A Long Tangent About Superstar Calls

We all know the refs have sucked these playoffs.

But whether it’s been in your favor or your opponents, it’s been consistently bad both ways for the most part. There are a multitude of calls that have been overturned, called the wrong way or just flat out missed. Has it always been this bad? Does LeBron deserve his calls?

Let’s find out:

2018 Postseason: 1589 Fouls Called (out of the top 40 players in total fouls)

Kyle Korver: “When you’re playing against LeBron, you say ‘Man, that guy gets EVERY call’. Then when you play on LeBron’s team, you say ‘Man that guy NEVER gets a call!’”

Interesting, considering the top 3 players in personal fouls are all primary stoppers on James. Draymond Green (70) has less of a case than Marcus Morris (60) and Jaylen Brown (58) when you look at sample size, considering he’s only played 3 games as opposed to 7 against LBJ. But it also applies to my next point: does Draymond get reputation calls on defense?

Here’s my riveting hypothesis: “If you’re a physical defender, you’re gonna get penalized.” It’s really that simple. Draymond brings that intensity every night on defense, and guarding LeBron forces players like Brown and Morris to bring that intensity every time he’s on the floor. We all know LeBron is best when he’s attacking the basket, and similar to Harden, if you alter his shot in any small way he’ll get to the line. You might say, “hand checking would help!”

Well, let’s see how fouls “went down” in the hand checking era

2004 Postseason: 2031 Fouls Called (out of the top 40 players in total fouls)

Big shoutout to Shaquille O’Neal, who played 23 games and accrued 90 (jesus christ) fouls. Honestly, this is just a byproduct of the era, where coming into the lane was usually a great way to get a face full of elbow. Looking past Rip “Boi Quit Reachin” Hamilton at #3 (72), the next highest foul total from a non big is Compton’s own Tayshaun Prince, 5th at 61. I’m sure we all remember how great of a defender Tayshaun was, that long, wiry frame, usually defending the best player on the court, guard or wing. And with similar foul totals as Morris/Brown, we can start to draw some parallels.

Firstly, Kobe (similar to LeBron) was averaging 44 minutes a game in the playoffs, so Tayshaun had his hands full with a young springy Bean Bryant over those final games. This isn’t quite the post up from midrange Kobe, this was the I’m gonna drive past you and dookie on whoever is in my way Kobe. So, more drives, more contact at the rim, even with hand checking assisting the defender, making it harder for Kobe to blow by. Was Kobe getting superstar calls?

This is where it gets tricky. Let’s look at the primary defender of the other star, Ben Wallace (10th at 58). Shaq is hands down the most physical player in these playoffs. So why aren’t there more fouls called. Well, for one, hand checking usually applies to perimeter defenders. Shaq wasn’t blowing by anybody from 20-30 feet out, so all the fouls he was getting were either in the post or products of Hack-a-Shaq. So was hand checking really the problem? Was it called less? As great of a defender as Tayshaun was, the numbers (and the eye test) don’t necessarily prove that hand checking was “benefitting” defenders. Throw the “Who’s the real superstar on the Lakers” argument aside, as Kobe had come into his own at this point and was a confirmed star.

While wing talent in the early 2000’s wasn’t nearly at the level it is today, Prince was a physical defender who always played his man hard, leading to plenty of fouls through the Pistons title run. Were the refs calling fouls on handchecking? If they were, then would handchecking really make THAT much of a difference?

Let’s fast forward to this season. Fouls on drives are usually always happening within 5 feet of the rim. This puts the onus on the help defender, usually the weak side big man. So how is the primary defender getting called for the fouls? In Prince’s case, the fouls were happening more outside of the restricted area. Morris and Brown are relegated to moving their feet all the way to the cup, trying to stay in front of the freight train that is LeBron James without touching him. This usually leads to less contact, if there is contact we can look at the numbers and say it was due to the primary defenders making a bad play on the ball or getting caught behind. Did that really happen enough times for LeBron to get THAT many calls?

To come full circle, my point is basically this: players like Harden and LeBron have it easy. With no hand checking, as soon as the refs see the defender extending an arm on the shot, it looks like a hack. This leads to more bad calls and more free throws for the ball handler, which is weird since the defense has to play a less physical style.

So what is our problem? Are the the refs too indecisive? They’re most likely conflicted between giving the superstar call and “that’s just playoff basketball” (Random Tangent: that phrase is so annoying. Jeff Van Gundy has to use it at least twice a game). I think the best way to look at it is that fouls have changed, contact is much more closely scrutinized, and the leagues best are getting away with it.

And LeBron gets a lot of calls. I guess. I don’t even know if that was the conclusion I was going for. But hey, controversy!