Right now, fifteen of the "best" basketball teams in the league are attempting to dethrone the Golden State Warriors as Champions in the NBA Playoffs. Eighty-two regular season games led these teams to this moment when fame, prestige, and a cash bonus for being the best in the world.
They just have to hope that one referee doesn't make the wrong call at the wrong time.
Long-time basketball fans remember May 31, 2002, also known as the day when disgraced referee Tim Donaghy claims two referees rigged a game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings to let Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal advance into that year's NBA Finals. (SB Nation did an awesome explanation of that conspiracy here.)
The NBA has come a long way since then, but referees still aren't human. They make mistakes. They miss calls that should have been fouled, and they make calls that aren't fouls at all. And while we try to forgive and empathize with them, we still have to hold them accountable, especially when millions of dollars — both by players and by an increasing number of bettors on sports — are on the line.
Thanks to the power of KG Base, a knowledge graph database with powerful collaboration and versioning capabilities powered by Thinknum, we were able to scrape the Last Two Minute Reports, the league's very own fact-check for whether foul calls were right or wrong in the last two minutes of competitive games. They date from February 21 to April 14 of this season.
That covers the very first playoff games, as well as the end of the regular season — all important games for momentum no matter the team. In other words, those are games where contenders want to win for seeding and the losers... well... want to lose so they can get better draft picks.
In the first part of this deep dive into foul trouble during the NBA's crucial moments, here are the referees that were part of the officiating crews who blew the most calls when it mattered most:
The refs that "let them play"
Jim Cavan wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times back in 2012 called, "When It Comes to Calling Fouls, N.B.A. Should Look to the Playground." In it, he champions the honor code of pickup basketball; you "call your own" fouls if they are bad enough, but otherwise, you just play the game. "Giving players – or more accurately, the teams themselves – more control over how fouls are called could lend the league a level of authenticity often doubted by the modern sports fan," he wrote.
People who agree would love Ed Malloy, the 17-season veteran out of Philadelphia University, who has been a part of the most "Incorrect Non-Calls" — moments in a game when a foul should be called but wasn't — in the time period from February 21 to April 14.
Here's an example of one of his "Incorrect Non-Calls," as defined by the NBA when it reviewed the Atlanta Hawks and San Antonio Spurs game from April 2:
In it, he missed Aldridge hitting Bazemore on the way up for a lay-up. Fortunately for the Hawks, who, by the way, really didn't need this win to advance, they get a foul call a few seconds later and get two free throws.
While he was lax on his whistle during this time period, Cavan has also made questionable calls during the season too. Mavericks fans remember Luka Dončić cussing him out in his native language for him making a few "wrong" calls. Even the commentary booth calls Cavan out for "ruining all the fun."
Yet, in the latter half of the season, Cavan let the players play, as corroborated by our data. The other referees who are in his wheelhouse are Karl Lane and Jaycn Goble before a three-way tie for fourth.
The refs that "love the whistle"
So what is the inverse of refereeing? A referee who calls a foul when there isn't one there.
This is where things get dicey; if a ref makes a phantom call, it could turn the tide of a game and potentially give one team a few points to score. While NBA Champion Rasheed Wallace is 100% right in saying that "ball don't lie" (bad fouls sometimes lead to missed free throws, which makes the bad foul useless), these referees still gave bad calls as defined by the league.
As seen here, this chart is a bit shorter than the "Incorrect Non-Calls" list. That's because referees were more likely to miss correct foul calls than make bad ones. Interpret that for what you will.
However, what the data says here is that, from the time period of February 21 to April 14, Jacyn Goble was a part of officiating crews with the most wrong calls per game, as he had more than one every two games he called. As seen with the incorrect non-calls list, Goble is also a top-three member of that list too.
Jacyn Goble was a part of officiating crews with the most wrong calls per game
A third year referee, Goble was notably cited for being a part of a team that made not one, but two incorrect calls in the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards overtime thriller on March 14. And this game was meaningful; the Wizards had Jabari Parker and Bobby Portis, two players who were traded out of Chicago to Washington for Otto Porter Jr.
Both of these calls were not shown in the NBA's highlight package of the game and were the following:
- "(Bobby) Portis (WAS) makes marginal contact with (Brook) Lopez (CHI) on the play; the whistled illegal contact is initiated by (Tomas) Satoransky (WAS), who dislodges Lopez from position after he receives the pass." This happened with 01:44.2 left in overtime, and, in the restart, Kris Dunn of the Bulls turns the ball over on a travelling call.
- "(Shaquille)Harrison (CHI) cleanly dislodges (Jabari) Parker (WAS) of the ball after his gather; however, (Lauri) Markkanen (CHI) makes contact with Parker's arm after his gather and affects his shot attempt before the ball is dislodged." Fortunately, this call was a foul anyways, just on the wrong person. Jabari Parker made only one of two free throws after this.
Looking at these games in context shows the power of bad or missed calls. It can give a team a few extra points at worst, or just mildly infuriate players at best. As we dive deeper into this KG Base database of NBA Last Two Minute Reports over the next few days, we'll break down other insights, such as the players who commit the most fouls (or non-fouls) in these crucial moments of basketball.
Disclaimer: We removed referees from our study who were only involved in less-than two games within the time period of February 21 to April 14. All data can be seen right on KG Base below: