Jimmy Butler, Cade Cunningham were ejected for emotion. NBA refs must do better

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It was a banner spell for NBA referees over the past week, who decided to dish out their version of law and order.

First, it was No. 1 draft pick Cade Cunningham getting tossed after a highlight dunk and a point to his team’s bench as if to say, “Told y’all so.” Then a few days later, Jimmy Butler got rang up twice after unleashing on one official following an and-one, likely after a missed call on the previous end.

Butler earned one technical for sure, but the second was called by a trail official when Butler had his back turned to any referee in sight — still barking in frustration.

As for Cunningham, the mild-mannered rookie had one technical entered in that Sunday afternoon’s game against the Western Conference champion Phoenix Suns, in front of a home crowd that wanted to see its star continue his growth. Growth halted because Lord forbid, Cunningham point to the bench, making the refs think he was giving a Mutombo finger to the victim he caught one on, Suns big man Jalen Smith.

He could be a star the NBA loves to promote in a market that needs one, on a Sunday afternoon when there was hardly any other game on the docket — a chance for the diehards and casuals to watch.

Butler is far more fiery than Cunningham, but doesn’t have a history of being a problem child to the refs — 33 career technical fouls in his 12 seasons.

Jimmy Butler yells at referee Mousa Dagher and receives a technical foul.
Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler yells at referee Mousa Dagher and receives a technical foul during a game the Portland Trail Blazers on Jan. 19, 2022, in Miami. Butler was ejected after receving two technicals. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

The referees seemingly have been instructed by the league office to stop anything before it starts — anything that looks like taunting or competitive fire has to be nipped in the bud because nobody wants another Malice at the Palace.

Mind you, that was nearly 20 years ago and the circumstances surrounding such an event were unique, so it would be almost impossible to duplicate. That level of dislike is difficult to find around the league nowadays, even though some would say the NBA would be better for that competitive hatred to seep back into the game.

Of course, the league is mindful of the demographics it appeals to — white fans watching Black players — and players over the years have certainly given plenty of guff to refs and it isn’t aesthetically pleasing.

The referees are quick to tell players to “cool it” after emotional responses result in heated exchanges, but in these cases won’t take a moment to pause, evaluate and consult before issuing technical fouls out of the same emotion they want to curtail.

Perhaps it’s because the referees are getting younger and want to assert control, which is understandable considering the power structure. They hear it from players, coaches and the always popular “refs, you suck” by the paying customers, which can’t feel good.

The two-minute reports that put their every call or non-call up for public debate the next afternoon have to be nerve-wracking and nearly undermining. But it’s a huge part of their jobs — best done when we hardly notice they’re there.

This isn’t yearning for yesteryear when Earl Strom was roaming the floor and actually telling players to “shut up,” but some of the retired referees knew to walk the delicate balance of keeping the game in control while not having to let everyone know they were in control.

Players could draw a tech, like Butler did when getting in the face of a ref and howling a few more expletives, but the officials knew they had to be a little bit deaf and a little blind to the next 10-15 seconds — allowing players to blow off a little steam but ensuring the game goes on.

If there has to be a deterrent of sorts, here’s a solution: Eliminate the wussy double technical whenever players start breathing on each other, or if you’re unsure of Cunningham’s gesture, call a delay of game instead of a second technical.

There’s no mechanism in place, in real time, for referees to have checks and balances on punitive calls like this. The league puts them in such a position where there’s no resort besides calling a technical.

There has to be a better way.

The NBA markets the emotion, it bottles it and sells it in its well-crafted promotions — players celebrating or expressing some spontaneous happiness or even frustration — in a moment.

The NBA shouldn’t want its league to become sterilized out of fear to where the fans can’t tell how much the players are invested in the endeavor.

It doesn’t have to lean into the disrespect, of course, but it’s an emotional game and its fans feed off it.

You don’t want the NBA to become MLB.

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