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Thursday, January 03, 2013

LeBron James is Rarely Called for Fouls

LeBron James recently went 254 minutes--a six game stretch--without being whistled for a single personal foul. That is remarkable considering how active James is both offensively and defensively--he attacks the hoop so much that he leads the league in points in the paint and he leads the Miami Heat in scoring, rebounding and assists. How could a player be so productive and engage in so much contact without committing any fouls? Skeptics will surely say that James benefits from superstar calls (or no calls, as the case may be) and there may be some truth to that but, as someone who witnessed many of James' Cleveland games in person, I can say that James' athletic ability and terrific body control enable him to avoid fouls more effectively than just about any player I have ever seen; he goes for blocked shots by taking angles that avoid either slapping the shooter with his hand and/or contacting the shooter with his lower body. Consciously or subconsciously, referees at any level of the sport tend to give a good player some benefit of the doubt regarding innate aspects of that player's game. For instance, old school basketball observers know that Oscar Robertson so frequently used his off hand as a club to ward off defenders that referees gradually accepted that as part of Robertson's game even though similar gestures by another offensive player might lead to a foul being called. I suspect that referees are so used to seeing James avoid making contact that they may subconsciously give James the benefit of the doubt in close call situations.

I did not see all 254 of James' foul-free minutes but it would be interesting to know if an objective, unbiased observer has watched those minutes and made a serious effort to determine how legitimate James' streak was; I charted assists for Chris Paul and other players and I found strong evidence that assist totals are inflated: I never discovered a pass that should have been called an assist but was not called an assist but I found many passes that should not have been classified as assists but were classified as assists; it is reasonable to assume that when the errors are uniformly distributed in one direction that this is a result not just of human error but that rather there is some bias--or at least an extreme loosening of standards--involved. It would be interesting to determine to what extent James' low foul totals can be attributed to his body control as opposed to him benefiting from lenient officiating.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:30 AM



At Thursday, January 03, 2013 5:52:00 PM, Anonymous boyer said...

It's obvious the superstars in the league get preferential treatment, though the case might be that the officials just miss less fouls against them. Kobe, Lebron, Durant, etc. all like to whine about calls they think went against them, though Kobe is much more demonstrative about it. Whenever they do show a good angle on a replay on which Kobe does complain, I rarely see him complain without good reason. Sometimes players are wrong, but I think it's often because they feel that they were shafted earlier in game, and want to make their beef later.

As for James or anyone for that matter, I wouldn't say not committing a foul is necessarily a good thing. No matter how much body control you have, if you're playing pressure for most of the game, you're going to commit a foul. While it's better not to foul, there's always going to be situations during the game, that even if you are playing stellar defense, you have to commit a foul, such as stopping fast breaks, helping a teammate out, and end-of-game situations. It's good that he doesn't foul much, but not fouling at all, even if legit, I'm not sure about.

Wilt never fouled out of a game during his career. When you hear this, you might think how amazing, but it probably wasn't. He probably should've been more aggressive defensively, but then again he was a giant playing amongst much smaller men.

If I was an official, I surely wouldn't give the benefit of the doubt to floppers like Evans, Paul, Lebron, Fisher, Ginobili, and Varejao to name a few. I don't understand why Lebron feels like he needs to do this. Maybe he's doing it less this year, not sure, but it's absolutely ridiculous. Paul is a tiny player, so it makes sense if he does it since he'll get the call usually, and he's a top 10 player as well, though I wish everyone would stop doing. It's annoying.

It's too hard to know what officials are thinking, and it's a long season for all of them. But, I'm so tired of Joey Crawford. Fine, maybe he's the best official in the game according to some, big deal. He wants to put on a show and be seen, and has serious anger management issues. The Duncan incident was bad.

And I remember when Hinrich was a rookie. I think it was a Bulls' road game at GS. Craword had a vendetta against Hinrich that game, just sad to watch.

At Friday, January 04, 2013 12:24:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

Dunno why my first comment did not go through. Ah the vicissitudes of mobile browsing.

