Now that the 2008 NBA Season has concluded, the remaining topics left to discuss are free agents, trades, and rumors all pertaining to next season. Before that begins, let’s revisit a controversial topic from the NBA’s recent history. Last summer, NBA referee Tom Donaghy came under investigation by the FBI for allegedly point shaving and altering the outcome of NBA games in which he refereed. During the last year, there has been considerable evidence gathered that shows the scores of the games he refereed to be consistent with point shaving. In addition, Donaghy has confessed to the accusation and provided the FBI with many details about his exploits. In one of Donaghy’s statements to the FBI, he claimed that the NBA “fixed” an important playoff game by appointing “company men” to officiate the game. The game in question was Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings. Next to this game, the next most controversially officiated game in recent history occurred in the 2006 NBA Finals between the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat. Let’s take an in-depth look at both games in question.
2002 WCF Game 6 – The Kings defeated the Lakers in Game 5 to establish a 3-2 series lead heading back to Los Angeles for Game 6. The Lakers ended up sending the series back to Sacramento behind a 106-102 victory. The controversy exists in a 27-9 advantage in free throws for the Lakers in the hotly contested 4th quarter. Conspiracy theorists believe that the NBA fixed the game in order to extend the series to seven games. Reasons for the fix are stated to be primarily financially motivated. A 7th game would mean more money for the NBA. Also, a big-market team like the Lakers going to the NBA Finals also equals more money for the NBA. The Lakers went on to an overtime victory in Game 7 before sweeping the New Jersey Nets for their third consecutive NBA title.
2006 Finals Game 5 –The Miami Heat defeated the Dallas Mavericks 101-100 in a dramatic overtime game in Miami giving the Heat a 3-2 series advantage. The controversy here is that eventual Finals MVP, Dwyane Wade, was given 25 free throw attempts in the game, the same amount as the entire Mavericks team. The Heat as a team were awarded 49 free throw attempts. Wade shot 11 for 28 from the field in route to 43 points including game winning free throws with 1.9 seconds left on the clock. The foul called with 1.9 seconds has been deemed very questionable by most observers especially since it was called by a referee (Bennett Salvatore) who was not in position to make the call. The Heat went on to win the NBA title in six games.
There have been numerous opinions formed about these two games from fans and the media throughout the country. NBA games are the hardest games to officiate in professional sports and by simply watching a game, it is almost impossible to definitively determine if the game was fixed or not. Roland Beech of 82games.com has performed a very impressive in-depth analysis of every call made during the two games in question. Beech is a very well respected student of the game who covers the NBA with an intense statistical focus. 82games.com is a tremendous site with loads of unconventional and insightful statistics about NBA teams and players. Since Beech’s analysis is very extensive, I will summarize his data and conclusions while providing commentary. Beech took an analytical approach in which he reviewed every call made in each game and determined whether the call was correct, probably correct, 50/50, dubious, or very dubious. He also grouped the calls by the referees. In this way, it can be determined if a team received favorable calls and if a particular referee favored a team
2002 WCF Game 6 – The referees were Dick Bavetta, Bob Delaney, and Ted Bernhardt. The overall calls favor L.A. barely (55-54). The calls of the individual officials do not really jump out. The largest margin is Bavetta favoring the Lakers (20-15). The one thing that jumps out is that the dubious and very dubious calls favor L.A. (7-2). This is a significant discrepancy and gives argument to Kings Fans that someone was out to get them. Since it is not exactly straightforward to determine how many points each call results in, Beech came up with a ‘Points Impact’ method. Using the method, he concluded that the Lakers received a net bonus of 6 points from favorable calls. The Lakers ended up winning by 4 points.
2006 Finals Game 5 – The referees were Bennett Salvatore, Joey Crawford, and Joe DeRosa. The overall calls favor Miami (50-38). The thing that jumps out the most in this game is that Salvatore’s calls favored Miami drastically (25-11). Of the other refs, Crawford favored Dallas (17-11) and DeRosa favored Miami (18-12). Another thing that jumps out is the dubious and very dubious calls which favor Miami (5-1). If you throw in the 50/50 calls, the discrepancy is still high (13-5). It should be mentioned that Salvatore also whistled Avery Johnson for a technical foul during the game. Using the ‘Points Impact’ method, Beech concluded that Miami received a net bonus of 6 points from their favorable calls. The 6 points is very significant in an overtime game but not nearly as significant as the free throw disparity (49-25) could have suggested.
2002 WCF Game 6 – The Lakers did benefit from a 40-24 free throw advantage, but if you take out intentional fouls, the discrepancy is only 34-24. Additionally, the Lakers were clearly the more aggressive offensive team. The Kings' offense was far more perimeter based therefore you would normally expect a free throw advantage for the Lakers. Additionally, the Lakers were on their home court. As much as the NBA might like to deny it, statistics and the naked-eye show that referees tend to give the benefit of the doubt to the home team on tough calls. This is a MAJOR problem in the NBA. Referees are paid to be impartial and they should be trained to be affected as little as possible by the home crowd. Home teams should not be given an advantage. Unfortunately, the NBA has been favorable to the home team for years and will continue to be. Many Laker fans will point to Game 5 of the same series when the Kings received many favorable calls down the stretch to pull out a close win in Sacramento.
2006 Finals Game 5 – The same offensive aggressiveness argument can be made in this game. Wade drove to the basket hard countless times and with him and Shaq, Miami was clearly the more aggressive offensive team. The final play of the game has been scrutinized by many fans and analysts. There are claims of a backcourt violation on Wade, two possible offensive fouls on Wade, carrying violation on Wade, and then the eventual foul call for Wade against Dirk Nowitzki. All the possible calls against Wade were overlooked while a foul for him was called. In my opinion, all the calls should have been no calls and the players should have decided the game unless there was a blatant foul. The fact is that none of the calls were obvious and should not have been made. The call that was made was overlooked by baseline official, Crawford, and called by Salvatore from near mid-court. I do not believe the officiating of a game should change in the final seconds but I also think it is inevitable. In any sport or competition that requires judgment calls: As the stakes rise, the game changes.
Of course, all of this analysis could be completely bogus. The referees do not completely control what calls they make. Certain refs are put in positions to make certain calls depending on what part of the court they are covering. In any one NBA game, there are thousands of different intricacies that can affect the outcome of the game. The data presented by 82games.com is the most extensive data that is available on any one NBA game that is open to the public. So take from it what you must. Draw your own conclusions.
Do I think the games were fixed? Absolutely not. Do I think the NBA told their “company men” to give more favorable calls to a particular team? Nope. The games were simply a result of some poor officiating. If you asked me which game was more poorly officiated, I would say the Mavs-Heat game. The call discrepancy of Bennett Salvatore is pretty ridiculous and although it is possible to be just a coincidence, it will be forever questioned.
For 82games.com’s full analysis: