The Miami Heat destroyed the Indiana Pacers Monday night.
In a huge victory for the NBA — the extent of the blowout left absolutely zero room for conspiracy theorists to say that it was fixed.
Because if the game was close and even one 50/50 call went Miami’s way, a small faction of committed NBA conspiracy theorists would be saying it was rigged.
More than any other major professional sports league, the NBA is dogged by conspiracies.
They are almost universally baseless and without concrete evidence. But from the 1985 NBA Draft Lottery to a random Lakers-Blazers regular season game this year, the league can’t escape talk that it’s fixing things. Even Bill Simmons — one of the most popular media figures in the NBA — has publicly talked about a conspiracy that Michael Jordan was secretly suspended for gambling when he retired to play baseball in 1995.
The logic behind these theories is simple. When you peel back the layers to almost every ridiculous NBA conspiracy theory, you’re left with one assumption — all the NBA wants is higher TV ratings.
The broader conspiracy here is that the NBA centrally plans outcomes to make more money through TV ratings. And what leads to higher TV ratings? Star players, big-market teams, and dramatic narratives (Game 7s!).
So how does the NBA pull this off? A few ways, according to conspiracy theorists:
Rigging the Draft
The Draft has long been a source of conspiracy for the NBA. The 1985 Draft — the first to use a lottery to determine which team got the number one pick — is the most notorious. Conspiracy theorists think the NBA rigged the lottery in order to send Patrick Ewing to the struggling New York Knicks.
The order of the Draft was determined by a league official pulling cards out of a big, spinning glass bowl. Conspiracy theorists say that the Knicks’ card was marked (with a bent corner), so that it wouldn’t be picked until the end.
This a screenshot of the “bent corner” evidence from an NBA fan forum:
As you can see, it’s a pretty flimsy theory. But a lot of people believe it.
Draft conspiracy theories now pop up almost every year. Whenever there is an attractive narrative around a team and a potential number one pick, people say that the lottery was rigged. Some examples in recent years:
- The 2003 Draft, where the Cavaliers got the No. 1 pick and Akron native LeBron James.
- The 2008 Draft, where the Bulls got the No. 1 pick and Chicago native Derrick Rose.
- The 2011 Draft, where the Cavaliers got the No. 1 pick one year after LeBron left.
- The 2012 Draft, where the NBA-owned New Orleans Hornets got the No. 1 pick and Anthony Davis.
In the case of the 2012 Draft, an old photo of Davis wearing a Hornets hats even surfaced as alleged evidence of the conspiracy.
You can see the twisted logic here.
An intriguing team wins the lottery, creating interest, which leads to TV ratings down the road. So … CONSPIRACY.
It’s important to note that there is no evidence of any of this outside of the allegedly creased paper in 1985. It’s all circumstantial and narrative-based.
The refs are rigging the games
The vast majority of calls in the NBA are judgement calls. Every foul and non-foul sits on a spectrum. Fouls in the NBA aren’t as black-and-white as touchdowns in football or fair and foul calls in baseball.
In addition, there are only a few types of calls where it’s even possible to use instant replay. While many want the league to expand its use of replay, it’s simply not feasible to correct every moving screen, hand check, and illegal box out by going to the monitors.
That fact that you can’t definitively say that calls are 100% correct or incorrect lends itself to conspiracy theories. And some of the most prevalent NBA conspiracies are based on the idea that the referees fixed the outcomes of games by intentionally calling fouls on a given team.
As we pointed out before, all of these theories assume that the NBA is corrupt and motivated by TV ratings. So the common thread here is that the league rigged games so star players or popular teams won.
Two high-profile examples:
- The 2001 Eastern Conference Finals. Allen Iverson, the biggest star left to go up against the juggernaut Lakers, didn’t even shoot that many free throws (only about nine per game). But Bucks player Ray Allen fanned the flames by saying, “I think there’s no question about that. The league, as a marketing machine, the bottom line is about making money. It behooves everybody for the league to make more money, and the league knows that Philadelphia is going to make more money with L.A. than we would with L.A.”
- Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals. The Lakers were down 3-2 in the series against the Sacramento Kings. They shot 40 free throws, including 27 in the fourth quarter. Re-watching the game in 2008, The New York Times called it “a master class in bad calls, missed calls and miscalls”
There are a bunch of other smaller examples along these lines: The four-point play in the 1999 Knicks-Pacers series, the Lakers’ miracle comeback against the Blazers in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals, Dwyane Wade shooting 16 free throws per game in the 2006 NBA Finals, Jeff Van Gundy getting fined $100,000 for saying referees were targeting Yao Ming in 2005 against the Mavericks, etc.
Even this year, a well-produced YouTube video claimed that a regular season Lakers-Blazers game was rigged by the refs so LA would make the playoffs.
It’s titled “Lakers 2013 Playoff Conspiracy:”
Again, all the evidence is circumstantial. But the logic is simple: A popular team or player benefits from a refereeing decision, it’s impossible to prove otherwise because all calls are judgement calls, therefore the NBA is rigging games.
The NBA isn’t fixed
For every conspiracy where a big-market team wins the NBA Draft lottery, there are three examples where, say, San Antonio gets the No. 1 pick over Boston in the Tim Duncan draft.
For every playoff game where a star player or popular team gets some good calls, there are games where they don’t, for example, when LeBron James fouls out on a moving screen in the final minute.
You can point to the Tim Donaghy scandal (where a referee was caught betting on games) as evidence of corruption. But the broader conspiracy — that the NBA is centrally planned — has no real evidence.
The NBA is more star-driven than any other sport. Just compare the ratings for the Spurs-Grizzlies (awful) with Heat-Pacers (through the roof), to see how much it benefits the league to have the big players and teams in the Finals.
In every series and match-up, it’s crystal clear which outcome would best benefit the NBA. And that makes the league easy pickings for conspiracy theorists.
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