CHARLOTTE — If it’s any consolation to the hundreds of NBA players who have tried and frequently failed, they should know that the league’s referees also have trouble coping with James Harden’s offensive game.
The topic of the Houston guard and his confounding, tantalizing, vexing ways with the basketball came up during a referees roundtable discussion Friday afternoon at All-Star Weekend.
Three executives who oversee NBA officials met with a small group of reporters: Byron Spruell, president of league operations; Michelle Johnson, senior vice president and head of referee operations, and Monty McCutchen, the longtime game official now working as VP, head of referee development and training.
The purpose? To have an informal state-of-the-season discussion, review certain “points of education” identified at the start of 2018-19 (such as “freedom of movement” guidelines) and field a few questions.
It was in that context that McCutchen was asked about Harden and his many moves, some of which appear to bleed into offensive fouls or run astray of other rules, such as traveling.
McCutchen, who prefers not to talk publicly about individual players, instead use the platform to discuss how referees try to apply a standard framework in which all players, in all their individual styles, can thrive.
“We cannot target players,” McCutchen said, noting that he and other supervisors will talk to referees about player types. “James is not the only player who does that, and I don’t want to go into every player who has a bag of tricks.
“Our rule book doesn’t support me getting inside a player’s head and saying, ‘Well, he’s trying to manipulate something.’ I have a physical act that took place based on the principles of our rule book. And those standards are set up so that within those rules, people can play the game that they see fit.”
The real test comes when an innovative player introduces something different from what officials are used to. One example McCutchen gave was the willingness of ball handlers to expose the basketball to a defender’s reach. Instead of shielding the ball, per old school tactics, many current players have enough hand strength to hold the ball in front, enticing defenders to reach for it and make themselves vulnerable to rip-move fouls.
“How can I sit there and say, ‘That’s not good basketball?’ McCutchen said. “Shaquille [O’Neal] was another example. We never had a 7-foot-1, 295-pound man who had 2-percent body fat who could do the things Shaquille could do. That put pressure on you [as a referee].”
The league’s leading scorer at 36.6 points per game, Harden has been on a tear not seen in the NBA since the early prime of Michael Jordan or, perhaps, the way-back days of Wilt Chamberlain. In his last game before the All-Star break, he scored 42 points against Minnesota to push his streak of scoring 30 or more points to 31 games. That tied Chamberlain for the second-longest in league history (Chamberlain also hold the record of 65 such games).
Harden’s most challenging bit of trickery is his step-back 3-pointer, which sometimes results in a traveling violation and sometimes does not. What McCutchen wanted people to know, at least, was that no new rules have been written legislating for or against that move.
“It’s not a new rule,” the former NBA ref said, again not focusing on Harden specifically. “It’s always been that you gathered the ball and you took two steps to the rim. But nowhere in our rule book does it say that has to be forward. Innovation says, ‘I can take two steps backwards.’
“Now here’s the problem: Sometimes the feet aren’t quite right. The rhythm’s not quite right on that move. So now I’ve got to get that little baby step in. That’s where it becomes difficult, because I’m also refereeing whether said player is being fouled or not.”
As players innovate, referees have to react and adapt. Said McCutchen: “What we’re exploring right now is how do we tweak our mechanics so that our teamwork can keep up with the innovations?”
McCutchen talked at length about referees striving for consistency across all 48 minutes of a game, and being as ready and willing in the final seconds to call a supposed minor violation such as traveling as they would any other foul.
In the process, he shed light on the emphasis officials have put on traveling violations this season. Per data collected by the league, he said, “an inordinate amount of defensive fouls come after those few traveling calls that are missed.”