LOS ANGELES — Moments like the one Fred VanVleet had on Wednesday night don’t materialize out of nowhere. It’s not like the normally cool, calm, and calculated Toronto Raptors point guard went to work on Wednesday night with his club desperate for a win against an equally desperate Los Angeles Clippers team and decided it was the right time to put NBA officiating on blast to a degree it’s hard to remember ever hearing.
It wasn’t ‘the refs sucked and I’m really mad’ that we get from players and coaches on almost any given night. By definition, a referee’s job is to make one team unhappy every time they blow their whistle, and people being people and games being games, there are an infinite combination of ways for referees to make teams, players, coaches, and crowds mad. It’s part of the fun.
But VanVleet was touching on something deeper. He made a point about Ben Taylor — the referee who he called out harshly, crudely and by name — having given him most of the career-high eight technical fouls he’s had this season, including one in the third quarter against the Clippers.
Turns out VanVleet was correct, Taylor was on the job in five of the eight games the Raptors point guard was T-d up, and for his only career ejection. Put another way: Taylor has drawn the Raptors six times this season and VanVleet has gotten five technicals and been kicked out once. In VanVleet’s other 49 games he’s gotten three technicals and no ejections.
Which for VanVleet is all the proof he needs that something is going on, the floor is not level, the sense of fairness isn’t there. Did it justify his profanity-laced takedown?
Well, if VanVleet has any regrets it’s the ‘how’ of what he did, not the ‘what,’ even if he was fined $30,000 by the NBA for his comments.
“It’s hard to go back. I mean it is what it is, it came out authentic, it came out in real-time,” he said of his comments, which almost instantly went viral and got the Raptors discussed at length on the major U.S. sports news and talk platforms Thursday, which happens only rarely. “I wouldn’t have done that if I felt like I had another option or another outlet, I felt like I’ve exhausted my options this season on many different occasions. It was just one of those things. I’m human. You’ll see me make mistakes in real-time and make things that are not always perfect. Little unprofessional for my standard so it’s unfortunate, it happened, gotta live and learn.”
What we learned is that players — and VanVleet’s said he’s received plenty of support from peers around the league — really believe that there are different standards that are unfairly applied.
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse isn’t any different.
“I think he certainly was speaking from the heart,” Nurse said Thursday with regard to VanVleet. “I think that you… would probably agree with most of what he said. Those are my thoughts on it.”
It’s not that important whether anyone else agrees with what VanVleet said, it’s that you won’t find anyone within the Raptors organization who feels any differently. Part of that is the tendency to have the back of a longstanding member of the team, but you don’t have to scratch very deeply before you can hear some version of: ‘It’s a superstar’s league and it’s set up for certain teams to succeed as a result.’
It’s a belief as old as dirt: That in a league set up for profit the benefit of the doubt always goes to the team or player that can help maximize that earning potential for the league.
If you buy into it everything looks like the tail end of a conspiracy. The problem is that all that trying to disprove it does is convince the true believers to burrow deeper.
There is also a layer of frustration that refs — for all the seeming accountability measures in place, from video reviews to last-two-minute reports to constant game-to-game scrutiny — don’t face the same consequences for a mistake made or a job poorly done.
Raptors officials still point to a missed call in Game 1 of the second round of the playoffs in 2018 as one of the franchise’s true ‘sliding door’ moments. With just over a minute left Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers swing his elbow wildly and caught then-Raptor DeMar DeRozan on the jaw. Had it been called as a flagrant foul — and it said it should have been in the last two-minute report after the game — the Raptors would have had two free throws and the ball, up two with 71 seconds left. If DeRozan makes both shots they’re up four and have a chance to push the lead even further. They may well have won the game instead of losing in overtime. The series could have been entirely different. But instead Toronto was swept, precipitating then head coach Dwane Casey being fired and DeRozan being traded. Lives changed, but not for the officials who made the wrong call.
These examples exist everywhere and in every game. Normal people shrug and accept that hey, things happen. People engaged in professional sports for a living have a hard time letting moments like that go.
Which — in the larger context — is where VanVleet’s outburst came from. It had been building this week — this season — and was informed by the ironclad belief internally that the Raptors don’t get the respect they deserve. Arguably it’s been building for years.
That’s what made VanVleet’s brief but powerful statement so interesting; in his own way, he touched on all of those things. Whether it makes sense or not, or whether it is healthy or useful to harbour those kinds of feelings is another matter. The larger point is they exist.
VanVleet graciously entertained a number of questions the morning after the night before as the Raptors practiced at UCLA prior to another crucial-for-both-teams matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday night.
On why he thinks this season he’s had more challenges with the referees than others he allowed that hey, playing on a team with a losing record that has fallen short of initial expectations might have something to do with it.
“I’m sure it doesn’t help. I’m sure it doesn’t help,” he said. “Our margin is small this year. Sometimes you’ve got to find ways to overcome it and find ways to win. I don’t want this to become a distraction any more than it already has. We have our own business to worry about. We’ve got to play better. I got to play better. I’m always going to take responsibility for that. It is what it is at this point.”
And he also said that the way the league’s lack of tolerance — as expressed by what officials deem worthy of a technical foul or not — has been a driving force behind his frustration and is shared by his peers.
“I think I am speaking for a lot of guys,” he said. “Obviously I was frustrated, emotional but there’s a lot of people that feel that way. Hopefully going forward we see some change for the better for the game, know what I mean? It’s really just about the betterment of the game.”
Did Scott Foster really need to eject Scottie Barnes in the final minute of the Raptors’ loss to Denver for saying something that — based on the reactions of the other officials at least — only Foster could hear?
Did VanVleet really need to get a technical for encouraging his teammates — granted in a stage whisper that Taylor couldn’t help hearing — to “play through the bulls–t?”
Presumably, the league wants games that are played hard and with great emotional investment. Fans certainly do. Being ‘all-in’ and then having to account for every emotion, outburst and gesture is a tall order. Lines will get crossed inevitably, but why should the referees move them closer than they need to be?
“I get it. I’m not the easiest guy to deal with on the court at all times, it takes a lot of passion, and energy and fire for me, a guy at my size to even be on the court competing at a high level,” said VanVleet, a six-foot undrafted point guard who became an all-star and in his seventh season. “Maybe it doesn’t come across the best at all times, I get that, but I certainly wasn’t trying to get thrown out in a game that we needed; so it just built up and built up and we lost, and you know, it was tough.”
“… [But] I think [the league] gave them more leeway on the officiating and the sportsmanship and the unsportsmanlike conduct where they have more jurisdiction to call techs for smaller things — clapping at the official, throwing the ball off the stanchion, certain things they’re trying to clean up,” VanVleet added. “Again, you’ve got to have a feel and a dynamic. Each guy is going to be different. I’ve been on the wrong side of this one a couple times. Now I’ve got to be able to adjust and not let my emotions get the best of me.”
The Raptors need to adjust too. There is another game Friday night, a crucial one for a pair of ninth-place teams, but only one from the NBA’s most glamourous market. The calls likely won’t always go Toronto’s way, and — if you buy into the ‘big franchise/superstar’ theory — they almost certainly won’t.
The Raptors’ job — and VanVleet’s now that he’s cleared his chest — is to deal with it.