Why the NBA is Broken: A Conspiracy Theory Involving Elite Players and Free Throws

It looks like we’re right in the middle of the NBA playoffs, and to this point, they’ve been exceptionally good. A bunch of close games so far and even a handful of truly surprising upsets. In terms of games that are consistently competitive, this year is unlike any that I can remember.

But this post isn’t about how much fun the NBA is right now. It’s about the biggest reason to call the NBA unwatchable right now. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the only reason not to watch the NBA in the regular season too, but it seems to me like it’s been way worse in the playoffs: the officiating is different for every player based on how important they are to the league.

You may have read on this blog that I’m not really into starting conspiracy theories, but I think it’s generally understood among anyone who follows the NBA with any sort of regularity that the big name players get calls that other players don’t. In these playoffs, it seems to me like some of those players are getting so many advantageous calls that it’s entirely changing the game.

For the purpose of keeping things simple and focused on actual data rather than speculation, I’ll keep this blog post centered on the personal foul calls involving the big-name players. Primarily, how many free throws these guys get to shoot.

Dwight Howard might be Super at other things, but this one is probably landing in the stands.

Just who am I talking about when I refer to this short list of NBA superstars that are important to the league? Good question. I’ll let the regular season free throw attempts per game decide that. If you line up the entire league from most FTA per game to least, there is a noticeable break between the top 12 and the rest of the field. There is a pretty regular distribution among the rest of the field, but there is a gap of half a shot per game between Kevin Love at 12 (6.8 FTA) and a group of guys at 13 (6.3).

In terms of raw free throws attempted, the same 12 players are at the top, with Love losing some ground because of games he missed. There are 11 players who shot more than 500 free throws in 2010-2011, the obvious outliers in an otherwise normally distributed field. Those 11 players are (thanks to espn.com for the stats):

Dwight Howard — 916 FTA, 11.7 per game
Blake Griffin — 695 FTA, 8.5 per game
Kevin Durant — 675 FTA, 8.7 per game
Kevin Martin — 669 FTA, 8.4 per game
LeBron James — 663 FTA, 8.4 per game
Dwyane Wade — 652 FTA, 8.6 per game
Russell Westbrook — 631 FTA, 7.7 per game
Carmelo Anthony — 605 FTA, 7.9 per game
Amare Stoudemire — 597 FTA, 7.7 per game
Kobe Bryant — 583 FTA, 7.1 per game
Derrick Rose — 555 FTA, 6.9 per game

Dwight Howard (.596) and Blake Griffin (.642) may lead the league because they’re poor shooters and other teams are fouling them strategically, but if you were to put together a list of the 11 most important players in the NBA, this group wouldn’t be too far off.

Carmelo and Amare are good, but the Knicks are too bad for it to matter.

I don’t have any problem saying that these 11 players are among the best in the league, certainly in terms of scoring ability, but to compare these guys from the regular season to the playoffs only works if they made the playoffs, so I’m going to throw out Griffin and Martin. That gives us nine players to watch.

In all of the cases except for the two Knicks players, these guys are on favored teams (1-4 seeds). This means that they will be playing the first two playoff games at home, where officiating will likely benefit them a little extra.

Since those nine guys play in only 6 of the 8 series, I’ll also throw in the top free throw shooters from the other two series — Dirk Nowitzki and Manu Ginobili. This will make sense if we want to get all the playoff action involved.

Below is a chart that lists the free throw attempts of the original nine players plus the two I threw in to compare how many free throws they shot on average in the regular season to how many free throws they are shooting in the postseason. It’s pretty basic stuff.

Player Regular Season FTA Playoff FTA (through 2 games) Percent Differential
Dwight Howard


22, 19 +75%
Kevin Durant


15, 7 +26%
Dwyane Wade


8, 7 -13%
LeBron James


14, 10 +43%
Carmelo Anthony


4, 11 -5%
Russell Westbrook


5, 4 -42%
Amare Stoudemire


6, 2* -48%
Kobe Bryant


8, 8 +13%
Derrick Rose


21, 13 +146%
Dirk Nowitzki


13, 17 +146%
Manu Ginobili


DNP, 13 +156%

* Stoudemire only played 18 minutes in this game and left in the second quarter with back spasms. None of his stats from this game should be considered full game stats.

