CLEVELAND — For an NBA referee, the highest compliment after a game is having no one discuss the calls that were made. To have that happen after Game 7 of the NBA Finals is the pinnacle of the profession.
For all of the attention paid to Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals — in which LeBron James finally delivered Cleveland its first pro sports title in more than 50 years — nothing was made of the performance of Monty McCutchen, Dan Crawford and Mike Callahan, the trio of referees who worked the game.
“Took me about 14 days to come down from that,” McCutchen said with a smile. “I can tell you that.”
That Game 7 has come to symbolize something else: the changing face of the league’s refereeing core.
Callahan remains an official; Crawford retired after last season, having worked at least one game in every NBA Finals since 1995. McCutchen is back in the Finals — only not as a referee. He’s in his first playoff run as a league vice president in charge of referee development and training.
President of League Operations Byron Spruell said that while he understands it may seem counterintuitive to move perhaps the league’s top official off the court in the prime of his career, a “referee management redesign” was necessary when the decision was made in December.
“No disrespect to their predecessors,” Spruell said, “but we had to do something different.”
So McCutchen and Michelle Johnson, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who is now the NBA’s senior vice president and head of referee operations, oversee the officials, replacing mainstays in Mike Bantom, Don Vaden and Bob Delaney in those roles.
The league hopes to transform the way it trains referees to create a new crop of better officials. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
“I’m not patting myself on the back by any means, but I’ve had the support from [Commissioner Adam Silver] to make those changes, and so we’re playing that out extremely well,” Spruell said. “That risk that we took to take him off the court, not having him in these Finals, that is going to play out for us not only in the short term, but also in the long term.”
The impact of not having longtime veterans such as McCutchen and Crawford during the Finals has been felt on the court. Ken Mauer and Marc Davis served as crew chiefs in the Finals for the first time, while David Guthrie worked his first game as a Finals referee in Game 2.
But while there may be a knowledge vacuum — one exacerbated by McCutchen’s absence — the league is hopeful that the work being implemented now will pay off in the long term.
Part of that work is building a better relationship between teams and the referees. That relationship was strained early in the season during several high-profile incidents, including Golden State Warriors guard Shaun Livingston head-butting referee Courtney Kirkland during a game.
But the league, led by McCutchen and Johnson, recognized that doing so required more than just players coming to the referees. There needed to be better communication with the players, as well. So over the past few months, McCutchen and Johnson have met with all 30 teams, in addition to working with the referees on the way they communicate.
And while McCutchen says there is still work to be done, he has been happy with the initial results.
“I have seen it,” he said. “I don’t know how visible that is to the outside world, as much as it is, when you are watching referees, you’re seeing them take a more ‘listen first’ approach. They’re listening. You’re seeing more smiles and pats at the end of conversations.
“Now, that doesn’t mean there aren’t technical fouls. That doesn’t mean the passion of the game doesn’t spill over sometimes. But I’m not sure we want a league where the passion doesn’t spill over some time. But internally, we are clearly seeing it, and our playoffs have reflected that.”
From the referees’ side, some of that growth is coming from something that, from the outside, at least, seems fairly straightforward: giving the referees permission to be themselves, instead of trying to be robotic and unemotional at all times.
“Frankly, have them be seen as the human beings that they are,” Johnson said. “Some will be able to bring humor. . . . Maybe that’s not the forte of others, but they may have other ways just to be able to make eye contact so that someone can go, ‘Okay, they heard me.’ And let the players and coaches know they heard you disagree.”
The changes go beyond simply working with referees to be better communicators, though. In overhauling their entire management staff, the NBA essentially admitted that what it was doing wasn’t good enough from a talent standpoint.
So while McCutchen’s on-court expertise and his ability to communicate it to current referees is crucial to that, so, too is modernizing the way the league handles its evaluations.
While in the past, many of these discussions were more anecdotal and conversational, the league has been working to put in place an electronic system that will allow every evaluation to be housed in one place. These will be accessible for each individual referee and the people working at the league office to be able to monitor growth in the way they are performing their duties over time.
“We’re pulling together, we’re codifying a lot of things that already exist,” Johnson said. “It was just oral, instead of documented.”
All of it points back in the same direction: The league determined, led by Spruell, that the systems it had in place were antiquated. Over the past year, the changes, big and small, have been aimed at attempting to change that.
None, though, have been more dramatic than the decision to take McCutchen away from the court. By pulling the league’s best referee off the court and into an office, the NBA bet big on the ability for him to touch its entire refereeing core, as opposed to simply serving as its best official.
Whether that works isn’t something that can be answered overnight.
“We’re just setting the foundation now that we will continue to build and build and build,” Spruell said. “It works for us for a variety of reasons. He’s the right person, along with Michelle. It’s been great.”