The NBA’s Miami Heat Win Streak Conspiracy Theory and Some Numbers to Back It Up

First off, if you expect to come to this blog and read “The Miami Heat win streak is over and boo-hoo because it shows how unbelievably good they are,” you’re in the wrong place and you need to stop reading right now.

That’s not a threat or a promise or anything, that’s my honest advice. If you think this Heat team or any member of it is God’s gift to anything, stop reading.

Don’t be ridiculous, the Heat are good and that’s not what this post is about. They’re not 27 wins in a row good. Not without some help from the Association, a for-profit organization that understands the revenue it stands to gain from creating superhero players and superhero teams. That’s what this post is about: the league turning a good team into an untouchable team.

Let me start with a quote from Chuck Klosterman, not necessarily an expert in basketball data, but an intensely smart guy who is nothing less than an expert in making direct statements in a uniquely understandable way:

“Everyone who loves pro basketball assumes it’s a little fixed. […] We all accept that the league aggressively wants big market teams to advance deep into the playoffs, and we all concede that certain marquee players are going to get preferential treatment for no valid reason. The outcomes of games aren’t predeteremined or scripted but there are definitely dark forces who play with our reality. There are faceless puppet masters who pull strings and manipulate the purity of justice. It’s not necessarily a full-on conspiracy, but it’s certainly not fair.”

I’m a data nerd and the numbers from the last two months of Heat games just don’t add up. I won’t be examining individual plays or calls or anything, I’m speaking about larger data trends. Here’s the premise of my Miami Heat 27-game win streak conspiracy theory: After the Heat put together a noteworthy win streak, the NBA took notice of it and officiated games afterward in a way that would give the Heat the best chance to keep adding to the streak.

David Stern Miami Heat basketball card

Everyone knows what team the commissioner plays for.

It’s all about money. The Association sells more tickets, jerseys, advertisements, etc. if it’s in the news every day. For anyone who might suggest that the league has no interest in making one team better than the rest, that’s just not true. The NBA has a lot to gain financially from having record-breaking teams. They get free news coverage and they can jack up ad revenue for televised games. Don’t ignore that.

I’ve written about the NBA’s personal foul rule before. Mainly, it’s almost entirely gray area and can unfairly control how much time players have to miss. To think that there’s a 48-minute game full of contact and less than 40 fouls in all of it is absurd. Here’s the thing about the NBA’s personal foul: each one is entirely subjective and results in free points for the one team as well as missed game time for the fouling player. Free throws are earned to some degree, but there’s also a healthy percentage that’s just given out by the officials. If you don’t believe me, read Tim Donaghy‘s book.

The way I see the NBA, the officials are the ground game for the league. Here’s where the conspiracy comes in. During the first 10 games of the Miami Heat’s win streak, the Heat got much different treatment in terms of total foul differential and total free throw differential. That’s because the first ten games didn’t constitute a newsworthy streak. Once it started getting reported, the Association made sure those differentials went heavily in the Heat’s favor every night to keep the streak active as long as possible.

In the first 10 games of the win streak, the Heat played five games with a positive personal foul differential, meaning they fouled fewer times than their opponents. In four games, the Heat had a negative PF differential and in one, it was even. Overall, the differences were pretty minor. In total, they finished the first ten games with five fewer fouls than their opponents, a forgettable average of .5 fouls per game. No big deal.

Don't worry, the NBA made a rule against this for the other 29 teams.

Don’t worry, the NBA made a rule against this for the other 29 teams.

Compare that to the PF differential in the next 17 wins, in which they Heat had a positive PF differential in 15 games. In total, the Heat were whistled for 94 fouls fewer than their opponents over that 17-game stretch, an average of 5.28 fouls per game. That sounds like a lot of fouls, but consider that 5.28 foul differential against a couple of other numbers: 1) the median NBA team commits 20.0 fouls per game (the Heat benefit by more than 25% of the average) and 2) The difference between the Most foul-prone team (Toronto) in the NBA and the least foul-prone team (Spurs) in the NBA is 5.3 fouls per game.

That’s right, in every game past the 10th win, the Heat received the same foul preference as if the most-fouling team in the league played the least-fouling team.

And the Raptors and Spurs are outliers! If you use the difference between the second-most-foul-prone team and the second-least-foul-prone team, you’re only looking at 3.6 fouls per game. Miami us getting about 150% of that IN EVERY GAME.

To go along with the PF differential, I also recorded the free throw differential. These two stats are positively correlated for sure, but here’s another angle on the boost the refs gave Miami. In the first 10 games of the streak, Miami shot 11 more total free throws than their opponents, a negligible average of 1.1 free throws each game.

Any guesses about what happened in the next 17 games? I’ll give you a hint, it’s pretty bad. After their 10th win, Miami shot 96 more free throws than their opponents, an average of 5.65 per game. In the last 10 wins, when the streak was really going the Heat shot an average of 8.0 free throws.

To put that in perspective, the median NBA team shoots 21.6 free throws per game. It doesn’t sound like much, but data nerds like me go crazy over numbers like that. Plus, after that initial 10-game winning streak, the Heat played one game to double overtime and won six games by five points or fewer. So the difference of that many extra free throws is a big deal.

You might say, “But the Heat get fouled a lot, we expect them to have a positive PF and FT differential.” And that’s true, but the degree is way off. Before their 11th game, the Heat were ranked 12th in the league in both most FT attempts per game fewest PFs. The stats from that 17-game span are not explainable. Unless you explain them the way I did.

I’m not saying that the Heat are bad at all. If you consider what would have happened during that 27-game span with normalized fouls and FTAs, they’re probably still looking at 24 wins. What I’m saying is that it’s beyond time to realize that the Association has a team and a player that it allows to play by different rules than everyone else. It’s done intentionally and there’s nothing we can do about it. But please don’t act like it’s not happening.

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