Kevin Durant’s criticism exposes NBA’s officiating problem

The Warriors-Knicks game provided us with the latest salvo in an increasingly heated back-and-forth between the NBA’s players and its referees. Kevin Durant was thrown out of the game with a second technical foul late in the fourth quarter. It was an odd one, issued by referee James Williams as Durant yelled at a different official, Brett Nansel, about a missed foul call.

While Durant was probably wrong about his gripe with Nansel, I think he’s right about his gripe with Williams, who he spoke about in fine-worthy terms after the game. According to KD, after a missed call in the first half, “I told him he was wrong, and he went into halftime probably with an attitude. So the second half, his whole thing is like he’s trying to get me. … He was searching for me. He was looking to try to tech me up to get me back because he’s still in his feelings from the first half. That’s what’s been going on around the league the whole year. A bunch of that.”

To his credit, he also acknowledged his own role in the kerfuffle, and admitted he has to try to stay cool. But his broader complaint resonates with what many players have said across the league about referees this season: from Carmelo Anthony — “The dialogue and communication and the relationship the players and officials [had] when I first came in and from now is a lot different;” to Green — “Too many personal things going on. Too much me against you. It just don’t work that way.”

Notably, these are not complaints about missed fouls or a slow whistle on three-in-the-key. Players are saying — and attentive observers can plainly see — that NBA refs (many of whom are part of a new, young crop of officials in the wake of some big-time retirements) are working with rabbit ears and letting their personal feelings get involved in adjudicating the game. It’s about respect, not reach-ins.

The job of referee is a difficult and important one, and the most important function of any official is to maintain impartiality and objectivity. That means that no matter how much your personal feelings may be hurt or ignored, you must make your judgments purely based on the rules. This was something that the last generation of veteran referees seemed to understand, while many of the new ones do not.

There is a sense among some that these players are lucky not to have tough-minded, hard-edged guys Steve Javie or Danny Crawford at the whistle, because they wouldn’t stand for this nonsense. I strongly disagree — those guys, tough as they may have been in certain ways, were capable of and willing to have a reasonable, adult conversation with players, and they worked hard to keep their personal feelings out of it. Joey Crawford, the grizzliest of the old codgers, famously let his feelings get in the way and was benched and sent to therapy for it.

The league and its boosters would have you believe that this generation of players complains too much and never accepts fault on foul calls, and that the young refs are every bit as good as their predecessors, but don’t buy it. Instead of penalizing those willing to vocalize the problem, they should be working to convince referees that remaining objective in a heated contest is the very basis of their job.

***

Durant changed his tone on Wednesday, when he met with reporters after practice.

“I looked at the plays and I was being an asshole last night, I was being a jerk. That one foul at the end wasn’t a foul, I shouldn’t have slammed the ball down like I did. I can go back and say I was being a jerk last night and I deserve whatever the league is going to throw at me. I wish I had handled that better, obviously. But that was kind of heat of the moment for me. I could be better. It was a great learning experience for me though.”

He said his frustration stemmed to an early carry call.

“I work on that move. I was like, man, this is my move. I felt like I made a good move and he called a carry. That’s one of those calls you don’t get all the time. It irritated me I guess. But I can’t react like that, I wish I could apologize to James because that was definitely out of my character.”

Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear him on the Bay Area sports radio station 95.7 the Game, usually on weekends. You can listen to his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. You can find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.

Jacob C. Palmer contributed to this report.

Matt Kolsky
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