As the Miami Heat barrel their way toward a second NBA championship in as many years, a chorus of accusations and conspiracy theories alleging that the league is rigged has reached fever pitch.
LeBron James is seen by many as Commissioner David Stern’s golden boy, his teacher’s pet, his Chosen One, playing for Stern’s handpicked next dynasty, the Miami Heat.
And as Stern eyes his exit at the conclusion of the 2012-2013 season, many basketball fans believe he may be pulling the strings behind the scenes of the puppet show that is this year’s NBA Playoffs.
There is no definitive proof that the NBA is rigged, or that any of the games are fixed, or that referees are incentivized in any way to make calls that help any particular team or player succeed. But there is a lot of anecdotal evidence and some convincing arguments that suggest that what you see on the hardwood is not all that’s going on in the National Basketball Association.
Straight From The Horse’s Mouth
Perhaps the most compelling recent evidence on the side of those who believe the NBA is fixed came to light when former NBA referee Tim Donaghy publicly stated that the league manipulates games through control over their officiating.
The fact that Donaghy was forced out of his ref position when he was caught gambling on NBA games, including ones during which he was on the floor making calls, casts some serious doubt on his allegations, but they are interesting nonetheless.
Here’s a 2009 video of him speaking with Greta Van Susteren on Fox News about the issue of the NBA potentially being rigged:
“I think there was a situation where certain referees, in my mind -- and it obviously proved successful -- could change the point spread in an NBA game based on relationships by four or five points,” he told Van Susteren. “And when you talk about adding four or five points onto any line that's at Vegas, it's like sitting at a blackjack table and knowing that your first card is an ace when the dealer starts to deal … Right, and I think the, you know, NBA fans are very knowledgeable. And over the last 10 or 15 years, they know that a lot of unusual things have taken place.”
He went on to explain that referees “deliberately” give fouls to less-popular players vs. big stars because “it’s the way you were trained” to be a referee.
“Referees are trained in the fact that, obviously, you don't want to be throwing the stars out of the game, or you don't want to be giving a star a foul that you can give to somebody else who's in that area,” he said, adding later, “Obviously you don't want to give a Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O'Neal or LeBron James a foul that may be his second or third foul in the first quarter, to where he's going to have to go to the bench. I mean, it was openly discussed in meetings that, you know, people paid big dollars to see these stars on the floor.”
Donaghy’s allegations should clearly be taken with a grain of salt, considering he has reasons for wanting to slander the NBA. But they do seem to ring true as they seem to reflect the state of the game in recent years.
The Case Of The Heat
At its base, the NBA is a business, with Stern serving as CEO. And as with any business in today’s greedy corporate environment, profit is paramount.
In modern sports, the money is chiefly derived from TV ratings and ticket and merchandise sales. All of these increase when fans have a bigger stake in games, and when they are emotionally invested in a team or player.
When Michael Jordan was in his prime, every Chicago Bulls playoffs game was essential viewing for any sports fan. The departing Stern likely wants to leave a legacy that includes the creation of yet another megastar, in this case King James.
With another Jordan, the league could return to its glory days and rake in the profits and prestige that come with it.
And this year’s Eastern Conference Finals provided fuel for the fire of conspiracy theorists who are convinced that the league is fixed.
Another thing that can help the NBA earn big money is for there to be as many playoffs games -- particularly ones featuring big stars -- as possible each year. So when the Indiana Pacers beat the Heat 91-77 in Game 6 to force a Game 7, it was a perfect way for the league to draw as many eyeballs as possible for the final epic showdown between the squads.
And that’s exactly what happened as the game recorded the third-highest ratings for any program, ever, in the ENTIRE 29-year history of TNT. A full 11.5 million total viewers watched the game, according to Nielsen. That equals lots of cash for the NBA, plus 28.5 million total comments by 15.7 million users on all social media sites.
And the Heat, so goes the conspiracy, were then allegedly gifted with the game through a combination of bad officiating, sluggish play by Indiana, and who knows what else.
The Heat swept to an easy 99-76 victory over a team that had just decimated them, and the stage is set for even more epic ratings when Miami take on the San Antonio Spurs in the Finals. It’s a brilliant way for the NBA to end the season with a bang, and to leave fans wanting more next year.
It’s not just the Heat that gets the calls because of the team’s value to the league. The Los Angeles Lakers, long one of the most popular and profitable teams in the sport, were not a great team this year despite having the one-two punch of Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard.
As such, the conspiracy theories allege that Stern and the NBA wanted to ensure they were a part of the playoffs so they could cash in on the team's massive fan base.
Near the end of this season, the Lakers were three games behind the Houston Rockets in the West Coast Conference race for the eighth playoffs slot.
As the season wore down, officials didn’t call a series of obvious and key fouls in the final few games of the season, ensuring that the Lakers would sneak into the playoffs.
Check out the video below for undeniable evidence of the terrible officiating that helped the Lakers to make it to the post-season:
And never mind Game 5 of the 2006 NBA Finals between the Heat and the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavs were the better team by any measure, and they lost the game due to bad officiating, according to pretty much anyone who watched the game.
The Future Today blog broke down the situation as follows:
“In total Wade went to the foul line 25 xs, There were 5 separate fouls on Wade in which he was never touched. The internet bloggers refer to them as the Phantom Fouls. Miami as a team went to the line 49 xs to Dallas 25 xs. Dallas finished with 6 more field goals 11 more rebounds & lost the game by one. Both of Dallas low post defenders were in foul trouble Diop fouled out Dampier finished with 5 fouls."
That list of outraged viewers of that key game included Dallas owner Mark Cuban, who was fined $250,000 by the league for screaming at officials, “F--- you! F--- you! Your league is rigged!” If even Cuban believes it, that’s pretty bad.
And the list goes on. But is it all fake, a ruse, a nefarious plot, or is it all just the way the ball falls, a consequence of human error and luck? The sports world may never know, but many fans have certainly made up their minds that it most definitely is.