January 26, 2010
By: Zachariah Blott
LeBron James’ statistics are amazing. He’s putting up 30 points, 7 boards, and 8 assists per for essentially the sixth season in a row, and there are exactly zero players who can get close to that trio of numbers for even one season. But he’s doing something else, just as consistently, that no one else of consequence is able to do: not get called for fouls.
Look at the personal fouls column for the top-10 scorers in the league. Nine of them collectively average 2.7 fouls per, falling within the range of 2.3 – 3.4. These nine include some of the NBA’s biggest names who obviously have “earned some calls,” guys who can easily score 10 from the charity stripe in a night while getting the refs’ attention for only their two most obvious hacks.
And the tenth player? That would be James, who averages 1.8–and that’s rounded up. Many people suspect the league helps protect the Wades, Kobes, Anthonys, and other marquee players who keep those turnstiles turning, but how in God’s green earth does LeBron absolutely smoke them all in not getting whistled for defensive misdeeds?
And this isn’t the first time he’s been in the referee’s good graces to this degree. Last year, James averaged 1.7 fouls per. Going backwards from there, you have 2.2, then 2.2, then 2.3, then 1.8, then 1.9… then he was at his high-school prom. Not only is 2.3 fouls per the worst of LeBron’s career, it actually marks the best in the careers of both Wade and Bryant.
Is James, who happens to be the most marketable guy in the league, just that much superior to everyone at not fouling players? We’ve all seen him play, and he’s obviously a very good defender, but he’s no Shane Battier, Ron Artest, Gary Payton, Dennis Rodman, or Bill Russell. James, however, has done a much, much better job than any of them at not being whistled.
Breaking down in great detail LeBron James’ “amazing” fouls rate after the break…
Basic Statistical Comparisons
For starters, we should know how often fouls are being called around the league so we can see if there really is a big difference with LeBron. Through January 22, James played 1702 minutes and committed 77 fouls, good for one foul every 22.1 minutes of court time.
Everyone else in the NBA logged 298,868 minutes and committed 26,473 fouls, good for one every 11.3 minutes. Comparatively, James is half as likely to be called for a foul than the other 300-odd players as a whole. Without even picking up a calculator, it looks like most NBAers who would play 38.7 minutes a game, like James does, would accrue about 3.5 fouls per (remember that his 1.8 is rounded up).
But The Chosen One is no regular professional baller. He just happens to be supremely talented, score a bunch of points, and play on one of the best teams in the league. On top of that, James is the biggest marketing tool the NBA has as it expands its revenue base
all over the world in China.
(Eastern Europe and South America have produced far more NBA players, but don’t vote for the All-Star team, aren’t having arenas built in their countries by the league, and don’t host preseason games.)
But the league has had other uber-marketable superstars over the past 30 years. Didn’t they get all the calls as well? Here are three players whose fame and status were similar to LeBron’s, and how their foul counts looked in their first seven seasons:
- As a Laker teamed up with Shaq, Kobe Bryant was a big deal from early on. He guards roughly the same players that LeBron does, and his defensive reputation has been better for most of his career. In Bryant’s first seven full seasons (following two as a reserve), his fouls per game ranged from 2.6 to 3.3, with an average of 2.9.
- Magic Johnson’s smile, collegiate exploits, and style of play made him an instant hit, which the NBA rode up to and beyond his untimely retirement. Magic’s foul counts in his first seven seasons ranged from 1.8 to 2.9, with an average of 2.5 fouls per.
- Michael Jordan was already well known when he entered the league in 1984. He was the NCAA’s consensus Player of the Year, and he had won a national championship at North Carolina. Not only that, I think it’s safe to say that Jordan’s defensive abilities and reputation far trump those of James (Jordan won the Defensive Player of the Year award in 1987-88). His first seven seasons (not counting 1985-86, when he was injured) ranged from 2.5 to 3.5, with an average of 3 fouls per.
Although these three had better foul counts than an average player, LeBron still registers far fewer. On top of that, Jordan and Bryant carried better defensive reputations during their careers, and James often guards big men inside, which almost always results in higher-than-usual foul counts.
Less Than One In a Million
Okay, maybe the Cavs star really is just that much better than the league, other current stars, and three of the most marketable superstars of the David Stern Era at not fouling the man he’s guarding. I’d say that’s highly unlikely, and thankfully math gives us a vehicle to measure how unlikely.
Using a chi-square test (it’s a pain in the ass to explain, so Google away if you’re so inclined) with LeBron’s foul data and the league’s foul data, one derives a chi-square value of 35.9, which translates into a P-value of 0.00000. The P-value is what’s of most use to us here because it tells us how likely something is to happen due simply to chance (e.g. 0.4 means it has a 40% chance of happening). This all means that the likelihood of LeBron’s foul counts occurring with his minutes is less than one in a million.
(A big thank you goes out to Dr. Bradford Crain, a statistics professor at Portland State University, who helped with the calculations and their interpretations.)
That astronomically low number has to be taken with a grain of salt since there are actually a few players in the league who fall into this category, but it’s usually pretty obvious why. For example, Steve Nash is committing a career-low 1.2 fouls per, but he’s such a bad defender, everyone he’s guarding simply dribbles past him and then he’s out of the play. It’s not so obvious with LeBron, considering he’s regularly guarding extremely dynamic players who routinely go to the line, and he’s often banging with the big boys underneath, where a majority of fouls are called.
