With its regular referees locked out, the NBA is confident in its roster of replacements -- even the two it previously fired.
The NBA begins preseason play Thursday night with 62 referees. The league said more than half have officiated in the NBA Development League, and all but five have worked the summer league.
It also said the two with league experience, Michael Henderson and Robbie Robinson, were some of the best replacements available.
Realizing the scrutiny the backups face, the league reminded teams Wednesday about its rules against publicly criticizing the officials. But senior vice president of referee operations Ron Johnson believes the teams won't have much to complain about.
"I think some people rise to the most amazing level of performance at amazing times," Johnson said on a conference call. "So we'll see."
Denver visits Utah in the first game, and Tre Maddox, Deldre Carr and CJ Washington will officiate. The replacements will be paid $1,100 per game, same as first-year officials and more than they were paid in the D-League or WNBA.
The league had the replacements in training camp last weekend, but thought it wouldn't need them. The NBA said the referees union agreed in principle on a new contract last Friday, but backed out of the deal two days later. The league then told teams Tuesday it was going ahead with the backups.
"The teams and we in the best of worlds would like to have our current staff opening the season, of course. They're the best 60 referees in the world. But having rejected the agreement reached by their negotiators, we're left with no choice but to use replacements," president of league and basketball operations Joel Litvin said.
"That's not ideal, but this is part of the sports business and we're moving on with this group. We have plenty of confidence in this group."
Still, Litvin said he expected some players to vent about the quality of officiating, so the league sent a memo to the teams warning them of the penalties for comments about the referees in hopes of preventing the frequent complaints that were heard during the last lockout in 1995.
"I can assure you, there will be less of that this time around," Litvin said.
The NBA expects the officiating to be stronger this time because it is relying on replacements from within its own system. While the 1995 backups were mostly from the Continental Basketball Association, this time 50 are from the D-League, WNBA or NCAA Division I.
"When you work in an NBA summer league, or work in the D-League, you are essentially working for our referee operations staff," Litvin said, "applying our rules, the NBA rules, our call interpretations, our mechanics, and these are all people who have officiated NBA players before."
Only Henderson and Robinson have done it in NBA games, and their rehiring was a disappointment to the union. Johnson said while they were fired because their performance didn't measure up to regular referees, it fits with the replacement group.
"People don't just get fired because they're incompetent, they get fired because relative to the performance of the staff standard," Johnson said. "I was not here when they were released. We know why they were released. Indeed, they've gotten some experience, they've stayed in the community of practice. I think they're ready to go."
Litvin said no further talks are planned with the regular referees, whose contract expired Sept. 1. So the replacement officials could be around awhile -- and the NBA is OK with that.
"We are very, very familiar with the abilities of referees at every level. We know these guys," Litvin said. "We didn't reach out to anybody who we didn't think could handle this job."