A closer look at NBA ejections and why they're on the rise
Nikola Jokic leads an alarming trend of tossed stars by inexperienced officials.
Something you don’t see in the NBA: the home crowd booed, not cheered, when an opposing star got ejected from the game on Tuesday night.
When Denver star Nikola Jokic got tossed in the second quarter, the Chicago crowd let the officials know they weren’t happy with the early hook. Why? Chicago is known as the Serbian Second Capital because it’s the city with the second-largest Serbian community in the world behind Belgrade. This was the one time this season that Chicago-Serbians could see their hero Jokic in the flesh.
And he got booted in the second quarter. Even the NBC Sports Chicago announcers Adam Amin and Stacey King couldn’t believe it.
According to Bulls PR team, it wasn’t officially Serbian Heritage night, but they did apparently offer a group package to fans hoping to see the Bulls take on the Serbian star. Either way, the two-time MVP and Finals MVP forced to take an early exit? Not what the fans or the NBA wants to see.
The official who ejected Jokic was Mousa Dagher, a young ref who is in his fifth season and has no playoff experience (more on this later). He didn’t speak postgame because the NBA only allows the game’s crew chief to speak to one pool reporter after the game.
Mark Lindsay, a veteran official, was the Denver-Chicago crew chief and spoke on behalf of Dagher, who was assigned as an umpire for the game — the lowest of the three rungs on the referee ladder for any given game.
JOHNSON: What did Nikola Jokic do or say to warrant the first technical foul?
LINDSAY: To be clear, Jokic was ejected after one technical foul because he directed profane language at the official that by our standards warranted an ejection.
JOHNSON: Is that typical for an ejection to follow one technical foul?
LINDSAY: To be clear, Jokic was ejected after one technical foul.
JOHNSON: Did he receive a warning between the first technical foul and the ejection?
LINDSAY: Again, to be clear, Jokic was ejected after one technical foul.
JOHNSON: Obviously the language was so strongly received that it warranted an ejection in your guy’s eyes?
LINDSAY: We don’t typically publicly get into exactly what a player said, but the language reached the standard for an ejection.
Credit to Johnson for pressing the official for an explanation. The one-tech ejection is certainly rare and Lindsay gives the boiler-plate answer. If you drive 36 in a 35 mph speed limit, you, in the words of Lindsay, “reached the standard” for a $300 ticket. Good lord.
Jokic admitted that he crossed the line, reportedly saying something along the lines of “call the foul motherfucker.” But he was understandably puzzled why it warranted an immediate ejection, not the standard technical or a “watch it” from the official.
The referees will always hide behind the rulebook, but as Jokic said, there’s an understanding that, in the heat of competition, players use profanity with officials and won’t get nailed with techs — forget an immediate ejection like Jokic on Wednesday. State troopers aren’t pulling over every car that nudges past the speed limit.
One interesting dynamic here: players can’t eject officials or fine them for using profanity with them. By rule, players are fined $2,000 for a technical foul and $4,000 for an ejection, which means that referees have the unilateral power to take money out of a player’s pocket. This has long been a point of contention for players. (The NBA can, but rarely, wipes away a technical after a game if it determines that the official went overboard).
Longtime official Tony Brothers is notorious in NBA circles for mouthing off to players and coaches. Some find it refreshing. Some, like Spencer Dinwiddie, don’t. Last season Brothers’ conduct caught up with him when Dinwiddie called Brothers out postgame saying “I would not like to be called a bitch ass motherfucker to my teammates.”
Was Brothers’ punished for his actions? … kind of. We only knew about Brothers’ “punishment” because of my guyreporting like the mensch he is, but the league forced Brothers to miss a game assignment. But because it wasn’t a suspension without pay, the referee’s “punishment” wasn’t announced publicly.
In other words, Brothers got the day off. After that, the NBA did not assign Brothers to a Dinwiddie game for several months, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.
So when Jokic got tossed on Tuesday, he’s not just getting ejected, he’s getting fined $4,000 for it. It gotten so out of hand that even Chicago Bulls fan sites were calling for Dagher to be suspended for the quick hook. Can you imagine Buffalo Bills fans booing the officials if they kicked out Patrick Mahomes last Monday? Not a chance. For that matter, can you imagine football refs kicking out Patrick Mahomes in the first place?
The NBA seems to be the only one with this problem of officials having an outsized influence on the game.made note of this in his essential Good Morning, It’s Basketball newsletter on Wednesday morning:
What other sports league in the world regularly ejects its best players from competition over hurt feelings or offense by the game officials? How many times has Messi been red carded, or Ohtani ejected, or Patrick Mahomes booted?
There’s a problem of accountability here. Since Dagher was a lower-tiered official on Tuesday night, he didn’t have to answer questions from the pool reporter. Unless he’s suspended without pay, we won’t hear about any sort of punishment either. Which is ironic because a few weeks ago, the official NBA referees account tweeted out a video of “Dahger [sic]” saying it’s a myth that referees aren’t held accountable for their mistakes and that, hey, sometimes they’re even fined!
Here’s the problem with that: the NBA keeps it a secret who gets fined! In the absence of that public accountability, a large number of NBA fans continue to believe that the game is rigged and that officials are on the take. Even if there’s zero evidence to suggest those suspicions are real! By not releasing referee disciplinary actions in the public domain, the perception of impropriety remains rampant. Yes, Kevin O’Accountability:
There’s another angle of this Jokic ejection that isn’t talked about much: the betting markets. Before the game, a sportsbook like DraftKings set the over/under on Jokic’s performance at 29.5 points, 12.5 rebounds, 9.5 and just about every combination of those stats. Because of Dagher’s impulsivity, Jokic finished with four points, nine rebounds and six assists in 16 minutes. Just about every “over” bet placed on Jokic was a bad one because of a referee’s quick trigger.
There’s risk of that happening in every game, but that’s not the point. The more this happens, betting fans will stop placing those bets if they feel like officials are unfairly compromising the game. I’m sure there are thousands of fans that lost money on Dagher’s whistle last night. How many times will those fans tolerate another Dagher until they close their betting apps for good?
I’ll tell you one thing: if those same fans saw that the NBA was holding referees accountable for their misconduct, they’d trust the NBA more. And open up that betting app more. And watch the games more.
It’s a pressing issue because right now, ejections are on the rise. And according to The Finder research, the ones who are tossing players track with a certain trend. Here’s what I’ve found.