MIAMI — Kevin Durant was steaming mad over officiating this week, then eventually apologized after realizing he could have better handled his frustrations.
The NBA hopes all players and referees take the time for such reflection.
The league introduced a five-pronged plan Friday to try and improve how players and referees get along during games. It comes during a season where one of the storylines has been the ongoing deterioration of the relationship between the sides, with stars such as Durant, LeBron James and Chris Paul not shy about expressing their frustrations.
“What we’ve basically done is taken a bit of a step back,” NBA President of League Operations Byron Spruell said. “It’s kind of been a cumulative effect that’s been going on throughout the course of the season. We feel like frustration is high and tensions are high, so we want to address it, frankly.”
The league’s plan comes less than a month before the players and referees are set to meet in Los Angeles during All-Star weekend, a long-planned session that was scheduled with hopes of finding common ground. The NBA isn’t expected to have an official role in that meeting, though clearly wants to see more civility — and soon.
“Time is of the essence,” said former referee Monty McCutchen, now an NBA vice president overseeing referee development and training. “This is an important issue.”
McCutchen and NBA senior vice president overseeing referee operations Michelle Johnson will be among those starting to meet with teams in the coming days, one of the five steps in the plan:
— Discussing rules interpretations, on-court conduct and the expectations of NBA referees with all 30 clubs.
— A re-emphasis of the NBA’s “Respect for the Game” rules , not just for players but also coaches and referees themselves, with hopes of more consistent enforcement of violations.
— Expansion of rules education by the NBA Referee Operations department for coaches, players and team personnel to provide better clarity of rules and interpretations.
— Enhanced training for referees on conflict resolution. Johnson and McCutchen will conduct that training and will more closely scrutinize on-court interactions to make sure referees are handling things consistent with league policy.
— An additional reliance on the NBA’s Officiating Advisory Council, which will be tasked with getting all parts of the league more involved in finding solutions to problems.
“That nature of public discourse these days is a bit rough,” Johnson said. “So what tools can we provide them to deal with this changing landscape? Over the course of the season, as the chippiness has gone on, we say there’s no time like the present to not just communicate with the referee staff but to talk with teams. This dialogue is all the more important right now.”
Before Friday’s game between the Clippers and Grizzlies, both coaches — Doc Rivers of Los Angeles and J.B. Bickerstaff of Memphis — said communication is a key in all of this.
“I’ve never been one to want to get the calls right because I think that’s impossible,” Rivers said. “I’m one that has always wanted to get the communication right.”
The Clippers coach said one issue is the transition of younger referees into the officiating ranks coupled with the retirement of veterans.
“There’s a lot of officials from the past — let’s not even use the current ones — that probably were not great refs as far as getting the calls right,” Rivers said, “but they were phenomenal at managing the game and the emotions of the game and you never had a problem.
“That’s where we have to get back to, being able to deal with every coach, every player as a different personality.”
Bickerstaff said he appreciates the league being “proactive” about the problem, recognizing it and trying to address it before it escalates further.
“I think the communication that is not in the heat of battle will be a better way to solve issues,” the interim Memphis coaach said. “When you are on the court, and there’s emotions going, … conflict won’t get resolved. Sometimes it gets sparked and becomes an even larger problems.’
There has been no shortage of ugliness in player-referee exchanges this season.
James was ejected from a game for the first time. Paul, the president of the National Basketball Players Association, publicly aired his complaint about longtime referee Scott Foster giving him a technical foul by saying “Scott Foster at his finest. … That’s who they pay to see.” Draymond Green told The Athletic this month that referees are “ruining the game.”
Referee Courtney Kirkland was removed from the floor for a week after he and Warriors guard Shaun Livingston went forehead-to-forehead over a foul call during a game in Miami. And this week, Durant apologized after becoming overly upset with referee James Williams. Durant said he will personally apologize to Williams when they see each other again.
“I’ve got to just own up to it,” Durant said. “I watched it when I got home. I was wondering why he was coming at me so hard but then I watched the plays I was like, ‘Yeah, I looked like a jerk out there.'”
McCutchen said it’s critical the sides learn how to agree to disagree in more situations, and stop expecting perfection from each other. And seeing Durant own up to his actions gave McCutchen hope that a strained relationship can be saved.
“That’s the Kevin I know,” McCutchen said. “Because of his personhood, because of his platform that comes along with that stature, it’s an incredible platform for everyone to build on. That was a self-reflective moment, and if we’re going to solve this collectively each stakeholder has to be able to turn the lens and look inward. What Kevin did is an incredible springboard toward that.”
AP freelance writer Clay Bailey in Memphis, Tennessee, contributed to this report.