVP being ejected from a game under the guise of a preventative measure being taken.
It’s hard to justify asking fans to pay top dollar for tickets or tuning into games to see a player like Antetokounmpo ejected when nothing over the top occurred. When it was suggested a happy medium be found, such as delay of game, McCutchen politely dismissed it, saying it would confirm the outside criticisms of star treatment — or even internally within the game.
“If you’re the opponent, to sit there and say he delayed the game, that wouldn’t fly,” McCutchen told Yahoo Sports. “And I think that it would breed a certain mentality that we were doing that to, quote unquote, save a subset of our players.”
During Golden State’s game Saturday, it was a surprising case of a review being triggered well after the play in question. Green struck Cleveland’s Donovan Mitchell in the back of the head on a play, but it wasn’t seen in real time. Subsequently, Mitchell fouled Green on the way down and a replay was triggered for Mitchell to be assessed a flagrant foul.
Because of that, the officials could go back and look at the sequence in its entirety. Green was ejected upon review.
— Ball Don’t Lie (@Balldontlie) November 12, 2023
“We either see something or we don’t see something,” McCutchen told Yahoo Sports. “But when we’re at replay and we see something that directly leads to a retaliatory act, to not be able to adjudicate that properly, sort of escapes the good boundaries of what fairness should look like.”
Warriors head coach Steve Kerr defended Green, asking somewhat sarcastically how far back could officials go. McCutchen said it’s in response to realizing the second person gets caught but not the instigator.
Green, of course, has been a habitual line-stepper through the years so it’s not hard to imagine the reputation he’s earned — a reputation that has both made him one of the league’s most competitive culture setters and also, someone who won’t always get the benefit of the doubt.
Several years ago, the NBA put mechanisms in place to go back to immediate possessions, “if two acts were closely tied together.”
“Now that leads to a certain amount of complexity,” McCutchen told Yahoo Sports. “You can’t just call something a foul or a flagrant foul and then start to try to unpack that.
“It cannot fall under the idea of marginal or incidental and that most certainly was the case here. That the only way to penalize it and get back to the game that has occurred since then, is with a dead ball unsportsmanlike technical foul.”
McCutchen said, with emphasis, the application of the rule in the moment, “was handled perfectly.”
In Edwards’ case, it was more than a stare. Against the Warriors on Sunday night, Edwards drove and dunked on Golden State’s Dario Šarić, then backpedaled before being hit with a taunting technical. Now, Edwards wasn’t ejected and it certainly feels a bit hypocritical considering that type of spectacular play will be promoted all over the internet and social media, while being penalized in real time.
“We have to know the full picture. And so it’s not always what something appears to be,” McCutchen told Yahoo Sports. “In some instances, it is just a stare, but in other instances leaguewide, it is a stare along with certain verbiage that takes it to a different level.
“We have to trust the referees as a stakeholder, that they’re not out there capriciously making wild decisions. Now that doesn’t mean that they’ve made perfect decisions.”
In the game broadcast, one could clearly hear Edwards and Green going back and forth after Green fouled Edwards to prevent a fast break basket, albeit without a technical foul. It was sometime after the Edwards technical, perhaps with the officials knowing even a double technical would result in Edwards being ejected.
Draymond and Ant exchanging words 👀 pic.twitter.com/c2k52dADlN
— Warriors on NBCS (@NBCSWarriors) November 13, 2023
In eras past, some officials would gather team captains together or even players who were getting a little mouthy to tell them to cool it before assessing anything officially. Now, it seems they’re moving more by the book to prevent any appearances of favorable treatment.
Still, though, it gives the impression players don’t know how far to go without competitiveness resorting to a physical altercation. McCutchen said the competition committee meets with more regularity given its emphasis on flopping penalties, so he’ll be open to hearing if any teams have complaints on how the taunting technicals are doled out.
Legislating good, old-fashioned competitiveness and a little trash talk out of the game doesn’t seem like it’s for the greater good, though.
“I think it’s possible to be both passionate and poised,” McCutchen told Yahoo Sports. “And our respect for the game, technical fouls are designed to delineate between passion and a lack of focus to the work.
“I do think that that passion can very quickly turn to a flooding of potential emotions. If we do not have guardrails and boundaries and standards on how the passion of our type-A personality coaches, referees and players interact with one another.”