Tension among players, coaches and referees is never higher than during the playoffs. And now, those relationships are under increased stress as this season has seen an erosion in decorum -- not just on the court, but also behind the scenes on the executive level. It has caused parties to take some radical steps in an attempt to diffuse the situation as the postseason arrives.
The NBA announced a midseason plan to try to curb the almost nightly venom sessions, which included league officials meeting with every team over the past six weeks. The players' union and the referee's union held a historic sitdown over All-Star Weekend, creating a communication channel that cut out the league office. And there have been attempts to reach out to fans. The NBA brought in a heavy hitter, drafting Bill Russell to voice over spots during national television games highlighting positive player-referee moments and encouraging mutual respect. Meanwhile, the referee's union has done its own media campaign, releasing a series of videos showing referees meeting with angry fans to explain calls on social media.
All of this is happening in a season in which player technicals are slightly up and overall technicals are down (the fewest in the past three seasons), and the NBA says its internal tracking shows little changes to the way games have been called in recent years.
"There's a narrative that has built up a life of its own," said Monty McCutchen, who went from being the league's highest-rated official to the head of referee training and development in another midseason move to deal with officiating concerns. "There's part truth and part falsehood. To deny there aren't problems is foolhardy and arrogant. We can't live in a state of denial. We're taking stock and seeing this as an opportunity for growth. But everyone, including the players and coaches, has to keep up their end of the communication bargain."
These are a few issues that have created what some are calling the worst referee-player relations in recent memory:
High-profile ejections: Ejections are up over the past two seasons, and so is the name-recognition of those getting tossed. Last season, Paul George was ejected four times and Carmelo Anthony three times. This season, Kevin Durant has been ejected five times and the Golden State Warriors, one of the league's most-watched teams, have 10 total ejections. LeBron James had his first ejection in 15 NBA seasons in November.
This has led to increased scrutiny on officials, especially in the case of Durant, who has seen the most ejections for a player in the past 17 seasons (Rasheed Wallace was tossed seven times in 2000-01). Durant has accused officials of targeting him because of past grudges and even raised the concept that referees have treated him differently since he signed with the Warriors.
Teammate Draymond Green has been ejected three times this season and at one point was fined $25,000 for calling for the league to replace all officials because of personal bias.
Green and Durant have led an uptick in complaints from players that officials generally are being more aggressive and at times escalating situations after the whistle. Earlier this season the NBA suspended official Courtney Kirkland for a week for doing just that in an incident with Warriors guard Shaun Livingston.
"The majority of the job is the action before the whistle, but that's not what our teams are telling us most needs to be addressed," McCutchen said. "It's the whistle to the next action where we need to grow, it's a significant part of the job."
Last two-minute reports: One of NBA commissioner Adam Silver's boldest moves to bring transparency to the league, these have created angst among players, referees and the league office over the past three seasons. This expanded the scrutiny on pivotal calls in tight games beyond the heated moments or after the game. Players, coaches and fans can get mad about them all over again the next day when the report is released, even when calls are deemed correct on review.
Last month the referee's union and the league office got into a back-and-forth on Twitter about the interpretation of a five-second violation in the final minute of a close game between the Miami Heat and Sacramento Kings. Many more debates have raged behind the scenes, increasing the animus between referees in the field and the executives in New York.
There is even tension within the NBA office regarding the two-minute reports, sources said, because they sometimes pass through several departments before being released publicly.
The official numbers from the league office show that referees have been right 97.4 percent of the time when they blow the whistle in the last two minutes of close games. Overall the referees have been judged to have 93.9 percent accuracy on all "graded" events, which includes non-calls.
This roughly matches independent tracking of the reports. According to the tracking site ThePudding, the league has reviewed more than 26,000 plays in the last two minutes of games within five points since March 2015, when the L2M reports began. In that period, the league has ruled referees missed or incorrectly called 8.2 percent of the reviewed calls, or about 1.5 incorrect calls in the final minutes of close games.
Retiring veterans: In 1988, the NBA expanded from two referees to three and the league hired a new class of young whistleblowers. Over the past few years those officials have reached retirement age and a bunch of familiar and respected faces have left the court.
This included well-known officials such as Joey Crawford, Dan Crawford and Dick Bavetta, and lesser-known but respected refs David Jones, Bennett Salvatore and Eddie Rush. McCutchen, who was promoted, is off the floor as well.
The result is a spate of new faces and more junior officials who have been promoted to leadership roles. Coaches have complained that there are more games with two young officials where the veteran on the crew sometimes will cover for them, though that has been a grievance for decades.
Players have voiced their concern that the younger officials, who they have less of a relationship with, treat them more rudely and harshly than the departed veterans. Young officials, meanwhile, have reported they notice players are more aggressive with them than their older peers.
League officials report the average experience level of referees has remained relatively constant despite the rash of retirements. They acknowledge the league is in a period where some coaches and players are getting to know new crew chiefs but that it's a part of natural cycle of replacing talent.
Changes in leadership: A topic that came up repeatedly in discussions with stakeholders was how the league has operated differently under Silver and vice president of operations Kiki VanDeWeghe than their predecessors. According to those who communicate with him regularly, VanDeWeghe especially tends to play peacemaker more often than Rod Thorn and Stu Jackson, who held the position under David Stern.
While this is welcomed by some, it can leave a gray area on rule interpretations. It was one of the reasons the unions agreed to communicate directly with each other when needed, sources said.
"The league, of course, should be playing a very active role in bridging that gap between players and officials," Silver said recently. "I accept to the extent there is a perception right now that there is an issue, we want to use that as an opportunity. The fact that we have players and referees sitting down and talking about these issues ... can only improve things."
The NBA also recently replaced much of its referee leadership staff, which has resulted in changing guidelines and evaluation points for officials. Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson was hired as head of referee operations in October. McCutchen was hired in December.
In January, the NBA announced a five-point plan to improve referee-player relations. Over the past six weeks, Johnson, McCutchen and former player and league vice president Shareef Abdur-Rahim have traveled to meet with all 30 teams to discuss the situation and go over "respect for the game" guidelines to help create better communication.
The hope is this will allow at least some basis for improvement in the playoffs.
"The conversations at the meetings have been great. People were able to voice their concerns in an environment that didn't include competition," McCutchen said. "I don't think we're off the rails. What we've tried to get across is that disagreeing with a call doesn't mean a lack of poise. Poise is an important part of all of our jobs and we're going to keep working to find that balance."