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Layups: LeBron, Fouls, and the Refs – A Rebuttal

Posted by Neil Paine on February 1, 2010

Last week, Zachariah Blott of Empty the Bench wrote a piece examining LeBron James' low rate of personal fouls per game, using some statistical techniques (a chi-square test) to come to the conclusion that LeBron was receiving preferential treatment from referees above and beyond what Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade get on defense.

Now, Roger Pimentel of How to Watch Sports issues a rebuttal that discloses some of the fine print that could have been attached to Blott's post -- namely, that the p-value of any statistic close to the league lead is going to be small, because the p-value asks "what is the probability that the result is due to random chance alone?" In other words, given James' observed rate of PF/MP, one has to conclude that the odds of James' foul-avoiding ability being league-average are almost nonexistent, but this doesn't really prove LBJ gets favorable treatment from referees any more than it proves Steve Nash and Derrick Rose (to name others atop the league in fewest PF/MP) do, it just means James' ability to avoid committing fouls is almost certainly better than the NBA average. Whether this has to do with his own physical skills, a series of conscious defensive choices on his part, the team defensive scheme, or referee bias, we can't say for certain.

Anyway, read both posts and give me your take... Is LBJ getting favorable treatment beyond the usual superstar non-calls that everyone accepts as a part of NBA ball?

9 Responses to “Layups: LeBron, Fouls, and the Refs – A Rebuttal”

  1. P Middy Says:

    Keeping in mind that the plural of anecdote is not fact, I still have to go with my eyes. I've watched almost every nationally televised Cavs game since Bron has been in the league, and I do not see him "getting away" with fouls. I see him playing hard, smart defense, were he is not reaching in on his man and he is using his athleticism and size to stay in front of his guy. It seems like the vast majority of his fouls come when he plays help defense wherein his reaching and slapping becomes much more commonplace.

  2. Bob Says:

    Agree with Middy here. Just based on studying James from a game to game basis would allow one to come to the conclusion that he is actually pretty smart about fouling, he'll actually avoid making in some situations in which others won't, though he is not hesitant to intentionally foul if need be. The Author of the first article also makes a point to emphasize James' lack of defensive capability relative to Jordan and Kobe, which is questionable as Jordan's early defensive was nothing spectacular, DPOY voters give a lot of love to raw steals and blocks. When their respective defensive ratings are compared, James has actually been pretty efficient (he's been virtually on par with Jordan in terms of Defensive Win Shares), and is probably a more dynamic defender due to his size.

  3. Jason J Says:

    Observationally speaking, I do see LeBron get away with a lot of wrist-slapping on his fly from behind blocks when he runs down fastbreak attempts, but I doubt that's bias. Refs almost never have an angle on those plays, and they happen quick. He's so good at it, that you almost have to give him the benefit of the doubt if you can't see the play.

  4. P Middy Says:

    To Jason's point, I do remember his block on Jason Richardson's break away 360 dunk attempt ( On the replay you can clearly see it is a foul, but it happens so quickly and spectacularly it's hard to imagine a ref being able to catch - especially when in transition.

    Sometimes it's not so much the star that dazzles the ref, but the play itself. Bron does so many amazing things, I can see a ref being taken out of "ref-mode" ever so briefly.

  5. Brent Says:

    LeBron will usually either go for the block as long as he's positive he won't make physical contact with the player going to the hoop. But if it looks like it'll be close, he doesn't bother to even contest it.

    Away from the basket he usually sags off his defender quite a bit. Shooters tend to fare better when he's defending him, but he very rarely gets blown by. He'll only get up in someone's face when he's defending the other teams's best perimeter player in crunch time or when he's on national TV and everyone's watching. And he's actually still very good at moving laterally and keeping his guy in front of him.

    IMO, he shouldn't sag off so much because he really is capable of being great all the time. Also IMO, while I don't see that he should have more fouls called against him, I do think he should be fouling more if he wants to be considered a top tier defender. It just can't be the case that he fouls at a shockingly low rate AND he's the best defender he can possibly be.

  6. Ryan Says:

    I've seen Laker fans try to make this unfounded observation many times (casual Kobe homers, more like it). Watching as much LeBron as I can, he's an intelligent defender when it comes to fouls and nothing more. You can attribute preferential treatment to LeBron's foul rate as much as you can to any other top-tier player in the league.

    Bob, LeBron is in his 7th season - by that time in Jordan's career his ability to lock down his man was virtually second to none. Furthermore, the year he received DPOY he'd taken a large stride from the season before and was a phenomenal help defender (probably at his best ever).

    However if the assumption is being made in the article that LeBron is not an effective man defender, then I wholeheartedly disagree.

  7. Jayson Says:

    I would honestly have to say that Lebron kind of does get the benefit of the doubt when he plays defense.. But this is beyond that, the fact that he gets virtually no offensive fouls called against him is even more staggering to me than him being able to get away with so much on the defensive end.

  8. Tsunami Says:

    Jayson, he has more than 20 offensive fouls called on him this season, compare that to guys like Wade and Derrick Rose, who love to go driving into the teeth.

  9. Joel - Improve Vertical Says:

    Most of the comments made about the refs giving Lebron James preferential treatment are, in my opinion, unfounded. I've watched many of his games, and the guy is an intelligent defender who manages to avoid fouling in great ways.
    Sure there's the occasional play that happens fast, is a foul, and the referee doesn't see, but it's the same for all players in the NBA.