Monday, July 23, 2007

Do you really care about the NBA referee? 

I highly recommend reading David Berri's post on whether the referee scandal in the NBA is going to bring down the league. After reviewing the effects of the Black Sox scandal on league attendance and the fact that the NBA has had very high attendance, he doesn't think the Donaghy Debacle going to matter that much.
That the NBA is setting attendance records should be surprising to the �doomsday� voices in the media. Long before the referee scandal broke academic research had already questioned the integrity of the NBA�s contests. Beck Taylor and Justin Trogdon published research in the Journal of Labor Economics in
detailing how NBA teams were systematically losing to enhance the team�s draft position. The research of Joe Price and Justin Wolfers suggested that the calls NBA referees made were influenced by the race of the player.

The research of Taylor and Trogdon �to the best of my knowledge � has never been addressed by the NBA. The NBA did commission a study to contradict the Price-Wolfers story. Initially it was reported that the NBA�s study refuted the Price-Wolfers research. Later on, though, it was revealed that the NBA�s results could be interpreted as being consistent with the Price-Wolfers study.

What has been the impact of all this research questioning the integrity of the NBA? My sense is nothing has happened. The NBA either ignores it or dismisses its claims.

And why does the NBA take this action? The NBA is not in the �truth� business. The NBA is in the �entertainment� business. Because providing entertainment is the actual game the NBA is playing, these stories � which clearly question the integrity of the game � are swept under the rug.

And these efforts are largely successful. Again, the NBA set an attendance record in 2004-05. This was followed by another record in 2005-06 and 2006-07. Taylor and Trogdon have found evidence that the NBA�s losers were not doing their best to win games since the 1980s. But like the Black Sox scandal, the NBA�s integrity problems have had no apparent impact on consumer demand.
Bill Simmons disagrees.
If you're a diehard NBA fan, you're horrified but strangely hopeful, because we needed a tipping point to change a stagnant league that was headed in the wrong direction ... and maybe this was it.

Look, we already knew the officiating needed to be improved. We knew the NBA needed to solve the problem of nonplayoff teams tanking down the stretch and shelving stars who could have played (and yet continuing to charge fans full price for these games). We knew the NBA needed to solve a lottery system that hasn't quite worked for 20 years. We knew the NBA needed to solve a screwed-up playoff system that only works when the conferences are perfectly balanced, and more importantly, we knew the league needed to start taking some chances. This is a league that hasn't swung for the fences with a major change since 1979, when it brought in the 3-point line from the old ABA. For nearly three decades, it has been making cosmetic changes here and there -- the draft lottery, zone defenses, hand-checks, the charging semicircle, improved rating systems for officials, flagrant fouls, the leaving-the-bench rule, the dress code -- while continually ignoring the bigger picture.

What's the big picture? Well, the regular season is effectively meaningless. Contenders can only improve to a point because of the luxury tax, so everyone searches for that same half-assed "we want to contend for a title, but we don't want to lose $20 million this season" competitive zone that leads to deals like Kurt Thomas and two first-round picks for a second-round pick and a 2006 trade deadline in which the biggest move involved Anthony Johnson. Fan interest peaks at three points -- at the start of the season, at the start of the first round of the playoffs, and right before the draft -- and dips at every other point. For seven of the past 10 seasons, the best two teams in the league played before the Finals -- which seems so incredibly shortsighted, I can't even begin to fathom how it's allowed to continue. And worst of all, when an NBA official was accused of fixing games, the prevailing reaction was "Which one?"

So yeah, they could make a movie about Tim Donaghy's story. And they probably will. Let's just hope we're not watching a documentary about the death of the NBA some day, because we're headed that way. Wake up, fellas. Rome is burning.
He calls this the Zapruder film of the Tim Donaghy Debacle.

Will any of this matter? There's more to learn. A Q&A with gambler Brandon Lang (from Two for the Money fame) suggests how Donaghy could do it, and wonders why it hasn't happened in refereeing before. Worth noting: Yes, a referee could shave the line, but better might be to shave on the total points. Lang suggests getting a team to the penalty (for free throws) would be better if you were trying to shave a game to the over. Steve Levitt suggests that statistical investigation is already happening.

According to latest reports, Donaghy might not make it to tell his tale.

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