With just more than a minute remaining in the Los Angeles’ Lakers hard-fought victory over the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday night, focus again turned from the players to the referees.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had been whistled for a questionable shooting foul on Brandon Ingram, prompting Frank Vogel to initiate a Coach’s Challenge that would go a long way toward informing whether Anthony Davis would win his first game against his former team and its angry fan base at Smoothie King Center.
Replays shown on the national TV broadcast made it clear that contact between Caldwell-Pope and Ingram was minimal at most, and perhaps nonexistent altogether. After several minutes of deliberating, the officials upheld the call on the floor, awarding Ingram two free throws as the Lakers clung to a one-point lead.
Then LeBron James, his exasperation already palpable, made certain viewers across the globe would sense it.
The whole point of the NBA instituting a one-time Coach’s Challenge on an experimental basis in 2019-20 was mitigating the likelihood of human error. The speed, physicality, and nuance of basketball played at the highest level makes it inevitable, and allowing officials the chance to concede a mistake when prompted would surely affect the outcome of many games.
A hopeful bonus? The prospect of that dynamic bridging the mounting gap of frustration between players and referees.
Just over a month into the season, the Coach’s Challenge has already proven a major difference between teams winning and losing on multiple occasions. But as James’ incendiary critique made clear, the possibility of personal bias influencing officials’ decision after replay review could make an existing problem even worse.
NBA rules state there “must be clear and conclusive visual evidence” for a call to be overturned. Whether multiple replays of the foul called on Caldwell-Pope meet that threshold is up for debate. What’s not is that they gave James, the Lakers, and their legion of fans ample reason to believe the referees intentionally got out of admitting a mistake by steadfastly adhering to the league’s language.
James’ assertion that officials are “never” going to change calls that leave gray areas after replay is an exaggeration. But just a few weeks of implementation has made clear that referees will certainly cop to a bad call when the Coach’s Challenge makes it obvious.
As of games played through Monday, challenges have been successful on 63 of 152 occasions, according to USA TODAY’s Jeff Zillgitt. While a 41.4% conversion rate suggests players aren’t as honest with coaches who call for the challenge as they should be, it’s also a reflection of the problem James highlighted on Wednesday night.
“I don’t see the replays like they do, so I’ll have to trust them, but we’ll see,” Vogel said of his unsuccessful challenge after the game, per the New York Post.
The NBA made a concerted effort before last season to mitigate growing discontent between players and referees. But the discord reached a new level in 2018-19, while the league’s experimental solution to the issue hasn’t much helped matters early this season.
The NFL reacted swiftly to the controversial non-call that marred last season’s NFC Championship Game, implementing video review for pass interference judgment calls. After almost a full season with the rule change in place, teams, coaches, players, and fans are more frustrated and clueless as to how pass interference is flagged than ever.
And in the wake of James’ pointedly public appraisal, it seems the NBA’s attempt to mitigate its layered officiating issues is increasingly likely to yield the same result.