LeBron James and the Referees

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After LeBron James fouled out of game 4 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, Heat fans were understandably aggravated by what could at best be termed a “questionable” call and probably belongs in the “please put your whistle away and let the players decide the damn the game” hall of fame.

I went on record last year (or maybe the year before) when the officials basically decided the outcome of the game by whistling Kevin Garnett for a moving screen in the final moments of a playoff game. Frankly I think the rule needs modification. It is necessary to curtail moving screens so that defenses have a chance, but it is such a tough call to make correctly, and it is called so inconsistently that it can have a lopsided impact on games – Miami had a turnover and lost its best player on a call that could basically have been made 20 more times over the course of the game but wasn’t. Add in all the flopping that happens to try to draw the fouls, and having a moving screen called in a situation like that seems punitive. That feels like targeting even if it isn’t, and Miami fans were not quiet about voicing their displeasure.

That said, I ran some numbers to see historically how the referees have treated LeBron James compared to over top stars. Has he been singled out to receive unfair penalization, or has been given the benefit of the doubt more often than not? Maybe he’s right in line with how the game has been called since the beginning, when Canadian doctors shot vulcanized spheroids into tacked up peach baskets, and there was nary a tattoo to be seen.

I broke the data down into two segments: personal fouls committed and free throws attempted. I’d like to have more information about foul drawn that do not lead to free throws since extended shot clocks and turnovers have a big impact on a game, but unfortunately those numbers are hard to find and were simply not available historically. I kept my data pool to star players only by setting my search parameters at 36 minutes per game and at least 500 career games played. There’s not much point comparing LeBron James to Jud Buechler.

The personal fouls charged I looked at two ways:

First I sorted by PF / 48 Minutes. Of 51 total players in the 36 minutes per game and 500 games played pool, LeBron ranked 4th in personal fouls committed per minute with 2.3 PF/48min. That is to say only 3 players averaged fewer fouls per minute called against them than LeBron – Wilt Chamberlain, who famously never fouled out of a game; Allen Iverson, a notorious ball-hawk not known for playing man-to-man defense; Latrell Sprewell, who was actually a good, hard-nosed defender. Immediately following LeBron on the list are Jason Kidd, Joe Johnson, and Andre Igudala. Of all these players the only one who is really comparable to LBJ is Igudala, another hyper-athletic wing defender known for taking any assignment and playing steady, aggressive defense all game long. Amazingly LeBron James averaged a full 1 foul less per 48 minutes than Michael Jordan and Dwyane Wade, two player who have guarded the same positions as him in the same style as he does. Jordan and Wade clock in at 3.3 PF/48min and are tied for 18th on the list. So far LeBron seems to be getting the good side of whistle more than most.

Since per minute figures don’t really describe how a player defends to any great extent, I next looked at PF / Steals + Blocks in an attempt to see what player “gets away” with the most aggressive defense without getting whistled for it. LeBron doesn’t have huge steals or blocks numbers, so I thought this might give a better comparison to other more defensively aggressive superstars. I was wrong. James ranks number 1 with 0.76 personal fouls committed per combined steals and blocks, the fewest personal fouls per defensive stat of any player in our 51 man pool (note – the players who retired prior to steals and blocks being recorded are exempt from this review, so the pool shrinks to 46). The gap between James and his peers has shrunk in this example. Jordan ranks 5th and Wade 7th. James has a .08 advantage over Jordan, which means essentially that he is 8% less likely to draw a foul than Jordan when attempting to get a steal or block (sort of).

I’m not surprised to find that LeBron James is among the players called for the fewest fouls per minute and per defensive statistic. That jives with the eye test when you think back on how often he blocks a shot versus how often he is called for a foul while trying to block a shot. Because of the raw speed of the plays he makes, officials have to make some anticipatory calls, and over the years he has done such an excellent job of timing his swats that he’s earned the benefit of the doubt. Which is not to say he’s always clean. I’ve definitely seen him whack an elbow or a forearm with no whistle blown or actually hit a guy in the with his body (he got ups!), but again, it’s a tough bang-bang call that the officials have to make without the benefit of replay.

On the other side of the ball, I looked at two numbers again. First I examined FTA (free throws attempted) per FGA (field goals attempted) to see how often LeBron got to the line per each recorded attempt to score. LeBron ranked in the middle of the pack at 16th. The results looked a little odd. Kobe Bryant was WAY down the list as was Paul Pierce, both of whom get to the line consistently. I figured out the problem was the three point shots attempted throwing off the ratios. Unless a player specializes in the Reggie Miller follow-through leg kick (which has since become an offensive foul instead of an And 1), three point field goal attempts are highly unlikely to result in fouls drawn. I re-sorted the results by FTA per 2PA (2 point field goal attempt), and the results were much more what I expected to see.

Here LeBron comes in 6th overall in FTA / 2PA behind Dwight Howard (teams foul him on purpose), Charles Barkley, Paul Pierce, Magic Johnson, and Andre Igudala and just ahead of teammate Dwyane Wade. This is a tough one to try to garner any meaning from because of the diversity of players involved. The fact the James and Wade rank side by side in this study makes it look like there’s no special bias involved, but it does say something that the two of them also take more FGAs than the rest of the top 10. It’s also interesting but not surprising to see that 5 of the top 10 players in the study play or played in the 2000+ era. The rule change certainly may be impacting these results more than any sort of referee bias.

Surprisingly Michael Jordan ranks a distant 29th on the list. For a player who supposedly received the most favorable whistles ever, he doesn’t even make the top half of the list. Jordan had to take 2.59 2 point field goal attempts for every free throw attempt, where James and Wade take 1.87 2 point field goal attempts per every free throw attempt. Without shot charts it’s hard to say how much of that is just Jordan taking more long twos that James or Wade would make three pointers and how much is the change in the touch fouls on the perimeter, or if there has been a shift in the star treatment from refs over the years.

Does LeBron James get unfairly singled out by referees for tough calls? From the statistical evidence, it doesn’t look like it. Much the opposite really. That doesn’t change the fact that I disagreed with the offensive foul call the led to LeBron’s ejection in game 4. Don’t get me wrong. Miami got its share of questionable calls in its favor as well. That one out of bounds call that the officials clearly missed when TNT showed the replay could have cost Indiana the game. But that doesn’t mean the Heat fans don’t have a legit gripe in this one instance as well. As a Boston fan who majored in complaining about unjust calls that went in the Heat’s favor in last year’s playoffs, I owe it to Miami fans to tip my hat their way on this one.

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