One of the most controversial topics in the NBA this season has been the free-throw disparity that favors LeBron James and his Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers have attempted 722 more free throws than their opponents, leading some to accuse them of getting preferential treatment from the referees. But is this disparity really as overwhelming as it seems? Let’s examine the facts and the fiction behind this issue.
Fact: The Lakers are among the league leaders in free-throw attempts and differential There is no denying that the Lakers get to the line a lot. They rank second in the NBA in free-throw attempts per game (26.4) and first in free-throw differential (+5.6). They have received more free throws than their opponents from 53 of the NBA’s 65 referees, according to Yahoo Sports. They have also benefited from more incorrect calls or no-calls in clutch situations than any other team, according to the NBA’s last two-minute reports.
Fiction: The Lakers’ free-throw rate is unprecedented or unfair While the Lakers’ free-throw rate is high, it is not unheard of or unjustified. As Ben Taylor of Thinking Basketball pointed out, the Lakers’ differential is the 17th-best this century, and there have been several teams in recent years that had higher or similar margins, such as the 2018 Charlotte Hornets (+8.8), the 2014 Houston Rockets (+8.6) and the 2017 Charlotte Hornets (+5.6). None of those teams caused as much uproar as the Lakers have. The reason for the Lakers’ high free-throw rate is simple: they attack the rim more than any other team. According to Cleaning the Glass, they lead the league in frequency of shots at the rim (42.1%) and rank last in frequency of shots from mid-range (18.9%) and second-last from three-point range (28%). Getting to the rim usually means drawing contact and fouls, which explains why they shoot so many free throws.
Fact: LeBron James is one of the most fouled players in the league LeBron James is often at the center of the free-throw debate, as he is perceived by some as getting favorable calls or complaining too much when he doesn’t get them. The truth is that James is one of the most fouled players in the league, as he should be given his size, strength and aggressiveness. He ranks fourth in free-throw attempts per game (9.1) and third in free-throw rate (0.491), which measures how often a player shoots free throws relative to his field goal attempts.
Fiction: LeBron James gets more calls than other stars While James gets a lot of calls, he does not get more than other stars who play a similar style. In fact, he gets fewer calls than some of them. For example, Giannis Antetokounmpo ranks first in both free-throw attempts per game (10.3) and free-throw rate (0.569), yet he does not face as much scrutiny as James does. Other players who have higher or comparable free-throw rates than James include Joel Embiid (0.575), Zion Williamson (0.541), Jimmy Butler (0.527) and Kawhi Leonard (0.492). The bottom line is that James does not get any special treatment from the referees, nor does he deserve any less than other players who drive to the basket as often as he does.
Conclusion: The Lakers’ free-throw disparity is not overwhelming or unfair The Lakers’ free-throw disparity is a result of their offensive style, not some conspiracy or bias from the referees. They shoot more free throws than their opponents because they take more shots at the rim than their opponents, which is a smart and efficient way to play basketball. They do not get more calls than other teams or players who play similarly, nor do they get fewer calls than they should. The Lakers’ free-throw disparity is not overwhelming or unfair, it is just a fact of basketball.