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As referees face ongoing image problem, a bigger battle looms

The referees can't say anything by rule, and their union doesn't say anything by choice, so when the media, fans and even the NBA criticize, as they did after the controversial non-call at the end of Game 3 in Dallas last weekend, the storm of protest is swallowed, the latest tombstone erected without response. Public perception vs. The Striped Ones: The rout continues.

It has been the case for years, only now the officials are back as a constant topic of discussion in a postseason doing just fine on drama without the near-nightly debates of flagrant fouls, technicals and other forms of jurisprudence. Tim Donaghy must be taping notes to rocks and throwing them over the prison wall to get word out about the Nuggets-Mavericks fix, all in the interest of being honest and protecting the integrity of the game. But this is a bad scene for the league and the refs.

It's worse because of the other timing issue. These playoffs are the final games on the contract between the NBA and the National Basketball Referees Association. No new deal is in place and neither side is commenting on whether one is forthcoming or if everyone should brace for replacement crews in the fall. The one bit of encouraging news is that this arrangement isn't nearly as complicated as negotiations with players on a new collective bargaining agreement and that, in theory, it could be knocked out in plenty of time even if talks don't start until after the season.

This is the end of the current pact, though, at the very moment that the refs and the league are living the textbook of what they don't want to have happen: NBA execs coming out after a game decision to publicly strike down a call -- yeah, the game officials just love that. But they're going to have to live with it, just as they will the possibility that disciplinary measures against referees will be made public, similar to fines and suspensions against players and coaches being announced. Neither side loves that one, actually, but it is a potential concession in what so far has been a weak attempt to follow through on the promise of greater transparency in their post-Donaghy world.

The sides will be trying to finalize a contract in the worst economic climate since the Depression and with the credibility of the refs and their bosses at league HQ probably somewhere south of Congress and strength of the dollar. Deciding between a block and a charge suddenly doesn't seem so hard. After a 2007-08 season that was hugely successful as a comeback from the scandal, with a lack of news by officials and a refreshing openness by the union and the NBA to humanize the process, the fates have put the refs back in the spotlight.

Some of the top decision makers -- the representatives at the Board of Governors meeting -- have taken to privately daring the refs to push hard in negotiations, a mocking with the awareness that the rank and file of the NBRA have no public support. Some referees have also expressed disappointment at the lack of response from union leaders in the face of criticisms, wanting chief strategist Lamell McMorris to help turn the perception. So far, nothing.

NFL officials and baseball umpires who miss calls blew it, but NBA refs who miss calls are on the take, says popular perception. Some existence. It has turned again in the worst way at the worst time, with an image problem that won't go away and a contract about to expire amid too much attention on their work.

Everything about the announcement was predictable, how the previously gutted Mullin was out as Warriors personnel boss and Larry Riley was in. Especially the Mullin-out part, a safe assumption since early in the season, and a foregone conclusion for at least a few months as his primary responsibility grew into not dripping blood on the carpet.

Officially, Mullin's contract will not be renewed after five seasons as executive vice president of basketball operations and he will leave when the current deal expires June 30. Unofficially, he isn't going anywhere. Mullin and Golden State are chained for the foreseeable future, maybe for years, what with his place in this little soap opera the Warriors had going while other organizations put energy into basketball.

It was a season of Mullin being publicly and obviously moved out by president Robert Rowell, of Don Nelson fighting the perception that he stabbed his former player/current boss in the back as part of a power grab, of Nelson saying he would never do such a thing, and of Mullin noticeably refusing to back Nellie and refute such claims. Good palace-intrigue stuff. And so Mullin will continue to be an obvious presence for as long as Nelson, Rowell and Riley remain, because Nelson won't escape the appearance and because Rowell won't dodge the responsibility of mishandling the situation and because Riley won't ever be as popular in the Bay Area. Mullin may soon work elsewhere, but he isn't going anywhere.

