NBA: Has Lebron James Been Given an Unfair Advantage?

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Superstar calls don’t exist in the NBA, officially speaking, but everyone knows what a superstar call is. It’s one of the unwritten rules of the league, and you’ll hear commentators obliquely refer to it whenever they talk about a “rookie foul,” or a whistle given to a player, usually on defense, that wouldn’t have been called on a more seasoned veteran. On the other end of the spectrum from the first year are the guys who fill arenas — Kobe Bryant, LeBron James Kevin Durant. If you wanted to be circumspect, you could say that the referees are giving those players the benefit of the doubt, but watch the NBA long enough and you’ll inevitably hear someone talk about whistles that don’t come because of the name on the back of the jersey. That insight might come from Jeff Van Gundy, or it might come from the fan at the end of the bar, but it’ll be said by someone.

The thing about not-so-urban legends like this one, though, is that they occupy the same space other largely unverifiable phenomenon that usually gets accompanied by the phrase “everyone knows.” Sure, “everyone knows” that the referees give the benefit of the doubt (We still maintain the Celtics win in 2010 if this actually gets called by a semi-competent ref, but the NBA apparently refused to schedule even one to work the biggest game of the year. Not bitter.), but its the same kind of colloquial knowledge that is more often repeated than cited.

This is not saying that referees don’t miss calls, because they do, but we decided to see if James, and the Cavaliers, were getting any sort of special treatment through the 2015 the NBA playoffs. We dove deep into the Basketball Reference database to determine whether Cleveland was drawing fewer unforced turnovers (travels and offensive fouls) than the rest of the teams in the second and third round of the playoffs, and whether they were shooting more free throws or getting more and-1 opportunities than their peers. What we found was pretty revealing.

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Free Throws

One of the big problems with the “superstars get all the calls” theory is that if it were easily proven in an empirical way there would already have been lawsuits and condemnations and (probably) gambling charges and cooked books ahead. We don’t need to look any further back than the Tim Donaghy scandal to see how that whole thing would play out. That said, there’s enough data on the 2014 Cleveland Cavaliers that if there were any impropriety going on, we’d be able to see it. For example, if there was a free throw discrepancy, we’d know. So how do LeBron’s Cavs stack up to the rest of the field?

Coming into the first game of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Cavs had shot 262 free throws. All right, raise the pitchforks, right? Their opponents, the Chicago Bulls, had shot 252. Pitchforks down. While it’s true that Cleveland had shot more than 50 free throws than the Golden State Warriors (prior to the Dubs Game 1 against Houston, where they went to the line 22 more times), there’s also the fact that the Warriors swept their series, and that they tend to play less aggressive basketball than Cavaliers.

There are two big outliers here in the free throw department, and you’re probably already aware of which teams have them. That’s right, the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Clippers, who feature two of the most notoriously terrible free throw shooters in the modern era (Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan, respectively), have shot 412 and 418 free throws each, with Dwight alone tallying 118 before Game 1 of the WCF. For the Clippers, interestingly enough, Jordan only shot 51 attempts from the line this playoffs: the bulk of their free throw shooting came from Blake Griffin (127) and Chris Paul (86).

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And-One Attempts

More detailed than mere free throws, the And-One relates to a real, and deplorable, refereeing habit: the delayed whistle. The one that only comes after the shot’s make or miss potential has been realized. The one that will come if Steph Curry misses a game-tying three, but won’t if he makes it. How often have you seen a referee, whistle in mouth, hand at the ready, only to decide that “eh, it wasn’t a real foul” at the last second? This same thought process relates to the number of And-One attempts, or foul shots awarded to a player after a made basket. A superstar should get more of them, right?

To Game One of the ECF , the Cavaliers had taken 16 And-One’s. LeBron has taken six. How does that compare to the rest of the field? Well, it’s four fewer than the Bulls, who had 20, but nearly half as many as the Clippers — Blake Griffin alone took 14 of them in the two rounds of Clippers basketball we got to see in the 2014 playoffs. Griffin is an outlier here, since most of the other ‘name’ players have shot around LeBron’s mark (Jimmy Butler took seven, Klay Thompson took four). No conspiracy here, when you consider the fact that Blake’s play style lends itself to contact around the rim and otherwise finishing through traffic.

Offensive Fouls and Traveling.

This is the big one. Is there a more common trope for basketball enthusiasts than the laughable enforcement of traveling in the NBA? It even got mocked on Inside the NBA after Kendrick Perkins took nine steps (yes, nine steps) without dribbling. In fact, when Dwight Howard was suffering through his year in Los Angeles, the fact that he got called for a travel on a breakaway was extraordinary.  On every possession in pro basketball, a foul happens somewhere, so offensive fouls are typically the product of sheer flagrancy or a referee’s snap judgement.

For travels, LeBron had racked up four so far. That’s slightly higher than his superstar peers — Cp3 was called for just two, as was Steph Curry — and he’s been hit for seven offensive fouls, lower than Dwight’s 10, but higher than Chris Paul’s four. Nothing beyond anecdote and isolated incidences (i.e. missed calls) indicated that James was getting the benefit of the doubt from the officials in the first three rounds of the NBA playoffs, even if you “knew” he was.

All data collected from prior to Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals.