Analytics & reasons why Monty McCutchen is no longer officiating games and why his promotion is a concern

In an unprecedented move, the NBA announced that 25-year veteran official Monty McCutchen will be moving immediately to a supervisory role in the league office to mentor and coach NBA referees, as well as those in the G League and WNBA (h/t Marc Stein and the NY Times).

In our 6+ seasons of analyzing referees’ tendencies and changes made in NBA referee operations, it is extremely unusual for one of the “highest ranked” officials to be taken out of the rotation in the middle of a season.

The NYT article cites that “McCutchen’s new post is larger in scope as the league departs from past practice by filling the job with an active referee as opposed to a recent retiree.” In addition, NBA President of League Operations Byron Spruell stated:

“…we think Monty coming off the court can really help teach and mentor our officials in a much more efficient way. He was able to do that on a crew by crew basis, but now he’s really going to be able to do it on a community basis.”

In other words, it doesn’t appear the older guys who filled similar roles in the past were cutting it. Rather than have a retired referee take on this position, who can often be in their 60’s or 70’s who is more prone to wanting to enjoy their retirement a little (deservedly so), the league wanted someone who is energetic enough to make it a full-time job and/or deal with the rigors of travel followed by intense instruction of other referees. McCutchen is only 51 years old.

McCutchen’s stats are startling

McCutchen may be “highly ranked” in more ways than one. If you’re not aware, we have been logging every NBA referee’s call since the 2011-12 season that allows us to create very unique analytics to identify many referees’ tendencies.

Just taking a quick glance at some of McCutchen’s statistics, he’s consistently ranked for years to call a high number of violations, on average, for some of the most important violations in the game compared to his peers, including the much maligned Joey Crawford when he was officiating! (more on that later).

Let’s take personal fouls, for instance.  Since we started logging every game beginning with the 2011-12 season, McCutchen has ranked above the 90th percentile every season through last season, as seen below from our referee scouting reports (available to subscribers).

The same trend applies when grouping personal fouls with double personals and loose ball fouls (all three of these violations involve contact from defensive players on offensive players not in the act of shooting). We call this kind of grouping of similar violations a “roll-up” report.

You’ll see the same trend applies for other violations that’s clearly evidenced in screenshots below for shooting fouls and many other important violation types (highlighted in yellow).  Look at all the green dots that line up on the high end of percentile rankings on the right side — it’s incredible!

Note: You’ll notice for shooting fouls this season (2017-18) that McCutchen’s percentile ranking has dropped a bit. Since we’re currently only 1/3rd the way through the season, it’s not unusual to see some variation until “water finds its level.”

The block-charge ratio is a comparison of the number of blocking violations called compared to offensive charges, which are typically described as “50/50 calls,” which is a ratio of ‘1.’  McCutchen has clearly called more blocking violations than charges the past few seasons, and at a much higher clip than his peers.

So why would the NBA take one of its “best” officials off the floor in the middle of the season? We’re sure there are many factors involved. The NBA touts they grade every official throughout each game in a similar fashion to the “Last Two Minute” reports, but for all 48 minutes. Perhaps McCutchen grades very well in these internal reports. But we find it very curious that the referee who consistently ranks high in calling many important violations is also considered one of the best.

Could it be possible the way the officials are graded is implicitly based, in part, on the number of violations they call? If so, it’s concerning that McCutchen has been rewarded with a promotion when he may not be one of the best officials in the league.

Let’s dig a little deeper. Looking at other metrics, McCutchen is the 7th highest ranked official from a seniority perspective (in seasons and games officiated).

Using our referee scouting reports as our source, we took a look at the violations mentioned above for those referees ranking above McCutchen in active experience. None of them ranked as high as McCutchen across so many violation types.

Even when you compare McCutchen to “whistle happy” Crawford, whose last full season of officiating was 2014-15, McCutchen ranked as high — or even higher — than Crawford across many of these same violation types! (cells in green represent McCutchen exceeding or virtually tying Crawford’s percentile rankings).

We all remember the many times we saw Crawford on our TV screens officiating big games, including the NBA Finals. Clearly, the league thought Crawford was one of their “best” officials, too. Do you see a pattern here?

It’s concerning the NBA may be rewarding officials who call more violations with plum assignments and promotions than those who are in the middle of the pack statistically. We’ve all heard the adage in politics that if you make an equal number people on the Left and the Right mad, you’re probably doing something right. Well, as simple as it may sound, there’s something to be said for using this heuristic in grading people if they are fair or not.

So from a cynical point of view, for those younger NBA referees who are just getting started, if you want to get acknowledgment for being a “great official” and get better assignments…when in doubt, call a foul.

