The NBA is infamous for catering to the big-market, star-studded teams that have dominated the league for the better part of 30 years. Only nine different teams have won an NBA championship over that time, and very often there are accusations of foul play that contribute to that centralization of power.
The NBA Draft has said to be rigged, players are accused of holding teams hostage and of having too much power. But just as often NBA refs are thrust into the center of the controversy for their involvement in, and influence over, the outcome of a game.
In no other sport do officials have so much control over the pace and outcome of any given contest. To add fuel to the flame, in 2007, Tim Donaghy was brought up on federal charges for betting on, and tampering with, the games he was officiating. If NBA fans didn’t have doubts about the credibility and integrity of NBA referees before, they certainly had reason to doubt it after that.
I have been giving this a lot of thought lately, as the upcoming season is fast approaching, and I thought it would be interesting to perform an in-depth analysis on the officiating for last season’s NBA playoffs.
I looked at every single game played, tallied up the total number of free throw attempts for each team and broke those numbers down in several different ways. I chose total free throws attempted rather than total fouls called, because I thought it would be a better reflection of the most impactful calls made by the refs officiating each game.
What I came up with may surprise you. There was virtually no favoritism shown to any team in the playoffs, no trends that insinuate conspiracy and no incredible outliers that support any foul play. It actually seems like last year’s playoffs were officiated pretty evenly, as much as that pains me to say.
The most surprising thing to me was that the team in the bigger market shot more free throws than the team in the smaller market only 42 percent of the time. The so called “star-studded” team shot more free throws 47 percent of the time. So much for any favoritism there.
The team with the biggest differential in terms of total free throws shot over their opponent was the San Antonio Spurs. Over the course of the playoffs, they shot 56 more free throws than their opponents combined. That sounds like a lot, but to put that into perspective, it only amounts to an average of about two more foul shots per game. It’s hard to argue for a conspiracy based on that.
As for any preferential treatment for the Miami Heat, well they had a minus-17 differential, meaning their opponents shot 17 more free throws than they did; so if there was any favoritism, it certainly wasn’t directed towards them.
Overall, the team with the most number of free throws in any given game beat their opponent only 57 percent of the time, which is only out of ordinary in the sense that this number seems relatively low. Obviously the refs weren’t making the game too one-sided in either direction.
Two refs had personal stats that could be interpreted as questionable. Mike Callahan and Monty McCutchen both served as the main referee in at least seven games in which the home team had a winning percentage of more than 64 percent and where the average point differential was less than four points. This seems like the ideal circumstance for potential tampering.
However, in both cases, they actually called more than five fouls in favor of the road team per game. Also, neither were associated in any of the controversial plays that occurred during the playoffs. So, either they are really good at tampering, or more likely, they simply refereed more games where the home team came out on top.
The bottom line is that no matter how I sliced and diced the numbers or poked and prodded for any biases, the fact remained: No story was there waiting to be uncovered.
As much as I dislike how today’s game is over-officiated, I have to reluctantly admit that the refs during last year’s playoffs did an admirable job in terms of equity. Now, if only they’d learn to swallow their whistle a bit more.