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The Playcaller On FIBA!

The Playmaker returns with a really interesting article on his brother officials in FIBA.  Great Stuff!

There’s an NBA referee—let’s call him Alex--who likes to say that his teenage son could call NBA plays correctly if he could simply get into the right positions. He’s only being a little bit dramatic. His point is not that calling plays correctly is easy (it’s not). But getting good looks at plays is indeed a necessary and often-overlooked condition for making quality calls. Of course good judgment is also required, but too often fans and commentators see good judgment as the only element involved in good officiating. When NBC’s Olympic hoops play-by-play announcer Mike Breen sees a call that he strongly disagrees with, his first instinct is to attribute the miss to bad judgment or to some nefarious philosophical difference between FIBA referees and NBA/NCAA referees. After five pool -play games, the US Men’s games have generated plenty of fodder for discussion about the judgment of FIBA officials. But Breen et al would do well to consider the possibility that factors other than judgment explain most of the differences between American and FIBA officiating.

While they’ve mentioned it a couple of times during Team USA broadcasts, Breen and color analyst Doug Collins have mostly given short shrift to the importance of FIBA’s decision to go to three officials. Though the present system was used in the 2006 World Championships, this is the first Olympics to use it, and officials’ relative inexperience with it is showing. FIBA made the change to the three-whistle mechanic several years ago because they realized that the game had simply gotten too fast, and the players too quick and strong, for two referees to reasonably judge ten players simultaneously. In theory, increasing the number of eyeballs on the action should be a net positive. But as is clear from watching any of the men’s action, theory and practice don’t always square.

The biggest difference between two- and three-whistle officiating is the degree to which referees must be aware of their partners’ positioning. In the two-whistle system, if the ball is anywhere near you, it’s usually yours, within some pretty flexible guidelines. Because there’s so much work for each of two partners to do, the prevailing philosophy in two-whistle is, within reason, Call It If You See It. But when you add an extra person to the mix things get far more complicated. Based on the movement of the ball, officials in a half-court setting will “rotate” in order to maximize the opportunity to get all competitive match-ups refereed simultaneously.

I’ll save the mechanical details, but suffice it to say that both of the non-baseline officials must always be aware of what the baseline (lead) official is doing, because if that person “initiates a rotation,” i.e. moves from one side of the lane to the other, the other two must make quick and substantial movements. If either of the two outside officials (slot and trail) does not recognize the lead official starting to rotate, there is a high probability that one and possibly two officials are going to end up out of position, and that a play that requires a whistle may be missed simply because no one sees it clearly. When not executed well, the three-whistle system can leave more obvious plays uncalled than would a well-executed two-whistle system; and that is a lot of what we’re seeing in these Olympics.

An instructive case in point occurred in the US-Spain game at the 7:24 mark of the first quarter. Kobe slashed along the right baseline toward the hoop and was crunched at the rim by Reyes, but there was no call. This was not a case of cultural officiating relativism; no “They just don’t call that in international play.” Kobe made a very controlled drive and had every intention of laying the ball in had he not been so rudely interrupted. It was a foul by anybody’s standard. The problem was that due to the geometry (angles) and geography (location of players and officials) of the play, neither of the guys who should have made the call was in a good position to do so. The slot official had not noticed the lead official rotating, and was thus much farther away from the play than he should have been (he should have slid down the sideline several feet in order to create a better angle for himself). It’s almost certain that each of the three officials thought someone else would call the foul, and as a result no one did.

Let me be clear: developing skill and comfort with understanding exactly when to rotate, and maintaining constant awareness of partners’ positioning, are extremely difficult things to master. What makes this mental juggling act even more difficult is that officials must also have a good feel for the game in order to anticipate plays and avoid rotating into bad positions, which happens a lot when teams use skip-passes or rapidly move the ball around the perimeter. The only way to get better at this intricate dance is to practice using the three-whistle system in high-quality games, and to have those performances evaluated by experienced officials capable of giving meaningful critiques. Unfortunately, even that simple prescription is not without its problems.

For many FIBA referees, working a competitive USA Men’s game is like an all-state 7-on-7 quarterback starting his first college game, on the road, at night, against LSU. There is simply no way to prepare for the speed and quickness-- and in the case of LeBron and Wade, the power—on the floor without consistently refereeing it. That’s not to say that there aren’t great players playing great games in leagues other than the NBA. But between the immense individual talent and the particular style of play Coach K has implemented with Olympic Dream Team 5.0, we are getting games that are, even for the best Euro League officials, extremely difficult to referee. There’s more high-pressure defense in the half-court, there are many more transition plays, and there’s more and faster half-court ball-movement and penetration than they ever see on the Continent. And this leaves aside the challenge of managing a game between a US team hitting on all cylinders and an opponent whose pride has been wounded.

In moments when the officials seem totally clueless—as in the first quarter against Spain when the crew missed three straight easy plays involving LeBron—reasoned analysis absolutely requires this wider context. For instance, the first play in that sequence had Spain’s Mumbro trying to give a foul against James to stop a fast-break. The (no-) calling official probably figured that LeBron wasn’t going to be impeded enough to stop a lay-up, so he ruled that a play-on was appropriate. And at the moment that LeBron finished that break with a dunk, that decision may have appeared a quality one. But if that official had been more accustomed to refereeing the likes of LeBron he’d have recognized that you simply have to take that foul—not for that play, but for what inevitably follows.

About a minute later and on the heels of a James three, LeBron and Mumbro jawed with each other all the way down court, doubtless a carry-over from James’s frustration over Mumbro’s grabbing him on the earlier break (we’ve all seen that intentional-unintentional foul on James a thousand times in the NBA, and when the foul is called, James almost always shakes it right off). Once the chicken-fighting pair reached Spain’s offensive end, Mumbro tried to make a cut along the baseline and was called for an offensive foul, despite the fact that James had very obviously hooked/held him. The calling official on that play was not the same one who had no-called the prior mugging, but he had likely seen the first play and was afraid that if Mumbro got away with anything else there would have been real problems. So in his haste to manage the game effectively (a noble desire) he seems to have decided in advance that if there was guilt to assign, he’d assign it to Mumbro.

Things went from bad to worse a minute later when a tardy Rudy Fernandez, trying to deny LeBron’s cut to the basket, arrived just in time to be summarily steamrolled by the James Express. Though Fernandez clearly took the worst of this run-over, it was an obvious block situation, as he clearly didn’t establish any sort of a legal guarding position. But by then the crew seemed simply to be playing a game of every-other-James-play-goes-against-James. In the interest of justice LeBron would have done better to run over a stationary Fernandez rather than the actual, moving one. It’s important to note that this entire (awful) three-play sequence could and should have been avoided. That it was not, though, says much less about the crew’s collective judgment than it does about their actual experience (or lack thereof) refereeing players with suck quickness and power. So it’s unfair to officials and viewers alike for commentators not to make the relevant distinction between bad judgment and tough circumstances.

When a referee finds himself out of his depth, even the simplest plays become difficult to call. We blow the whistle at the most inexplicable times and point in the most curious of directions. This usually doesn’t reflect our judgment or general ability nearly as much as it does the state of our psyches in such moments. The key, to paraphrase Alex’s pith, is to get into good position so that we minimize the chances of unduly exposing those psyches. FIBA’s biggest challenge is thus two-fold: to help their officials do a more consistent job of getting good looks at plays; and to expose them to faster, more athletic competition that can help toughen their psyches. If such a plan could be effected, FIBA referees would be in better position to see the likes of LeBron and D-Wade for the super-humans they are, rather than the super-heroes they appear to be.

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