It's not hard to make the case that Mullin deserved to be fired. He wasted lottery picks (Ike Diogu, Patrick O'Bryant), made bad coaching hires (Mike Montgomery) and signed horrible free-agent deals and extensions (Adonal Foyle, Mike Dunleavy, Derek Fisher, Troy Murphy). But he also had major scores: Monta Ellis in the second round of the draft, Andris Biedrins in the lottery, trading for Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington, and rehiring Nelson in moves that turned the 2007 playoffs into an electric time. But Rowell, as the public voice of owner-in-the-shadows Chris Cohan, read the bloated contracts and Mullin's desire to let Ellis off with a stern talk after Ellis violated his contract by crashing a moped last summer as Mullin being too player-friendly and fiscally irresponsible, so it was down to deciding how to play out the last act and fire the popular hero.

Rather than doing it at the start of the season and letting Mullin exit with the level of respect he had earned, the Warriors played out the charade. Now they're saying he's still working through June 30. Whatever. It's not like his presence is going anywhere for a while anyway.

• Not merely ending their season with a face plant, the Hornets got their offseason off to a bad start at the same time as Tyson Chandler, the most likely big name to be traded, averaged all of 23.5 minutes and 5.3 rebounds in the opening-round loss to Denver. That would be the same Tyson Chandler on the books for $12.25 million next season and $13.15 million in '10-11 with one trade already rescinded by injury. He is still 7-foot-1 and 26 years old with a history of rebounding, making Chandler easier to toss overboard than Peja Stojakovic, who turns 32 in a few weeks and -- yikes -- is owed $13.39 million and $14.26 million over the next two seasons, but New Orleans will very much be in a buyers' market on this one.

"I think they're getting 60 cents on the dollar," one rival executive said after the first round. "The financial thing is so big. It's bigger than life. It should be easier to move him than that because he's a good player. But it's going to be real tough to get value for him."

• Cut through all the histrionics -- the bitter end to Game 3, Mark Cuban's wishing Kenyon Martin's mom a happy Mother's Day, the behavior of the Dallas crowd toward Nuggets family members in attendance, the behavior of Martin in response -- and the Mavericks have to be convinced they can play with Denver. That probably doesn't mean much in the series, with the Nuggets playing too well to cough up a 3-1 lead, but it could mean something in the summer as the Mavs decide their next steps.

The Mavs were one of the best teams the final month of the regular season, looked good in the first round and could easily envision being 2-2 in the conference semifinals even with Josh Howard slowed by injury, all of which may change the perspective that they need dramatic changes to remain a player in the West. And that could alter how far they are willing to go to re-sign Jason Kidd for starters, because a team that was considering major moves leading into the trade deadline has reason to build around the current core after all.

LeBron James' major improvement on defense now comes with proof. He moved from one vote for the first team and two for the second team in the league-wide poll of coaches for the 2008 All-Defensive team all the way to 22 and three, respectively, in '09 to finish with the most votes among forwards and third most at any position. James was the only player to climb into the first team after missing both the first and second units a year earlier, a much more credible indicator of his gains than finishing second in the media balloting for Defensive Player of the Year.

• The sidebar to the Kings' coaching search that gets serious as leading candidate Eddie Jordan interviews this week is that owners Joe and GavinMaloof have kept in contact with Reggie Theus since he was fired in December. That's unusual in most settings, and especially since people piled on after Theus lost the job, except that the Maloofs and Theus are all very personable and were friends before his 2007 hiring. It doesn't hurt that he came off as the sympathetic figure in the breakup and was vindicated as the Sacramento downfall only accelerated after the change.

• The 10 shots Orlando's Dwight Howard got in Tuesday's Game 5 loss at Boston -- and his 57 in five games -- is quite an indictment of the young big man, whether it be his inability to create more havoc, teammates not trusting him enough with the ball or coach Stan Van Gundy not directing action inside. Of course, this is nothing new for the Magic. Howard was third in attempts in the regular season, behind Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu, so it's not like the Magic run the offense through him anyway. But Boston is running out of big men, and therefore, is incredibly vulnerable to foul trouble. Howard, whose status as the game's best center is due to defense and rebounding, still could cripple the Celtics by getting Kendrick Perkins in foul trouble. If he gets the ball, that is.

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