How Much Have NBA Refs Been Helping the Los Angeles Lakers Make the Playoffs?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Kobe Bryant possibly going down with an Achilles tear threatens to obscure one of the most startling developments of the 2012-13 season. Take a look at some hard numbers comparing the free throw attempts of the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz as they've fought for the 8th playoff seed in the West.

If you weren't overwhelmed by the news of Kobe Bryant leaving the Golden State game in the fourth quarter with a probable Achilles Tendon tear last night you may have noticed that the Los Angeles Lakers continued to hold on to the 8th spot in the West by virtue of a 118-116 victory over the Golden State Warriors. The Utah Jazz also defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves but L.A. held on by the skin of their teeth, not just in the standings but in a game that came down to the last seconds.

Even if you didn't see the game you may also notice its most distinctive feature via the boxscore. The Lakers shot 50 free throws in this one. They scored 38 points off of those attempts in a 2-point victory.

Apologists will point out that Dwight Howard accounted for 22 of those attempts, leaving the Lakers with a comparatively paltry 28-16 advantage in foul shots. Well and good. But Hack-a-Dwight is hardly a new strategy. Several teams have employed it over the last few seasons, leading Commissioner Stern himself to decry the practice. Was this game that much different?

For the last couple of weeks the Lakers and Jazz have been embroiled in a dogfight for the 8th seed. I propose a simple experiment. I want to look at the last dozen games of the season for each team, comparing their free throw stats in those contests to their season as a whole. What, if any, shifts have happened for the Lakers and Jazz since their head-to-head matchup got serious?

The final two games of the season for each team have yet to be played. But here are the results of their last 10 so far:

Free Throw Margin over Opponent

The Lakers average 8.4 more free throw attempts per game than their opponents over the course of the season. The Jazz are nowhere close, ceding 1 free throw attempt per game to their opponents.

The last 10 games the Lakers have registered a +13.5 margin on free throw attempts per game. That's 161% of their norm, an increase of +5.1 free throw attempts per game over their opponent on average.

Over that same period the free throw (dis)advantage of the Jazz has dropped from -1.0 attempts per game to -4.7 attempts per game. That's 470% worse than what you'd predict from their season average, 3.7 fewer attempts per game than opponents.

The Jazz average 23 free throw attempts per game for the season. They have failed to reach that average in 9 out of their last 10 games. They have failed to reach their average free throw attempt margin in 7 of the last 10 games.

The Lakers have only been above their average of 27.8 free throws per game in 5 of the last 10 games. But that doesn't tell the whole story. They have attempted more free throws than their opponent in every one of those games, exceeding their average free throw attempt margin in 7 of the 10.

Based on their season average for foul shots made, L.A.'s increased free throw margin in the last 10 games has accounted for +3.5 points per game over their opponent on average. Their average margin of victory in that stretch has been 1.7 points per game.

For those who want to know how much the Golden State outing skewed the numbers, if you pare down Dwight Howard's 22 attempts against the Warriors to his season average of 9 free throws you still end up with the Lakers at a +12.2 margin per game in the last 10, 145% of their norm. This would account for +2.6 points per game on average against a margin of victory of 1.7.

Percentage of Points from Free Throws

Another fun fact: This year the Lakers have averaged 18.8% of their points from free throws. good for 4th in the league. During this 10-game stretch that number has risen to 21.6%. Extended through a season that new number would propel them to the #1 position, best in the league.

This year the Jazz have averaged 17.8% of their points from free throws, 10th in the league. During their playoff push that number has plummeted to 11.9%. Extended through the year that would leave them in 30th position, dead last in the NBA by a mile.

In other words, a team that was already very good at drawing points from the foul line has produced better than anyone during their playoff chase. In that same period the team competing with them--a team that was also really good at drawing points from the foul line--has dropped to a level below the worst teams in the league.

Free Throw Attempts/Field Goal Attempts

Another one: The Lakers lead the league in free throw attempts per field goal attempt with a .344 ratio. During this stretch that's increased to .405. The Jazz rank 12th on the year with a .280 ratio. In the last 10 games that's dropped to .197. Over the season that rate would rank them 29th in the league.

Conclusions

What are we to do with all this?

The news of Bryant's injury spread as this post was being written. The knee-jerk tendency is to say, "Kobe's gone and the Lakers probably won't make it anyway so what does it matter?" In my view, this issue bears scrutiny independent of Bryant's status. It remains significant whether the Lakers make the post-season or not. I'm not sure a single loss to the Spurs or Rockets should be enough to make this go away. No single set of numbers tells a complete story, but when you start seeing results like this you have to ask questions even if the presumed outcome of the trend doesn't pan out.

The only thing Bryant's injury might change is our chance to see if the numbers would have continued in the last couple games of the season for the Lakers and Jazz. The injury could make a case for us to stop counting right now as the sparkle is probably off of the post-season marquee even if the Lakers do make it. Plus it's going to be hard to find another player to hang credible "Kobe fouls" on.

Whether one can make an inference of active conspiracy towards the Lakers would take knowledge beyond what we have here. The figures need further examination with more variables brought into play. But that's the point (and one of the reasons to post this despite the injury). It's examination we're not likely to get because of the surrounding noise.

Even with the numbers we have here we can say this: Comparing free throw trends in the last 10 games of this playoff chase with season averages there's no doubt the whistles have advantaged the Lakers and disadvantaged the Jazz beyond the norm.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

P.S. In case you want the numbers in a table, here you go.

Season Average

Last 10


Change


Season Rank


New Rank

LAL FT Margin


+8.4

+13.5

+5.1

1st

1st

UTA FT Margin


-1.0

-4.7

-3.7

18th

28th

LAL %PTS from FT


18.8%

21.6%

+2.8

4th

1st

UTA %PTS from FT


17.8%

11.9%

-5.9

10th

30th

LAL FTA/FGA


.344

.405

+.061

1st

1st

UTA FTA/FGA


.280

.197

-.083

12th

29th

"New Rank" is the team's rank if the trends of the last 10 games had carried the entire season. As you can see, during the last 10 games the Lakers have risen from rates that made them one of the top 1-2 free throw beneficiaries in the league to head and shoulders above everybody else's season averages. The Jazz, meanwhile, started as average to above-average free throw producers but have suddenly dropped to the worst team in the league outside of maybe Orlando.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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