Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Sorry, Mr. Stern, I Don't HAVE $250,000

A quarter of a million bucks is probably close to the figure Mark Cuban had budgeted for the Dallas Mavericks' victory celebration, so the fine leveled for his criticism of the officials after Game 5 of the NBA Finals won't be much a setback for the volatile billionaire.

NBA commissioner David Stern handed out that harsh penalty not to shut Cuban up (Stern knows that to be a futile endeavor), but to prevent Cuban's hotheaded charge that the refs were slanting all their calls towards the Heat on league orders from gaining wider currency. Too late.
Conspiracy theories abound among basketball fans quieter than Cuban. One must expect that reaction from followers of a game whose college edition has had more game-fixing scandals than any other, not to mention an embarrassing number of its own refs nailed for tax
evasion in the not too distant past.

The Oliver Stones in hoopland are even now scanning the box score of Miami's 95-92 title-clinching win in Game Six and noting the following statistical anomaly. Heat guard and series MVP Dwyane Wade had 21 free throw attempts last night. The entire Mavericks team had only 23.

I love a good conspiracy. I also need a job, and it'd be a pleasure to offer my services to Cuban as his personal gumshoe on the zebra case. Unfortunately, the Game Six foul shot discrepancy, and the fact all the officiating controversies in the series centered on Wade prove that the calls that so infuriated Cuban were NBA business as usual, or at least as far back as I can remember (first game seen:1960 All-Star Game).

It's my guess Stern doesn't dislike Cuban as much as the Mavs' owner enjoys thinking. Yes, the commissioner wishes Cuban was quieter (he's got company there). But the quality Stern most likes in an owner is the ability to make money with his team. This Cuban does quite well thank you. The commissioner is also a shrewd enough marketer to see the benefits of having a designated "bad boy rebel" owner as a foil to his button-down dictatorship.

Refs may have cheated the government, but I'd be shocked if any of them conspired to cheat the NBA's paying customers. It's not in their nature, for reasons that have nothing to do with ethics. Pro basketball officials are skilled athletes of normal size who monitor the play of superskilled athletes who're also the world's largest athletes. To do this, refs need and have egos many times the size of the average NBA star's. The senior officials who work the Finals have egos 1000s of times bigger than Cuban's. Joey Crawford will miss a call now and again, or take malicious pleasure in whacking someone with a T, but do those things because some suit at the league told him to? Never.

The rules these little Caesars (that phrase has nothing to do with their personalities. There's no nicer guy than Dick Bavetta. It's a job description) enforce in split-nanosecond decisions are so vague as to make consistency almost impossible. Perhaps if King Solomon, James Madison, and Judge Wapner worked a game they could come up with a standardized block/charge call, but I doubt it.

Refs, however, do have a common frailty, one they share with all humanity. If they see something incorrectly, it's because they're seeing not what they want to see, but what they expect to see. This has led to the following rules of NBA officiating. They were in force in this year's Finals, at the 1957 Finals, and all the Finals in between.

1. Stars get more favorable calls than non-stars. In case of tie, decision goes to the player with the higher salary.

2. Players attempting to instigate and control action get more calls than players reacting to action. Ever wonder how Dennis Rodman got all those offensive rebounds without pushing people? He didn't. As the aggressor, he was rewarded. The big men who couldn't block Rodman out were punished for their passivity.

3. As a result of rules 1 and 2, no type of NBA player gets more trips to the foul line than a high-scoring guard who drives to the hoop on a regular basis. Dwyane Wade is the current prototype for that type of player.

Wade got a lot of calls. But so did Michael Jordan before him. Allen Iverson gets a lot of calls, and George Gervin got a lot of calls, and Oscar Robertson got an enormous amount of calls for this era. Jerry West, Isiah Thomas, the list goes on and on. By contrast, equally gifted players who weren't such consistent drivers didn't get their share of calls. Hal Greer's stop and pop jumper at the foul line got him to the Hall of Fame, but without benefit of that many free throws. No one bitched longer and more consistently to officials about non-calls than did Rick Barry. He often had a point.

The Mavericks' best player, Dirk Nowitzki, gets his fair share of foul shots, more than his share, the Spurs might say. He also doesn't miss many. He was a perfect 8 for 8 in Game Six. That's not many attempts for a 7-foot forward in the midst of a 29-point, 15-rebound performance.

By Games 5 and 6, Nowitzki wasn't taking the ball inside for shots too often. Whether this was due to Miami's defense or Dallas' game plan I cannot say. In Game Six, Nowtizki often passed to other Mavs with wide-open looks at the basket. That's sound strategy, unless as happens, the guys you're passing to, Jason Terry, Josh Howard, and Jerry Stackhouse, are shooting a combined 17 for 54 from the floor.

There's Cuban's conspiracy. In a game the Mavs couldn't lose, their second, third, and fourth-most important players couldn't roll a marble into a manhole even if standing on a grassy knoll.


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