A more meaningful way to look at the rarity of his foul counts is by comparing him to players who play similar minutes. There are 12 non-centers (centers’ foul counts are always high) who are playing between 38 and 40 minutes per. I decided not to look at their fouls per, since I already know how James stacks up here, but to look at how often these players get into foul trouble compared to James. If a player is in foul trouble, it affects how aggressively he can play in crunch time and if a coach needs to make substitutions, two things that can alter the outcomes of games.
These 12 players (not a slouch in the bunch – Bryant, Gay, Durant, Roy, etc.) combine for 469 games, during which they got called for 4 fouls 53 times, 5 fouls 31 times, and 6 fouls (fouled out) only 4 times. James has logged 44 games, 3 with 4 fouls, and 0 with more. In fact, 4 fouls is the most he’s been called for over the past two seasons.
Using a chi-square test on this data gives us P-values of 0.047 and 0.060 for games with 4-plus and 5-plus fouls, respectively (the calculations for 6 fouls are meaningless since they’re so rare for the entire group). That means that LeBron had a 4.7% and 6% chance of having so few games in those types of foul trouble due simply to randomness. Therefore, something else is at work here (most mathematicians consider anything under 5% to be “significant”).
Checking last year’s data, it’s even worse. There were 10 players who logged between 37.5 and 38.5 minutes per (James, 37.7), and collectively they played 777 games, 109 with 4 fouls, 48 with 5 fouls, and 13 with 6 fouls. James had 9 games with 4 fouls during his 81-game season. This data yields P-values of 0.023 and 0.0089, so he had a 2.3% chance of having so few 4+ fouls games and a 0.89% (less than 1%) chance of having no 5+ fouls games.
Yes, there is definitely something “significant” happening here.
Regular Superstar Treatment?
Maybe the face-of-the-NBA stars ranked similarly low during their top seasons. It turns out Magic was close, but none of them could match what LeBron has been doing for most of his career.
It makes sense to assume Michael Jordan stayed out of foul trouble during his 1992-93 MVP season. In 78 games, he had 4 fouls 10 times, 5 fouls 7 times, and he never fouled out. The nine non-centers who played between 38 and 40.5 minutes totaled 681 games, 124 with 4 fouls, 56 with 5, and 7 with 6. This data yields a P-value of 0.285 for games with 4+ fouls, and 0.936 in games with 5+ fouls. Thus, Jordan had a 28.5% and 93.6% chance of getting into foul trouble at the same rate as these other guys, and he was second to Hakeem Olajuwon in Defensive Player of the Year voting.
Kobe Bryant was similar in his 2007-08 MVP season. In 82 games, he had 18 games with 4 fouls, 6 with 5 fouls, and 1 foul out. The 12 players who played between 37.7 and 39.9 minutes registered 908 games, 162 with 4 fouls, 68 with 5, and 17 with 6. This data produces P-values indicating Kobe’s numbers fit right into this group; he had a 52.3% chance of having that many 4+ fouls games and a 80.5% chance of that many 5+ fouls games.
Magic Johnson did better in his 1986-87 MVP season, playing in 80 games, getting 4 fouls 10 times, 5 fouls 5 times, and never fouling out. The 10 non-centers with 37.1 to 38.6 minutes per totaled 799 games, 128 with 4 fouls, 82 with 5 fouls, and 19 foul outs. The P-values indicate Magic had a 5.9% chance of producing the amount of 4+ fouls games he did with that many games, and a 9.4% chance for games with 5+ fouls. I should mention that these percentages are actually skewed low by the inclusion of four players who had more foul trouble than anyone in LeBron’s years.
None of these players had a percentage fall into the “significant” range, and these three seasons represent some of the best case scenarios of likely “star treatment.”
There is no question that LeBron James is a freakish talent that can do it all, including turning a 17-65 squad into a perennial contender. Not only does he get a lot of points, rebounds, and assists, but he producers these numbers at very good rates (55% eFG%, 11.1 Reb%, 2.2 A/TO).
Where I have some concern is how seldom he’s in foul trouble. This gives an unfair advantage to the Cavaliers, since he never has to watch how he plays or sit for any reason other than to rest. The P-values show how extraordinarily unlikely it is for James to end up with these low foul counts, and his style of play and comparison to more-defensive-minded superstars makes his counts even more unbelievable.
The numbers all come out so ridiculous, it’s undeniable that either a) we’re witnessing a defensive talent more capable than Bill Russell, or b) the NBA/referees are blatantly protecting him. That first one was meant to be a joke, by the way.
Considering there are multiple studies indicating various referee biases, there are several examples of really obvious butcher jobs from the officials that always just happen to help the big-name teams and players, and at least one guy—who the FBI confirms was able to win 80-90% of his bets simply by knowing who was reffing—alleges the NBA has its hands in the outcome of games, I feel comfortable assuming the league is protecting its biggest star to a degree we’ve never seen before… and might never see again.
Zachariah Blott cannot recommend Rick Telander’s “Heaven Is A Playground” enough.