Analysis: Impact of Referees on 2011 NBA Playoffs


Ever since the playoffs started a month-and-a-half ago, I’ve been hearing the same things from my buddies over and over:

“He wouldn’t get that call on the road”

“Wait ‘til the next game, the fouls will even out”

“That’s a foul if he wasn’t at home”

While there are times when these phrases are used as excuses, there has been an unsettling amount of truth to these statements in the 2011 NBA playoffs. Most fans accept that the home team receives more love than the officials, and if you read Tobias Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim’s book Scorecasting, you would know that the numbers back this up. They found that officiating, more than any other factor, was the main reason behind home-venue advantage in the NBA and other sports. In the playoffs, that advantage has been amplified, as refs are favoring the home team to a much greater extent than during the regular season.

During the 2010-11 regular season, NBA teams averaged 24.9 free throw attempts per game at home and 23.8 per game on the road, for a differential of 1.1 FTA/game. Through the first three rounds of the playoffs, home teams have averaged 27.8 FTA/game versus just 23.1 FTA/game on the road, for a differential of 4.7 FTA/game. That’s over four times the difference! The numbers are less jarring when it comes to personal fouls, but the differential is still up in the playoffs. Averages of 20.3 fouls/game (home), 21.2 fouls/game (road) and 0.9 fouls/game (differential) during the regular season have climbed to 20.8 fouls/game (home), 22.4 fouls/game (road) and 1.6 fouls/game (differential). H

ome-court advantage is supposed to be a reward for performance in the regular season, but there is no excuse for the inflated number of foul calls in the playoffs. Not only do fans tire of seeing the same superstars continually bailed out with fouls, but fouls slow down the game and, ultimately affecting the quality of the product. As fans, we want to see the game decided on the court, while the clock is running, not at the free throw line. Here’s a look at some of the teams that, for better or worse, have been most affected by the officiating this postseason.

San Antonio Spurs

During the Spurs’ three home games against the Grizzlies in Round One, they had 47, 32, and 32 free throw attempts. They won two of those games. During the three games in Memphis, they had 32, 14, and 14 attempts. They lost all three of those games. As in most of the cases that follow, the differentials were not the only factor that contributed to the Spurs’ downfall, but it is clear that they had an effect, especially during Game 6 (an eight-point Grizzlies’ win in Memphis in which Memphis attempted 30 free throws to the Spurs’ 14).

Miami Heat

Miami has two superstars on their team that like to drive to the rim, the perfect formula for bloated free throw attempts. Even in a world without bias, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade would probably get to the line more than most NBA players because they are two of the best penetrators in the league. But when you combine that with officials’ tendency to bail out established superstars, you get some ridiculous numbers. Miami averages 33.3 FTA/game at home during the playoffs versus 24.3 FTA/game on the road, a differential of 9.0. Contrast that to their three opponents in the East: Philadelphia (17.5 home, 17.3 road, 0.2 differential), Boston (20.0 home, 20.2 road, -0.2 differential), and Chicago (24.7 home, 21.3 road, 3.4 differential). It’s no contest. Miami already has an advantage when it comes to foul calls due to the presence of Wade and James. But when they’re at home, it’s as if they’re playing 8-on-5 (no wonder Miami is 8-0 at home during the playoffs).

Chicago Bulls

Like the Heat, the Bulls have a penetrating superstar in league MVP Derrick Rose. Like the Heat, the Bulls have received a tremendous benefit from the officials because of him. In a 104-99 win in Game 1 of their first round series against the Pacers, the Bulls held a 32-17 advantage in free throw attempts. Rose accounted for 21 of those. Game 2 was not as bad, but Rose’s free throws were again a huge reason why the Bulls were able to prevail: he sank 12-of-13 in a six-point Bulls’ win. There’s also the Bulls’ 95-83 Game 5 win in the second round against Atlanta, where Rose attempted 13 free throws versus 17 for the entire Hawks roster. Now imagine how crazy Rose’s numbers would have been if he hadn’t sustained an ankle injury midway through the Indiana series. Chicago may have been on the opposing end of the free throw count against Miami, but they don’t have too much to complain about based on their first two series.

New York Knicks

Game 1 of their opening round series against Boston turned on two potential fouls: one that was called, and one that wasn’t. With the Knicks up one and 21 seconds to go, Carmelo Anthony was whistled for a questionable off-the-ball foul on Paul Pierce, turning the ball over to the Celtics. On Boston’s ensuing possession, Kevin Garnett decked Toney Douglas on a screen as he was headed towards Ray Allen, allowing Allen to knock down the game-winner with 11 seconds to play. Change either one of those calls, and the Knicks likely win Game 1 in Boston, creating an entirely different mood for the rest of the series.

Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder

This example doesn’t favor one particular team, but it’s too egregious to overlook. In Game 1 of their Western Conference Finals series, the Mavs and Thunder combined for 79 free throws. Of those 79, 61 were accounted for by three players: Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and Dirk Nowitzki. Again, these guys are stars; they’re going to get calls. But 61 FTAs by three players? Are you kidding me?

As the NBA Finals begin (fittingly, a rematch of the 2006 edition, the worst-officiated Finals in history), the referees are once again a massive storyline. Let’s hope that, unlike last year’s Finals, when the Lakers shot 21 free throws in the fourth quarter of Game 7, the officials don’t play a major role in deciding the outcome of the series.


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