In a move aimed to provide greater transparency of its referee operations, the NBA announced Monday that the "points of emphasis" memos distributed to teams explaining rules interpretations will now be published online where they can be viewed by fans and media members.
Along with the announcement, the league published six memos sent to teams this season, on topics such as "Verticality," "Player Pushing Fouls," "Offensive Fouls" and "Delay of Game" rules. Each memo includes a summary of the rule at issue -- say, how exactly a defensive player can position his body while protecting the rim -- along with a series of video clips showing legal and illegal plays concerning the rule.
New commissioner Adam Silver -- who took over in February after David Stern's 30-year tenure -- has pledged a more open book with the league's inner workings.
"I know [transparency] is an issue that continues to come up," Silver told reporters at All-Star Weekend in New Orleans. "And whether it be transparency in terms of officiating, I mean, part of that transparency comes in replay, but the replay has to be balanced against the flow of the game. And that's something we're very focused on. I think transparency in how decisions are made at the league office, transparency in how we deal with our players and the players' association. So that's one of my guiding principles coming in."
This isn't the first peek behind the curtain when it comes to the league's officials and their review process. Under Stern, the NBA began publishing instructional videos regarding rule interpretations on its website. In addition, the league started issuing statements acknowledging incorrect calls by its referees in game-deciding situations. While those statements do not affect the result of the game, they do serve as an on-the-record, after-the-fact apology, which is a step in the right direction.
It goes without saying that millions more people would prefer to hit YouTube and watch a LeBron James alley-oop rather than sift through instructional video clips of Jonas Valanciunas illegally turning his body to protect the paint. Clearly, capturing a wide audience isn't the point here. Perhaps no aspect of the NBA generates as much frustration and debate as the day-to-day abilities of its referees, and the league is still only a few years removed from the ugly Tim Donaghy scandal. The NBA shouldn't have anything to hide about its officiating edicts, and this stance by Silver certainly sends the symbolic message that he teased during his All-Star Weekend comments.
In addition to the symbolism, there's a practical purpose at work here too. Some of the rules interpretations are convoluted -- and some change or evolve over time -- and the league is best served by cultivating a knowledgeable media.
"We've seen some stuff that wasn't exactly right that's been printed about certain things, so our feeling was that by sending it out to the media that maybe we'll help educate in some cases, but also so everybody can see exactly what we're doing," NBA president of basketball operations Rod Thorn told the Associated Press. "We don't want anybody to think, 'What the heck are these guys doing, or what are they telling people to do,' like it's some secret society up here. It isn't."
Every year, it seems, there is a point of emphasis that generates a distracting amount of discussion. This year, it was the league's tight enforcement of delay-of-game calls during the preseason, which resulted in lots of warnings and technical fouls to players who touched the basketball after making a shot. The referees, as they always do, conducted informal presentations with media members around the league, but that didn't prevent widespread confusion over the strict enforcement of a seemingly innocuous action. Perhaps the release of such information online, where it can be more easily written about and presented by media members and consumed by fans, will serve a preventative purpose.
The status quo has defined Silver's tenure so far. Part of the reason the Stern-to-Silver transition of power was so seamless, one might argue, is because so little has changed. This new action, then, becomes the first building block for the development of Silver's reputation and direction. It's a savvy, popular move, and the media and fans are likely to embrace the concept much like Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has hailed Silver's improved communication and more intensive handling of the league's officials.
"I think he's taken some great steps on the officiating," Cuban said, according to the AP. "There's been more changes in 15 days or whatever it is than I saw in 14 years. So I like what he's doing there."
This is a all a good start. Here are three other key areas in need of improvement that should be next on Silver's docket.
1) Take a stand on the "flopping" issue
The NBA is in a weird gray area with its anti-flopping program. For the second consecutive year, the enforcement of the flopping rules has waned as the regular season winds down. In fact, zero flop warnings and fines have been handed out over the last 25 days! Of course, the penalties will return come playoff time, when the bright lights are back on.
Stern has said that he didn't believe the fine amounts were sufficient to meaningfully curb player behavior. Where does Silver stand? Is it actually working? Does he believe the system of enforcement needs more credibility or is the whole thing a waste of time? The program has had two years to play out, allowing the decision-makers to collect data on player behavior and feedback from any and all interested parties. It's time for an improved version 2.0 or it's time for this thing to go away.
2) Implement off-site video-review system
Silver and Stern have hinted in the past that the league will implement off-site video review for questionable calls during games. For someone who has made embracing technology a key tenet, Silver has no excuse to delay on this one. Let's get a video review command center rolling for the 2014-15 season.
The current process -- with the tiny monitors and referees squinting at the screen -- is the NBA's version of a rotary phone. Stationed at the video review command center should be a former official who can be patched into the relevant television broadcast or broadcasts to explain the decision in a clear, succinct and unbiased (!) manner. Taking that step should help standardize the interpretations of the calls, which is big, while also helping to standardize the communication of those interpretations, which is sometimes just as important. The league should work to reduce -- when possible -- situations that have the potential to put local broadcasting crews in a potential conflict of interest, where the "right call" isn't the call that would help their particular team.
3) Clearly explain rationale for fines and suspensions
The NBA announces fines and suspensions for flagrant fouls, fights on the court and off-court issues like failed drug tests and arrests, among other possible infractions. The announcements include a bare-bones description of the infraction along with video of the incident if applicable, which can be very helpful for media members who need to tell the story. The "What" part of the sanctions are thoroughly covered. Less clear, in many cases, is the "Why."
The league exercises discretion in assessing fines, although first-time offenders who are guilty of the same infraction usually receive the same penalty. In a perfect world, the NBA would announce that, say, J.R. Smith has been fined for unsportsmanlike conduct, while also including a detailed summary of the thought process behind the specific penalty. Was this a repeat offense? Was this clearly against the best interests of the game? Was this a situation where a hard precedent needed to be established?
Making the league's thinking crystal clear in such matters -- up front -- would help clear up confusion that results from seemingly inconsistent punishments and/or unprecedented situations (Gregg Popovich's strategic resting, Roy Hibbert's homophobic comment, Jason Kidd's soda-spilling stunt, etc.) that can turn into public-relations nightmares. Stern's approach to the "Why?" question behind fines and suspensions generally seemed to be, "Because I said so." Silver has the opportunity to supply a more constructive answer.