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The technical foul in the NBA is becoming more of a subjective “shut up and dribble” violation. It needs to change.

The technical foul’s usage today is becoming more subjective and should be reserved for more egregious situations.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Brooklyn Nets
Russell Westbrook reacts after being called for a technical foul while on the bench during the first quarter against the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center on January 3rd, 2021.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

I really did not want to go there. But at some point, enough is enough. If Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets are playing Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards we want to see those guys ball. If John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins are teaming up for the first time when the Houston Rockets play against Luka Doncic et al. on the Dallas Mavericks, we want to see these men go to work and hoop.

That is, if the referees will let us.

As fans, we are not interested in the egos of the referees, sorry. If a player does so much as register a sentence of complaint, raise their hands (or even their eyebrows sometimes) in disbelief or exasperation over a missed call - the referees in the NBA will at this day and age often call a technical foul. Oftentimes the referees will add insult to injury by first missing the correct call on the floor and then further punishing the affected player by calling a technical foul.

Furthermore, as we’ve seen in the Wizards game against Brooklyn this Sunday, the referees will even sometimes simultaneously call multiple technical fouls against bench personnel, as when both Scott Brooks and Russell Westbrook got T-ed up in the first half while neither one of them was even playing (the refs could have simply called one technical foul against the bench as a whole).

On Monday I decided to watch the Dallas vs Houston game which the Mavericks won, 113-100. Unfortunately, the referees had other plans.

It started when DeMarcus Cousins got tossed early in the second quarter for a second T for merely complaining (“and 1”) an obvious foul by Jalen Brunson on a lay up DeMarcus easily scored. Sure, he got T-ed earlier for a (very minor) shove with Willie Cauley-Stein, but tossing a player for this just made no sense basketball-wise.

Nothing was “going out of control”, no player or referee was put in harm’s way. (You couldn’t help but feel that the some players are more prone to get these kind of calls due to their “reputation” or the way the referees view them. Needless to say, I have seen, e.g., LeBron James complain in similar fashion so many times.)

It didn’t stop there. After the Cousins toss, the T’s started piling up. At some point I stopped counting - I think at least 6 players got T-ed up, as well as an assistant coach. The Houston TV commentators at some point started making hilarious comments on the subject which at least made the game bearable to watch. And John Wall was a joy to watch, by the way.

What do the referees want?

It almost feels as if they expect the players to just “shut up and dribble”, and perhaps the NBPA should legitimately consider revisiting these kind of calls versus the league, as this is already bordering on issues of freedom of speech that were so central in the recent NBA Bubble.

One can’t help but feel that many technical fouls in the NBA at this point can be labeled “subjective fouls” or “shut-up and dribble violations”. On another front, the NBA has instituted a welcome change by allowing coaches to challenge calls on the floor. Perhaps in a similar vein, a totally different and new approach to the technical foul would be welcome at this point.

For instance, coaches could be given an extra challenge to challenge a T, which would be reviewed by neutral referees at the replay center. Then referees would at least be held more accountable and think twice before frivolous calls. And it wouldn’t hurt to have some reasonable guidelines put in place for what is and what isn’t a T (as well as separate guidelines for what constitutes a game-ejecting T).