NBA basketball is the most difficult team sport in the world to officiate. Every game has its tough elements, but no other combines so many responsibilities for such a small number of officials. Three NBA referees are tasked with tracking 10 players on a relatively small playing surface (given their average size and speed), players who could commit an infraction anytime they handle the ball or make contact with another player, things that happen many times per possession. They have to do so while keeping track of the shot clock and game clock, and more importantly several invisible clocks that may or may not tick within every single trip up and down the court – eight seconds in backcourt, three seconds in the key, etc.
The cherry on top is the relative ambiguity of a number of NBA (and really, all basketball) rules; no other game contains as many vague or simply incoherent guidelines that force officials to make split-second decisions based on rules that aren’t truly defined in a specific manner. The term “judgment call” is nearly an every-possession occurrence at the highest levels of basketball. In many cases, the best we can ask for is simply consistency in approach from individual referees.
Not surprisingly, what results is a sport that’s simply called badly sometimes. It’s just not realistic for a normal human brain to remain completely consistent through all that, especially when it’s frankly impossible for one of the three officials on the court to get a perfect view of every play being made by some of the fastest and most physical athletes in the world. Human error is a part of the game, and it’s only getting tougher every year as guys get quicker, more explosive and, most importantly, more savvy to diversionary tactics.
Keeping all of the above in mind, a question: Do the Jazz have a fouling problem?
By the rawest of measures, the answer would appear to be yes. Utah is committing 23.3 fouls per-48-minutes1, most in the NBA to this point and four fouls more than they averaged last season. More tellingly, they’re only drawing an average of 19.5 personals themselves, just 23rd in the league. No team sports a larger gap between the number of fouls they’ve committed and the number they’ve drawn.
“We move a lot – it’s one of the things that we want to do, we want to get ball movement and man movement,” coach Quin Snyder said when asked about the team’s difficulty with whistles so far this year. “People want to not let us move, and that’s something we have to be prepared for mentally… If we need to adjust to it, we need to adjust to it.
“Frankly, right now we need to adjust to it further.”
Certain types of fouls in particular are eating at the Jazz. As of Monday, they had committed the second-most charges in the league2 despite playing fewer games than nearly every other team, a worrying sign both for their foul situation and their offense in general.
An even bigger issue has been loose-ball fouls – or in the Jazz’s case, almost exclusively fouls while contesting rebounds. The Jazz finished with the second-fewest loose-ball fouls in the NBA last season in their first year under Snyder3, a major accomplishment for a team who pursued (and collected) an elite percentage of available boards4. This year, though, despite similarly high chase and win rates on the glass, the Jazz are up to ninth-most loose-ball fouls – whether legitimate or not, contact on rebounds has been killing them. Trevor Booker has more loose-ball fouls on his own than the entire Washington Wizards team.
Snyder’s full comments on the issue, coming on the heels of a game in Dallas where both he and several players were visibly frustrated with the officials, mixed his usual spot-on analysis with a bit of veiled coach-speak. Nowhere in nearly a 90-second response5 did he even utter the words “referee” or “foul.” And yet, as he discussed his young group continuing to earn their stripes, it was unmistakably clear that in this case he was referring to building a reputation with officials – one the Jazz don’t have yet.
“I think sometimes that’s where our youth comes in,” he said. “For us to win, we have to be that much better and that much tougher in order to gain, I think, the level of respect that is required. And respect comes from performance, so we have to perform… We’re in a weird spot right now, because people are ready for us, they’re prepared for us, we’re not sneaking up on anybody, we’ve become relevant [to] some degree – but we’re not really in the mix yet, in my opinion. In order to become in the mix, those next steps are hard, and we’ve got to take them.”
True to form, Snyder and his players (a couple of whom echoed his sentiments) are only focusing on the elements they can control6. While it’s not inherently fair that the Jazz should more often draw the short end of the stick on a close whistle due to relative inexperience and lack of rapport with veteran officials, it’s simply a reality of NBA basketball.
The word of the day for many in this situation might be “caution,” but that’s another that’s been conspicuously absent from the team’s response to questions about it – quite the opposite, in fact. If anything, they have to impose themselves physically to an even larger degree. Opponents aren’t giving them that respect yet, either.
“It’s clear when we play some teams, it’s part of the game plan – there’s no way to mistake it,” he said. “If those are the teams that we’re playing, then we have to be prepared mentally to be equally physical, and sometimes we’re not used to doing that.”
“I think we need to be more physical, maybe earn that respect from the refs,” said Rudy Gobert. “We know we’re a young team, we’re not expecting [anything]. We’ve just got to play harder.”
The team’s loss in Cleveland a couple weeks ago was a perfect example. The Jazz came out on the losing end despite what remains perhaps their best start-to-finish effort of the year, and while a late-game collapse was (understandably) labeled the main culprit, fouls were an understated accomplice. Utah committed 35 personal fouls that night – the single highest total any team has been guilty of in a single game this year7. Meanwhile, a savvier opponent in the Cavs committed just 21 personals.
Of course, many Jazz fans are reading this and waiting for the other shoe to drop. Even from the most objective point of view, a few of their games this year have appeared more one-sided than even everything discussed herein could account for. Friday’s loss to Dallas seemed particularly egregious, if Twitter consensus is a good judge at least. One can see how it’s becoming difficult for Jazz fans to stomach plays like these being called loose-ball fouls…
…while plays like these just minutes prior go totally unnoticed despite a referee looking straight at them from three feet away:
In the end, though, this isn’t something anyone can control. The same things that make NBA refereeing so difficult are the things that make drawing the short straw on a series of calls so irritating. Frustration spills out from time to time – whether it be a Favors tech against Dallas or one of Gobert’s now well-known bits of Twitter sarcasm. That’s been the limit of it until now, to their credit.
“We emphasize our players handling the refs with respect, and I think we’re one of the better teams in the league in not reacting to calls,” said Snyder. “When I see other teams, by comparison I think we’re very respectful of referees and calls. And I’m glad for that.”
Hopefully, with time the calls will start to come. They’ll stay the course until then; like any other element of a Snyder-coached team, the process will come first. The internal response to these negative situations will be the same as any other obstacle the Jazz face as a group – Trevor Booker put it best.
“When things aren’t going our way, we’ve just gotta come together.”