Before I get into the numbers let, me start by saying that I realize the playoff sample size is small. But it’s all we have. So please don’t take this as 100% proof of a conspiracy, but at least let me try to convince you.

Here’s how it all adds up: These 11 players, according to regular season averages, should have shot a combined 166.7 free throws through the first two games of the playoffs (everyone times two but Manu times one since he only played one game). They actually did shoot 227, a 36% increase in total. Are the referees giving these elite players more chances to score points from the free throw line per game? Yes. But there’s more!

Here’s where it gets interesting. Take a look at who is going up and who is going down. Without me explaining, you should have probably already noticed that most players went up, some by a whole bunch. And look at who went down. Of the four players that saw decreases, the common factor is that they all play on a team with someone else on the list. I’m willing to grant that Amare’s numbers are pretty much invalid because he only played half a second game, but even without that game, his one complete game gave us a decrease of about 22%.

Wade’s free throws go down, but LeBron’s go up. Westbrook’s free throws go down, but Durant’s go up. Both Carmelo and Amare are shooting fewer free throws now than in the regular season, what’s that about? Another interesting thing about those two is that they are the only two players on this list who don’t play for a favored team. So the two playoff games aren’t at home and their teams isn’t expected to win the first series.

The case for all eight series is the same — The player from the favored team who shot the most free throws in the regular season is seeing an increase in foul-line opportunities in the postseason.

In some cases, the free throw distribution in games has been downright criminal. Look at these interesting notes about the games that have occurred so far:

*Derrick Rose shot 21 free throws in game 1 against Indiana, 4 more than the entire Pacers team.

*In game 1 against the 76ers, LeBron James shot 14 free throws, only one fewer than the entire 76ers team. In that same game, the Heat took 39 free throws to the 76ers 15.

*In Dallas-Portland game 1, the Mavericks outshot the Blazers from the stripe 29-13, including a 19-2 advantage in the fourth quarter.

*In Orlando-Atlanta game 2, Dwight Howard took 19 free throws attempts to the Hawks 17. The Magic in total outshot the Hawks 36-17 from the line.

Could these things all happen by chance? Sure. Could it be possible that the NBA has turned into a game where the best player on the best team is given more opportunities to make plays and score points than the rest of the players? Could it be possible that the league knows which players’ and teams’ success is good for business and makes sure those players and teams play in an environment that will give them a competitive advantage? I don’t see why it’s not at least worth consideration.

He probably got free throws for this. Or at least a technical.

Sure it’s true that in the game of basketball getting to the free throw line is an offensive skill. It makes sense that some of the best offensive players will shoot the most free throws. It doesn’t make sense that the number will be skewed so high for a select group of players. It certainly doesn’t make sense that these same players will see such a gigantic leap in free throw attempts in the playoffs. It’s been statistically proven that “clutch” is a myth so please don’t try to give me that argument. To think that a handful of players possess some crazy ability to elevate their game so much more than others because it’s the playoffs is both horribly inaccurate and the worst kind of buying into the NBA’s whole only-a-handful-of-players-are-important-in-the-playoffs idea. Even if these guys played harder or different in the playoffs, it’s unrealistic to think that the defending players aren’t doing the same thing.

Sure there might be other factors that may increase a player’s chance to shoot free throws in a playoff game. But the league knows that Kobe Bryant is looking to win his sixth ring and that’s the same number of rings Jordan won. The league knows that the Lord descended from the Mount and blessed the people of earth with LeBron. The league knows that Derrick Rose won the MVP a month before the season ended. The league knows which teams needs to win games and which players need to be the ones who get them there.

I’m just saying, the numbers that we have so far are interesting. And watch tonight’s Pacers-Bulls game if you don’t believe me. Count how many times Rose creates contact in the lane with no real shot and gets a call. Just try it once.

If you disagree, let me know. If you agree, also let me know. Either way, tell your friends.

There is also a second part to this post, which can be found here.