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Sam Amick, @sam_amick, USA TODAY Sports

Among NBA hot topics, the discussion about referees remains one of the hottest for fans.

Ask any San Antonio Spurs fan, and they'll tell you that Joey Crawford's hatred of their team is as inevitable as death and taxes. Sacramento Kings fans remain convinced that Dick Bavetta, who played such a pivotal part in their team's painful 2002 Western Conference Finals loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, has it out for them. Then there's the ghost of shamed former ref Tim Donaghy and his 2007 betting scandal.

The mystery surrounding officials and the system for evaluating them has long fed the fire of conspiracy theorists. Now, the NBA is pulling back the curtain.

New Commissioner Adam Silver has vowed to have an open dialogue about officiating that he hopes will bridge the gap between fact and fiction. And while his new methods have caused early concerns that this will lead to even more criticism, the most ardent critic on the other side sees this as a significant step forward.

"I love it," Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, an outspoken critic of officials, told USA TODAY Sports via e-mail. "We are the only top league where some fans question the integrity of the league. That will change under Adam."

NBA executive vice president of referee operations Mike Bantom participated in last weekend's MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston to discuss referee analytics.

As Bantom described on the panel, the days of having an on-site observer in every arena are over. Every game, every call and every non-call are watched twice by someone in a centralized location in the New Jersey/New York area. The NBA, Bantom said, has nearly a million events logged for every referee on staff.

"We've built up a database of all of our officials across different categories and ... what percentages of incorrect calls (exist)," Bantom said. "We learn to identify individual areas for improving staff, areas for improvement. And then we conduct our training regimen to address those needs."

Technology also is playing a bigger part than ever. In-arena video analysis by the company STATS tracks the movements of players and officials alike by cameras that shoot at 25 frames a second. While this information is no longer shared with team officials now that the NBA contracts with STATS directly (the company previously had individual relationships with teams), the league has the ability to monitor everything from a referee's position on individual calls to the tough-to-quantify hustle factor.

There is also more frequent acknowledgment of mistakes that are made. Internal memos are occasionally sent to teams about controversial calls and some re-evaluations of events are being released to the news media.

But it isn't just the blown calls being emphasized, as there also is a new charge to highlight pivotal calls that were made correctly. This is being done to emphasize the positive.

Yet, as Bantom told USA TODAY Sports, it's not just the fans who need to be convinced that the league is doing everything it can to improve this part of its product. Owners and executives have been complaining for years that they didn't know enough about the ins and outs of the officiating world, and they're eager to learn more.

"At the end of last year, we just said, 'What are some ways in which we can make our teams feel that we're really not trying to hide anything from them?'" Bantom said. "That's the attitude that a lot of people (with teams) had, that, 'The officiating department, they're over there by themselves and they're doing stuff, and we don't know it.' No, we work for you, too. So what do you want us to do? We'll do what you want us to do. There has just never been that kind of open conversation before, and I think now we're having it."

The internal consensus, Bantom said, is that there is mostly good work being done by the league's 60 officials.

"Our best guys do it at a remarkable level," he said. "And the difference is small percentage points, so how bad can our worst guy be?

"There are too many common misconceptions out there, and I want to change that by revealing the facts."

John Ball is hoping to take this conversation took to the next level. After spending more than 20years in the technology industry, Ball decided to embark on a bold adventure three years ago. Through his company Beyond Box Scores, he tried to shed new light on officiating inefficiencies from outside the league's umbrella.

With his home base in Phoenix, a business partner in San Francisco and a host of game-watching contractors at his disposal, he built a database that boasts 99.5% coverage of calls from the past two seasons and which is growing this season.

Ball's research paper, which was titled "Refs Revealed: Many NBA Referees are 'More Equal' (and Less Equal) Than Others," was published at the Sloan Conference.

In much the same way that player statistics are being used to portray the meaning behind their every move, Ball is advocating referee analytics that could further improve transparency while potentially offering a competitive advantage for teams and players on the floor.

"Every vertical market has some kind of feedback mechanism, a check-and-balance system for third parties to try to improve or at least inform other patrons about the quality of the service provider," Ball told USA TODAY Sports. "I don't know to what extent the numbers should be published or made available, but I do think that having some information is useful.

"What we do is try to provide a sliver of information (such as): Who's calling the fouls? And then letting readers or users of this information decide for themselves."

It is, apparently, the new way of their shared world.


March 7, 2014




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