NBA, Referees Still Without a Contract
The same, however, can't be said about their negotiations with their referees.
As ESPN's Marc Stein reports, the league's current contract with the referees' union, the National Basketball Referees Association, expires on Sept. 1, and the two sides are far from reaching an agreement. If a compromise can't be reached, the league may be forced to open the preseason and regular season with replacement referees working preseason and regular season games.
If the idea of replacement referees sounds like a drastic measure, realize that it wouldn't be the first time the NBA has taken such a hard-line approach. Replacements have been used during labor disputes several times over the last few decades, including most recently in 1995, when the regular referees didn't take the floor until well into December.
Part of the reason the two sides are so far apart is because the league is seeking a 10 percent reduction to their referee budget across the board. But while the league ultimately has the most leverage should a lockout actually occur (after a few months, 90 percent of a paycheck is better than zero, right?), it's not a battle the league should hope to fight.
The quality of NBA officiating has long been a source of discussion, if not outright contempt, among basketball fans (and coaches), and the perception that the league is pinching pennies instead of investing for improvement is the worst possible message the league can send, especially with Tim Donaghy fresh in everyone's mind.
Fans, players and coaches were frustrated by inconsistent calls in the playoffs last year. It seems the league was forced to levy or rescind flagrant and technical fouls after every other game in the first few rounds, correcting mistakes referees made in the heat of the moment ... and those games were called by the best of the best!
Now imagine how frustrating it would be to watch inexperienced replacement referees try to make the same calls -- even a call as basic as traveling requires a feel for the professional game. Even if it's only for a short period of time, any team forced to play games without the regular referees should have an asterisk next to its record in the standings.
The NBA's referees are far from perfect, but they're head and shoulders above their counterparts still climbing the ladder in the collegiate and high school ranks. Not only should they be paid accordingly, the NBA should be looking to increase their budget, perhaps even hiring an additional official to work each game, following the action on television to offer a second opinion on plays the referees on the court can't see in real time. Whatever the solution is to improving officiating, it will require a greater investment by the NBA, not a smaller one.