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We’re three games removed from the NBA player and referee unions meeting in an attempt to hash out their differences during the All-Star break, and the National Basketball Players Association’s first vice president, LeBron James, the game’s biggest star, is now lobbying for calls through the media.
“We’re at a point now where we protect the shooter more than the driver,” James told reporters after attempting four free throws on three trips to the line in a 110-94 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday afternoon. “There’s no reason I should be going to the line four times in a game when I drive 100 times to the paint and I’m getting hit and slapped and grabbed and whatever and whatnot. We protect the shooter. That’s what it’s turned into. ‘Chicks dig the long ball,’ and that’s what it’s about.”
James didn’t quite attempt 100 drives against the Spurs. He’s credited with 18 by Second Spectrum.
I rewatched all 25 of James’ field goal attempts and found 15 drives. (That includes a few floaters from outside the paint, which were sort of half drives.) And it was clear there were no fouls on 12 of them.
Among those three fouls, two were called, resulting in a pair of and-one layups, and the third was an egregious no-call. Rudy Gay’s follow-through after a clean block caught James in the face with three minutes left in the third quarter of a six-point game. James crumpled to the floor, and play continued.
One blown call in the bunch doesn’t seem worthy of an “I’m getting hit and slapped and grabbed and whatever and whatnot” rant, especially when James was also the beneficiary of at least one bad call, too. Just 30 seconds before the Gay foul, James trucked Danny Green on a drive into the paint, and Green was whistled for a blocking foul. Broadcaster Hubie Brown couldn’t believe it wasn’t a charge.
Of course, James wouldn’t agree that the officials missed just one call that should have resulted in more free throws for him. He complained after four others, including once on a failed layup and tip-in attempt after which he did not bother to get back on defense in the fourth quarter. He was not fouled.
James’ biggest gripe, though, came with seven minutes left. He drove to the basket looking to slice into a deficit that had grown to double digits. Kyle Anderson cleanly blocked him from behind. James couldn’t believe a foul wasn’t called, so much so that he earned a technical for his incredulousness.
“All f***ing game, man,” he could be seen saying after the tech. “All game.”
If there was a call to be made, it was an offensive foul on James for striking Bryn Forbes across the face with his elbow. So, we’ve found our disconnect. If James believes someone shouldn’t be able to put their face in the way of his elbow, I can see why he thinks the refs are missing so many calls.
This is the problem. Surely, refs miss calls involving James and every other player in the NBA, but the players never balance that with the number of times they benefit from missed calls. Human error is just part of the game. And maybe thinking the refs are out to get you is human nature, too. But watch the tape before you start making broad statements about how officials aren’t protecting the drivers.
Yes, shooters draw some calls by creatively drawing contact on the perimeter, but the NBA has done a decent job eliminating some of those with rules against rip-through and flailing-leg shooting fouls. And, yes, some fouls aren’t called against James, because at his size he can bounce off them no worse for wear, but you don’t see him complaining when he barrels through a defender and gets the whistle.
It’s no wonder there’s a growing divide between referees and players. The game’s most prominent player took an unwarranted complaint into his postgame press conference, called out the officials as a whole, and the refs have little recourse to call him on it, other than to whistle him for a technical foul. And then the players complain about too-quick technicals. It’s a vicious cycle of incessant griping.
I’m not sure statistics would support James’ theory, either. Among the 20 players who have attempted the most free throws this season (James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Dwight Howard, Anthony Davis, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarcus Cousins, Jimmy Butler, Damian Lillard, Joel Embiid, Lou Williams, James, Kemba Walker, LaMarcus Aldridge, Bradley Beal, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker and Andre Drummond), all but four of them (Embiid, Durant, George and Booker) also rank in the NBA’s top 20 for drives, paint touches and/or field-goal tries in the restricted area.
Of that group, Durant, George and Booker attempt more shots from the mid-range and beyond than they do inside the paint. Now, do we believe they get to the line often because refs are trying to “protect the shooter”? Or do we think it’s because star players are the biggest beneficiaries of blown whistles? Or is it because star players are adept at drawing fouls? Whatever the reason, LeBron James is the game’s biggest star, so if he’s not getting calls, then the refs really must be out to get him.
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