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  • Cooper Burke

Is the NBA Rigged? Examining Integrity in Basketball

The National Basketball Association is the pinnacle of the sport, but it is beginning to face very real questions and accusations about the integrity of officiating and the league as a whole as the sport turns global. Nearly every week, NBA officiating finds themselves involved in a controversy over a contested call, and the league often must issue apologies for incorrect calls in the aftermath of games. Interestingly, the league often only apologizes as a PR move, as they have a report outlining every day’s incorrect calls.

Just a few weeks ago, NBA officials called a foul on Knicks guard Jalen Brunson for contesting a shot against Aaron Holliday from beyond the arc. Holliday went on to make two of his free throws to give Houston the win. However, official Ed Malloy said that contact was “incidental and marginal to the shot attempt”.

The NBA also issues a “last two minutes” report for every game that is within three points with two minutes to play that lists all calls and “notable non-calls” that affect the material outcome of a play. The league’s report stated that Brunson legally contested the shot attempt.

However, the NBA denied the Knicks’ protest of the result on Wednesday, saying that the team had to demonstrate a misapplication of the rules rather than an incorrect call. “Because the foul call at issue reflected an error in judgement, New York did not demonstrate a misapplication of the playing rules, and the extraordinary remedy of upholding a game protest was not warranted," the league said.

While this game is unlikely to have a major impact down the road this season, what is more important is the league’s stance on incorrect calls. In the case that officials do make incorrect calls intentionally in favor of one team, the NBA is powerless to deal with the fallout. Of course, this is all assuming that the league office itself is not complicit in any way.

A Yahoo writer analyzed all of this season’s last-two-minute reports after LeBron James complained about a late-game missed call in the Lakers-Celtics game where the Lakers lost in overtime. He made interesting discoveries: the league did miss Tatum’s foul on the last play of the game. However, the league found that Anthony Davis committed an offensive foul on the go-ahead basket a possession earlier, meaning James would have never had the opportunity for a game-wining attempt.

Ben Rohrbach’s analysis of missed calls found that the Lakers played 19 close games by Jan. 31, and 20 of 34 missed calls went in favor of the Laker, at least according to the league’s official report. This was good for fourth in the league, behind the Clippers, Warriors and Thunder.

Only three of the league’s teams had either more than 60% or fewer than 40% of missed calls go in their favor. The Jazz came in at a whopping 28.6%, while the Nuggets were second-to-last.

One of the only conclusions that can be drawn from the data is that officiating tends to favor big-market teams in clutch moments. As far as accusations of game-fixing, a larger case-by case analysis is in order. There is a correlation between market size and number of calls, but an independent review outside of the data provided by the league eliminates the opportunity for conspiracy involving the league.

The NBA is a monopoly, and is registered with federal authorities as a sports entertainment company. This means that they are legally allowed to influence the outcome of their contests, at least indirectly.  Unlike the WWE, however, the NBA does not keep an “open secret” which is what the WWE uses to fix their matches.

While the NBA will never admit to influencing the outcome of its events, it is entirely plausible that results are biased towards larger-market teams or teams that have significant public favor. Fans cannot say for certain that the NBA engages in game-fixing, and the players certainly have no part in it. That is what separates the NBA from leagues like the WWE,

Team statisticians have been on the fix before, though. A former statistician for the Vancouver Grizzlies admitted that it was a league secret to inflate the statistics of stars. The statistician, Alex Rucker, said that guests at an NBA seminar were shown a play where John Stockton passes to Karl Malone, who dribbled twice, pump-faked and sank a shot.

Rucker was told by the NBA “Oh no, that’s definitely an assist. That’s John Stockton.'”

“I left there clearly understanding that, yes, we are supposed to create the most accurate representation we can, but the NBA is also an entertainment business, and it’s up to us, in a very small part as statisticians, to support or reinforce stars and excitement and fun. And that message was definitely reinforced internally within the Grizzlies,” he told Pablo Torre.

Rucker spoke out before this but was not named wholly as he was an officer in the navy at the time, but he was identified as a statistician on the Vancouver Grizzlies from 1995-98. He told Deadspin that “certain players got a lot of help”, and the piece mentioned that Sharif Abdur-Rahim’s stats were much better at home with Vancouver.

“I wanted the numbers to be meaningful and accurate, and I knew they weren’t,” Rucker said. “I was good at making them inaccurate.”

The article also mentioned a game where an unnamed Grizzlies executive told Rucker to go out of his way to find an extra block as Rockets star Hakeem Olajuwon was just one shy of a triple double.

“When you get a triple-double, that dramatically increases the potential of our game being shown on ESPN, Rucker said.” “‘Here are some highlights of Olajuwon, and oh, by the way, they happen to be in Vancouver.’”

“A team like ours was getting zero national media coverage,” the former scorekeeper said. “There’s some value in that, even if someone is lighting us up, for marketing and long-term growth.”

Being that a former scorekeeper has identified key moments where the integrity of the league came into question on record multiple times, it is not unreasonable to think that the league office and teams themselves have ulterior motives during games. After all, it is a business.

The NBA is at a crossroads as its international audience grows, and it will be interesting to see where the league heads in the next few years. 

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