For the past several years stories and conspiracy theories have run rampant about how the National Basketball Association breaks the rules in order maximize the success of teams in large television markets and not calling fouls on star players in order to make the game more exciting. The most pervasive of all these theories is the idea that the NBA playoffs are deliberately engineered to go beyond at least five games whenever possible and to make sure that only teams from large television markets make the Finals.
Over the past 23 years, at least one team from the four largest cities in the U.S. (New York, L.A., Chicago, and Houston) has reached the NBA Finals 22 times (the sole exception being the 1990 Detroit vs. Portland series). This means that one of the four largest cities in the U.S. has had a Finals presence 96% of the time. This is in stark contrast to the three other major sports in America: Over the same time period only 22% of the NFL Super Bowls and 35% of the NHL Stanley Cup Finals have featured such large market teams. Even baseball, the sport that everyone agrees is the most unfair in terms of payroll differences between teams, has only featured a large market team 38% of the time in the World Series.
The idea of a conspiracy favoring these teams has been rumored for many years, but came to the forefront after the second retirement of Michael Jordan, the power vacuum left due to the decline of the Chicago Bulls and the ascendancy of the Los Angeles Lakers. Here are some major games that are talked about whenever the conspiracy is mentioned:
- 1999 – New York vs. Indiana, Game 3. Larry Johnson sinks a game-winning four-point play as the referees declare that he was fouled on a three point shot, even though the foul occurred long before he released the ball. The Knicks win 92-91.
- 1999 – New York vs. Indiana, Game 6. The Knicks receive almost every foul call during the fourth quarter, allowing them to finish the series at home and not have to go back to Indiana to play a Game 7. Final score 90-82
- 1999 – San Antonio vs. New York, Game 3. Down 2-0, the Knicks get every call in their first home game and win their only game of the series. Final score 89-81
- 2000 – New York vs. Miami, Game 7. With the Knicks down by less than a basket, Latrell Sprewell is awarded a timeout as he is falling out of bounds with 2.1 seconds left in the game. The clock stoppage allows New York to keep possession of the ball and eventually set up the game winning shot, allowing them to advance to the next round of the playoffs. After the game, Sprewell admits that he never called the timeout. Final score 83-82
- 2000 – Los Angeles vs. Portland, Game 7. LA shoots 21 more free throws than Portland, which allows them to rally back from a 17-point deficit in the final seven minutes. Shaquille O’Neal played illegal defense down the stretch, yet was never called for it. With 25 seconds left, and the Lakers only up by four, Shaq body-blocks Trailblazer Steve Smith so hard that he is knocked off the court, no foul is called. Final score 89-84
- 2002 – Boston vs. New Jersey, Game 4. Boston was up 2-1 but the Nets are allowed to push and shove Celtics Kenny Anderson and Paul Pierce throughout the game. Boston is also called for three offensive charging fouled at the end of the game, allowing New Jersey to tie up the series. Final score 94-92
- 2002 – Los Angeles vs. Sacramento, Game 6. This is considered by most people to be one of the worst officiated games of all-time. In the previous five games in the series, LA averaged 22 free throws a game. The team was awarded 27 free throws alone during the fourth quarter of game six. The refs ignored several blatant fouls committed by the Lakers, such as Kobe Bryant elbowing Sacramento King Mike Bibby in the face and bloodying his nose. This game prompted several sports columns around the country and incited Ralph Nader to write a letter to the NBA asking them to monitor the referees more closely. Los Angeles was allowed to stay alive and play a Game 7, where they eventually beat Sacramento. Final score of game 6: 106-102
- 2003 – Los Angeles vs. Minnesota, Game 4. In the middle of the 2003 season the NBA declared that the first round of the playoffs, which up until that point had been decided by a best of five series, would be extended to best of seven. This is considered by many to help the Lakers, as they had been playing poorly for most of the season and now the team that must face them needs to beat them four times instead of three and must play an extra game in Los Angeles. Minnesota killed the Lakers for most of the game, but as the second half progressed the officiating began to turn towards L.A and the team made a comeback. There was a 25-6 disparity in free throws awarded in the third and fourth quarters. Then, with 23 seconds left, Kobe Bryant was given a four-point play much like Larry Johnson in 1999. Kobe was given two more free throws on the Lakers final possession, but he missed one, sending the game into overtime where Minnesota was able to prevail 114-110.
What is the common thread running through all these game other than the big market team being rewarded with bad calls? All of these games were officiated by a referee named Dick Bavetta, one of the longest-tenured refs in the league having worked for over twenty-eight seasons. It seems odd that this one official would be working all these important and controversial games considering the referees are "randomly" assigned.
Taken separately these things might not seem like much. But the combination of big teams always winning, playoff games being decided by referees, and the ever-present Dick Bavetta adds up in the minds of many fans to mean that skill does not determine the winner of playoff games, but instead the outcome will be what is most profitable for the league.