Lately there have been a series of videos documenting questionable calls made for the Lakers or against another team. I will state my biases right away. I absolutely believe it is in the league’s absolute best interest to get the Lakers in the playoffs, and the have every reason to rig it. We are talking about a difference of revenue in the millions, media attention, and all sorts of other positive implications, over a bit of integrity.
The NBA is governed by itself. I don’t know exactly what would happen if the NBA had real significant evidence of rigging games and draft lotteries. Even if there was solid proof that the league rigged the Lakers-Kings series, or Patrick Ewing’s frozen envelope, there is nothing that anyone can do about it. At the end of the day, Lakers won a championship, and added positive attention to the NBA brand. If the draft lottery was rigged, there is nothing we can do about it. We can’t put Patrick Ewing in a time machine and make him play for a different franchise.
It would take a scandal of epic proportions, way above Donaghy for the league to shut down. Even if the NBA was just one big rigfest, as a basketball fan I would not be able to boycott the NBA. I am loyal to the NBA product, and even if everything was rigged, I would continue to watch it.
If we think like how economists are supposed to think, the NBA could in theory make maybe $50 million (this is a number I pulled out my ass) off the Lakers making the playoffs, as opposed to $10 million if the Jazz made the playoffs. So the NBA could in theory pay $5 million to refs to get the Lakers in the playoffs and keep their mouths shut, and the NBA will now make $45 million after paying off their refs, as opposed to the measly $10 million that the Jazz would have gotten them.
Now let’s move a little beyond the conspiracy, and talk about numbers. Recent videos have been made by fans to show shady late game calls.
But video editing can easily be fixed to show the stuff that you want to show. I can make a highlight video, one of all of LeBron’s turnovers and misses, and one of all the baskets and cool passes I have ever made, and I look like a better basketball player from LeBron James.
So let’s go to something slightly more concrete, which is numbers and statistics. Here are a set of tables showing the Lakers free throw attempts and free throw differentials over the last 10 games, compared to two other potential 8th seed teams, the Jazz and the Mavericks
Lot of green for the Lakers, and a lot of red for the Jazz and the Mavericks. The Jazz have shot on average 6 less free throws than their opposition over the last 10 games, while the Lakers have shot 13 more free throws on average.
This is how most of the media is presenting this free throw disparity. But here’s the thing. Some teams just shoot more or less free throws than others, and give up more or less free throws whether due to pace or playing style. Kobe Bryant can just get to the line at will, and teams love to Hack-A-Dwight. When the Warriors play Dwight Howard, they hack him because they know they can’t guard his dunk.
So instead of comparing the Lakers free throws to other playoff bubble teams, I’ve chosen a couple of ‘control’ teams. I chose two Eastern Conference and two Western Conference teams who have high free throw attempts.
We should not be looking at sheer attempts, because free throw differentials have context. A team that shoots a lot of free throws can also let in a lot of free throws.
What is interesting to me though is that the Lakers have never lost free throw differentials in the last 10 games. Any given team can win free throws one night and lose the other. Nuggets can win the differential by 24 and lose by 10 the next night. The Thunder can win by 17 then lose by 4 the next night.
Here is a table containing 7 team’s free throw differentials over the season, and over the last 10 games. I don’t expect all teams to be similar to their average, because variance happens. But is it a coincidence that of all the teams that could use a boost in free throw differentials and all the teams that would be affected the worst, that it would be the Lakers and the Jazz?
To prove statistical significance I need more advanced data (which I don’t have access to), but in all honesty, of all the significance tests there are, I will be able to find some to prove this 13 free throw edge statistically significant, insignificant, or just plain inconclusive.
So here are just the cold hard facts, and I’ll leave the data interpretation up to you. This is my argument with the facts.
- The Lakers are in the most crucial stretch of the season.
- The league sure as hell wants the Lakers in the playoffs.
- Lakers have a 13 free throw edge each game over the past 10 games, as compared to the ~8.4 free throw edge they have over the course of the season.
- Of the 7 teams I’ve done this for, the Lakers are the team with the largest positive change in free throw differential over the last 10 games, and the Jazz are the team with the largest negative change in free throw differential. Coincidence?
- Lakers have never had a free throw deficit in the last 10 games.
- Free throws are the only way an external party can directly manipulate the score.