NBA Fact or Fiction: The overwhelming free-throw disparity that favors LeBron James' Lakers
Each week during the 2022-23 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.
[Last time on Fact or Fiction: Is Michael Jordan also the GOAT of the worst current NBA owners?]
Let us get this out of the way up top: I believe the egregiousness of calls in a number of NBA playoff series from the early 2000s raise legitimate questions about the integrity of officials before Tim Donaghy resigned amid a gambling scandal. I am not of the belief there is currently some grand conspiracy behind officiating.
I am also convinced that every arbiter carries unconscious biases, and that the referees' union revealed one of theirs by groveling to LeBron James and his Los Angeles Lakers over one "gut-wrenching" blown call in their late-January overtime loss to the Boston Celtics that "will weigh heavily and cause sleepless nights."
That perplexing tweet from @OfficialNBARefs came after James lamented, "I watch basketball every single day. I watch these games every single day, and I don't see it happening to nobody else. It's just weird."
I reviewed the NBA's last two-minute reports and created the Restless Nights Index at the time to illustrate how ludicrous that statement was. In the aftermath of that game — one in which the league admitted to blowing the call in question and another that aided the Lakers in the final seconds of regulation — James' team was one of five that actually benefited from bad whistles late in close games at least 59% of the time.
They remain top five in that respect, and only the two teams that met in last year's Finals — the Celtics and Golden State Warriors — have been on the better side of more blown calls per game in clutch situations.
An updated table of the number of close games for each team, the total amount of incorrect calls or no-calls in those games, the number of those calls that went in favor of each team and the percentage of favorable calls that each team received:
Two months after the fact, a number of people are pointing to another indicator, courtesy of StatMuse, that suggests the Lakers are the beneficiaries of a referee's whistle far more often than they pay any price. The Lakers have attempted 428 more free throws than their opponents this season — more than twice as many as any other team and 830 more than the team with the worst free-throw disparity (notably, the Warriors).
In other words, the Lakers are attempting 5.5 more free throws per 100 possessions than their opponents this season. No small concession for a .500 team with a 0.1 net rating that has recorded 10 of its 38 wins by five points or fewer. In 26 games since the referees' union issued a public apology to James, the Lakers have attempted 280 more free throws than their opponents (or 10.6 more free throws per 100 possessions).
James, their second-leading free-throw shooter, missed 17 of those games. The new-look Lakers were 10-7 in his absence, moving from 13th place in the Western Conference firmly into the play-in tournament mix.
The Lakers survive on this free-throw disparity. They have received more free throws than their opponents from 53 of the NBA's 65 referees. They are among the league's worst 3-point shooting teams and lose from that line by an average of 5.7 points per game. They only earn one point per game back inside the arc, so their league-leading 26.7 free-throw attempts a night have been essential to avoiding a sub-30-win season.
While the Lakers rank 20th in drives per game this season — not great for those willing to refute biases — they rank sixth in paint touches and fifth in field-goal attempts at the rim. You would think those are situational advantages for a higher frequency of free throws. Except, the Houston Rockets have more paint touches and more field-goal attempts at the rim, and they have a free-throw disparity of 78 this season.
There is a rationale for this, too. Houston is led by rookies and sophomores. James and Anthony Davis lead the Lakers. (A third future Hall of Famer, Russell Westbrook, was their third-leading free-throw shooter prior to his trade). Their ability to get to the rim makes them better at drawing fouls and more likely to be fouled.
There is a chicken-and-egg debate to be had here. Is the ability of a player to get to the rim and draw contact what makes him a star, or does his stardom increase the likelihood he gets to the line? On average, the Memphis Grizzlies' Ja Morant gets to the rim once more per game this season than he did as a rookie, and yet his free throws have nearly doubled in the time he developed into an All-NBA first-team selection. Is that a learned skill? And who is learning more here — the player or the officials' understanding of his game.
Golden State and Boston lead the league in 3-point attempts and both rank bottom four for free-throw attempts. Is that evidence that jump shooting has a stronger correlation to free-throw disparity than star power? Luka Doncic refutes that argument. His Dallas Mavericks, who have the fewest paint touches and fourth-fewest field-goal attempts at the rim, rank third in 3-point attempts and fourth in free-throw attempts.
Four of the next five teams behind the Lakers in free-throw disparity — the Sacramento Kings, Miami Heat, New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers — boast multiple All-NBA candidates, all of whom rank among the NBA's top 30 in total free throws. (Two of those teams are among the NBA's four largest media markets, another is one of the league's most popular cities, and the fourth owns the best offense in NBA history.)
Yet, the Lakers' disparity is nearly equal to that of the Heat, Knicks and Sixers combined, despite Davis and James ranking Nos. 21 and 41 in total free throws, respectively, and no other Laker cracking the top 60.
The Kings and Knicks each feature three players in the top 30 for total free throws, and their combined free-throw disparity falls 69 short of the Lakers. The increased availability and aggressiveness of Davis do not on their own dictate how the Lakers went from being outscored at the free-throw line by 27 points last year to outscoring opponents at the stripe by 428 points this season. Neither does a midseason roster makeover.
Really, little makes sense of this situation. If no statistic fully explains how we got here, do we not have to consider at the very least that a certain team featuring a certain superstar is benefiting from some bias? It could just be an amalgamation of aforementioned factors, but two noteworthy findings suggest otherwise.
First, the Oklahoma City Thunder are one of only two teams, along with the Charlotte Hornets, to both drive and get to the rim more often than the Lakers. OKC also has a better defense to the Lakers, but the small-market franchise owns a negative free-throw disparity of 178. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has submitted a superior season to anyone on the Lakers, but his Thunder are earning eight fewer free throws per game than their opponents by comparison. Oklahoma City trails the Lakers by a loss for ninth place in the West.
Thunder coach Mark Daigneault has repeatedly questioned officials. Midway through a game in January, he asked a referee about their free-throw disparity and was told in his words, "They said we were shooting a lot of 3s, and then you look down and we took 15-20 more shots in the paint than they did, so if they're going to give me that explanation, I'd like that to be true." Just last week, when he drew his sixth technical foul for arguing calls, Daigneault told reporters, "Fairness and consistency — we need those things from the league and from the refs. If we don’t think we’re getting them, then I think it’s my job to point that out.”
Second, consider this: Lakers guard Austin Reaves has transformed into the league leader in free-throw rate among all guards in his second season. He gets to the line more times per shot attempt than anyone else at his position. Likewise, backcourt mate Dennis Schroder's free-throw rate this season has jumped 15% from his career average. He joins Reaves in the top 10 among guards in free-throw rate on a list that also includes Gilgeous-Alexander, Luka Dončić, Damian Lillard, James Harden, Trae Young and Morant.
This is hardly Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference finals or Game 6 of the 2002 West finals — two of the most egregiously called games in NBA history, both of which helped the dynastic Lakers defeat bottom-10 media markets — but an overwhelming, season-long free-throw disparity that has again kept Los Angeles' playoff hopes alive should raise more questions about who benefits most from officiating and why.
Determination: Fact. The Lakers have the officials to thank for their playoff lives.