Think You’ve Been Seeing a Lot of Fouls? Think Again

After Paul Pierce and LeBron James both fouled out of game 4 the other night, the internet and TV were awash in complaints of referees who were taking things too far, and making the game about them instead of about the players.  It would be easy to believe that fouls are on the rise: there are glory-hogging refs, players are more athletic than ever and playing aggressively, players are flopping like they get paid for it.  Unfortunately, it isn’t true (at least the more fouls part).  If anything, there’s less fouling going on now than there used to be.

I went to basketball-reference.com and got the average number of fouls, average number of free throw attempts, and average free throw attempts per field goal (one of the ‘four factors’) for the league in both the regular season and the playoffs for the past 20 years.  Fouls and FTA are divided by the average number of games played (to adjust for lockout years and playoffs of differing lengths), so you’re basically getting per-game numbers.  Then I plotted them, as simple as that.  Here’s the graph for FTA and personal fouls in the regular season:

Now the same thing but for the playoffs:

And finally free throw attempts per field goal attempt for regular season and the playoffs.  You might think this should go up if players were being more aggressive and looking for contact and throwing the ball at the rim all the time.

A correlation between fouls, FTA, and FTA/FGA and years isn’t always significant, but the value is always negative.  So each of these values has either declined or stayed the same over the past 20 years.  Now, it is true that all of these go up in the playoffs, but it doesn’t look to my eyes like they’ve been calling increasingly more fouls in the playoffs compared to the regular season or anything like that.

I don’t think it’s a pace issue either.  Slower games would mean fewer fouls, and the pace of games did indeed drop from the beginning of this sample to about 1999.  But then it held pretty steady until the mid-2000s and then jumped up a couple points.  Fouls and FTA have not gone up the past couple years.  Even so, adjusting for pace would at best even out the lines, I think, not shift them to going up.  Also, FTA/FGA should be pretty pace-free, and it isn’t moving.

Now it’s possible that the kinds of fouls being called have shifted.  I just tracked personal fouls, but maybe there are many fewer offensive fouls being called now and flopping is being rewarded, with the increased defensive fouls evening things out overall.  But free throw attempts aren’t up, which you would expect if that were true.  Or, maybe you think that refs are calling more fouls on superstars and making games less enjoyable (like LeBron and Pierce fouling out).  But if anything it appears that superstars get calls, and it would be hard for them to get calls if they were getting fouled out.

So, barring any drastic comments about something I’ve overlooked, I’m going to assume people are just getting riled up about one or two games.  It doesn’t look like there are any more fouls or free throws now than there used to be; if you’ve been watching games and think they’re getting slowed down and gummed up with whistles that’s just, like, your opinion, man.

As a side note, if you’re really unhappy with the state of refereeing in the NBA, I’ve been increasingly thinking about my HoopIdea: eliminate refs and let players call the game.  The NBA game only occasionally even looks like the same game that I play simply because there are referees present who might blow the whistle if I do something only tangentially related to trying to score.  Every day millions of people play basketball but only hundreds (maybe thousands during the college season) play with referees.  I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t try this out in the D-League or something.

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