Commissioner Stern wants you to know that the fix is decidedly not in.
He went to risky lengths to make that point this week, bringing up a standard rhetorical device — “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” — as an example of a no-win, catch-22 question. Say “yes”, and you’ve admitted to beating your wife in the past. Say “no”, and you’re still beating her. The problem, of course, is that bringing up spousal abuse in any context –even if it is a textbook example — is a no-win proposition in its own right.
But in one respect, Mr. Stern is right. The lottery was not rigged. There were too many people on had to witness the drawing, the codes were set ahead of time, and the lottery process of selecting four separate balls is one that is too difficult to manipulate.
Conspiracy lovers still believe in the lottery fix, and there is not much that the commissioner can do, save for a television segment showing the balls being drawn in front of a live audience. (I like to imagine the Commish proving that the balls are not weighted by using a delightful upward pitch a la LeBron’s chalk toss.)
But the real problem has little to do with lotteries, frozen envelopes, or ping-pong balls. The true conundrum is Tim Donaghy.
Ever since the 2007 scandal, rightly or wrongly, NBA conspiracists have had reasonable fodder with which to work. Their claims are further bolstered by suspicions based upon referee assignments, most notably in the playoffs. This year has been no exception.
In Game 1 of the Spurs-Thunder series, San Antonio was riding an 18-game winning streak, but had sat out a week waiting for the next series to start. If there was a moment of vulnerability for the Spurs at home up to that point in the playoffs, then this game was it. Which referee showed up to lead the crew? Joey Crawford, whose history with the Spurs is shaky at best.
In Game 6 of the Celtics-Heat series, the Celtics went home to Boston to close out the team that is arguably the league’s biggest eyeball draw. Which referee got the game? Dan Crawford. Uh-oh.
The numbers connecting Dan Crawford and the Heat are staggering.
In the nine postseasons since 2004 (the “Dwyane Wade era”), the Heat are 13-3 in playoff games reffed by Dan Crawford and 48-40 in all other playoff games in that span.
Even adjusting the numbers for point spreads yields results that are statistically significant.
Adding up their point spread-based win probabilities across all 16 games, the Heat should have won about nine games on average. Even more, given the point-spread based probability of winning each game, the chance that Miami would go 13-3 or better in those 16 games is 1.9%. Statisticians generally use a cut-off of 5% or lower for statistical significance, so this would be indicative that this trend goes beyond what would be reasonable by random chance.
Egad. Those numbers came before Game 6, which the Heat won. And Dan Crawford showed up again in Game 2 of the Finals, another must-win game for the Heat as they fought to avoid an 0-2 series deficit — meaning the Heat are now 15-3 in playoff games reffed by Dan Crawford in the D-Wade era.
(If it helps you grasp the numbers, over an 82-game season, a 15-3 record would project to 68 wins — while playing exclusively against playoff teams.)
The solution is a little advance warning, some planning of the sort that would allay any qualms about situational referee selection. If box scores and television screens are going to reveal referee assignments eventually, then the league may as well take the process one step further and announce each series’ referee assignments at the outset of the series. By naming the officials ahead of time, the conspiracy theorists who want to shoot holes in the NBA’s credibility will have one less source of ammunition.
The drawbacks are minimal. The league would have to tip its hand to the point that they would reveal the selection of referees for games which may not end up being played, but beyond that, they would only be publishing information a week or so ahead of time.
It’s a small price to pay for credibility.