That may work for a referee’s career, but it’s bad for the game.  Just as concerning is that McCutchen in his new role will be in a position to influence referees to adopt his techniques, which could mean an increase in violations called across the board. We’ll be monitoring the numbers to see if that bears out.

Surely the referees are graded in other ways, right?

It seems that referees are scrutinized more when they don’t make a call that’s wrong (a bad “no call”) than when they make a call (by blowing their whistle) that’s wrong.

Case in point: you don’t see as many instant replays during the game where the announcers step frame-by-frame to see if enough contact was applied by a defensive player to warrant if a foul should have been called. There’s just not enough time given the pace of the game, commercial breaks, etc. Some might even think it’s bad television and/or bad for the league.

On the flip side, if an official does not make a call when there might have been enough contact to warrant it, then all Hell will break loose from the announcers, the coaches, the fans and the players.

Just think: if a player is called for a foul they didn’t commit, the player may get upset, but the complaints aren’t as demonstrative because:

  • Each player has 6 fouls they can commit before they’re disqualified, so they can rationalize it’s not the end of the world.
  • The coaches are usually far enough removed from the action to not see exactly what happened.
  • The referee has the power to call a technical foul if the player (or coach) acts up.
  • Coaches have traditionally instructed their players to not let the refs bother them, and just “play your game.”

So there are many factors that reward an official to call a violation when there is the slightest of contact between players (but perhaps not enough to warrant a foul to be called), and in comparison very little reward for not calling a violation when in doubt.

You would think this kind of behavior could be corrected through other grading methods. But as we mentioned above with TV announcers, it requires paying people a significant amount of time to watch each called violation frame-by-frame to determine if enough contact was applied by a defender on an offensive player.

When we first started logging referee calls, we quickly learned it’s extremely time consuming to break down a game looking for all wrong and right calls (and no-calls):  it usually takes about 10-12 hours a game, including all action that is off the ball for all 10 players on the court for every minute of the game.

We spoke with one manager in the referee operations group a few years ago, and he acknowledged it’s impossible given the time and resources involved to evaluate over 1230 games every regular season, plus the playoffs. Their analysis is mainly oriented toward violations that take place near the ball, which is where most of the action is, but not all of it.

What would really prove to us that McCutchen is as good as advertised is to get numbers from the league on what percentage of calls and no-calls he’s gotten right in comparison to other officials. But we don’t expect we’ll ever see those numbers from the league, if they even exist because of the challenges mentioned above.

Consequently, the league has to resort to more simple metrics to determine who are the “best” referees. McCutchen may have discovered the secret formula, but it might have come at the expense of calling violations accurately, which hurts the game.

Do officials really get 96% of the calls correct?

It’s also interesting when you hear folks involved with NBA officiating say, like McCutchen did in the NYT article:

“Our profession that I’ve chosen to be a part of is one that is focused on the 4 percent that we don’t get right on a nightly basis, but I don’t want us to forget the 96 percent we are doing very well on a nightly basis.”

We’ve heard this argument many times before, but there are several flaws with it:

First, it doesn’t take into account all of the other action off the ball that can’t be graded given the immense amount of time and resources involved. Secondly, it seems to implicitly convey a heavier emphasis on calls they make, not the calls they don’t make. I’m sure they would dispute this, but it would be more heartening to replace “the 4 percent that we don’t get right” to “the 4 percent of calls and no-calls we don’t get right.” We know it sounds like we’re splitting hairs, but the former phrase gives them some wiggle room to base it only off the calls they make, which we know is just part of the story.

Most importantly, four percent may sound like a small number, but having analyzed hundreds of games of calls and no-calls (that take 10-12 hours for every game before we had to stop), many of the violations that are called are very easy calls to make. But when you take out the “no-brainers,” the number of calls they get wrong is a much higher percentage.

Alternate theory: could McCutchen’s promotion be intended to get him off the court?

We’ll take the league at face value and believe they think McCutchen is one of its best referees, as flawed as the assessment may be. But there’s also a case to be made that perhaps the league saw that McCutchen’s tendency to call so many violations has always been an issue, and when an advisory position like this one opened up, who better to pick than the guy who had never really tempered his whistle across so many important violation types?

Our pregame scouting reports that we release the day of every NBA game reveals the league tries to balance a referee who call lots of personal fouls or shooting fouls with two referees who don’t. It happens too many times — the officials assigned to each game are not random based off our analytics.

So perhaps through recent reorganizations and statistical analysis in the NBA’s referee operations group, McCutchen’s promotion could be an effort to try to get the biggest outlier off the court, retrain him (slim chance), and get him to advocate the same methodology to those officials who he’ll be training. We doubt it, since it’s hard for “a zebra to change its stripes.” [pun intended]