I originally pointed out that Wilt Chamberlain faced similar issues during his playing days. While he did average under 2 fouls per game - lowest ever of any superstar- the no-foul-out streak did snowball into something bigger than the game itself. Even when saddled with 5 fouls no referee wanted any part with snapping the streak and hence gave Wilt more leeway to play physical defense.

I doubt LeBron will ever face this kind of bias unless he approaches Wilt's record of 1000 plus games.

At Friday, January 04, 2013 12:47:00 PM, Anonymous Abacus Reveals said...

There's an almost counter-intuitive aspect to officiating -- any sport, from the grassroots to the pros.
It's more than just a cliche that an official who does a good job wishes to go unnoticed -- let the players and coaches decide the outcome.
The dilemma, then, is how to garner notice in order to advance up the ladder -- long-term anonymity?
But then, a good official needs confidence, even a bit of swagger, I dare say.

At the entry level (competitive youth sports, school ball), the coaches (for better or for worse) wield a good bit of influence in who gets the work.

I taught school in the inner-city for 30 years, but the dozen or so years I called fast-pitch softball was more of a challenge.

Re. Wilt: While I'll admit he seemed to become somewhat "protective" of this unique distinction in the latter stages of his career, I think you're grossly underselling his athleticism, Mr. Boyer. In his prime, he was a match (speed, strength, agility, etc.) for ANYONE who's ever played the game.

At Friday, January 04, 2013 3:18:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Awet M:

What is your source for the contention that no official wanted to tag Chamberlain with a sixth foul and thus gave Chamberlain "leeway" on defense? While this may be a plausible assertion, I don't know how you can prove this without consulting footage (which is largely unavailable from that era) and/or citing a credible quote from a referee who worked during that era.

At Friday, January 04, 2013 6:59:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

David Friedman

I'll have to look up the source of that story. It's likely in one of the books I read on Wilt Chamberlain, either his autobiographies or the recent ones by Cherry, Pomerantz, Taylor.

At Friday, January 04, 2013 10:12:00 PM, Anonymous boyer said...

Abacus, I don't think you understand me fully. I think Wilt is given a bad rap for his defense, maybe because Russell was better defensively, but probably more because Wilt was unfairly blasted by the media like Kobe and Westbrook are.

Wilt was a freak of nature, probably best athlete in NBA history, which is saying a lot since he played in a very poor athletic era for the NBA and basketball sports the best athletes in the world. I'm super high on Wilt. I just don't think that not fouling at all is a good thing. And for a big man who averaged 45mpg+, who had a long career, it just seems strange that he never fouled out. He had to grow defensively throughout his career, though. Russell was probably better defensively overall, but then again Russell had no chance against Wilt. I think Wilt averaged something like 31 and 20 against Russell. Russell had little to no answer against Wilt, which is not surprising since Russell is Kevin Durant size or possibly smaller.

Wilt has a strong case for best player ever. If he played on the celtics instead of Russell, he'd have at least as many titles as Russell, and Russell would probably have none. They each had super different careers. Remember, Auerbach wanted Wilt first, which is obvious.

At Saturday, January 05, 2013 11:00:00 AM, Anonymous Abacus Reveals said...

My apologies if I misunderstood, Mr. Boyer.
As a Wilt guy, you may enjoy this:

Actually, I'm a Russell guy and now feel you're under-valuing him, but I'll leave that debate for another time.

Re. LeBron's foul-less stretch? It seems fluky to me. I'd be curious to know his longest such stretch in the playoffs.

At Saturday, January 05, 2013 3:46:00 PM, Blogger Matt said...

Alas my comment didn't go through. I suspect think the main reason that Lebron doesn't get called for many fouls is that he doesn't seek to aggressively force turnovers or block many shots. Joe Dumars was another defender like that (Lebron was averaged 1.9 PFs a game over his career, Dumars averaged 1.8). More aggressive defenders like Pippen (2.8) and Jordan (2.6) fouled at a higher rate than Lebron.

At Saturday, January 05, 2013 10:27:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


James annually ranks in the top 10 in steals, he leads the Heat in rebounding and he blocks more shots than Dumars did. James is a more active player in the paint at both ends of the court than Dumars was, so it is unusual that James played so many minutes without being called for a single foul. I cannot definitively say what happened because I did not analyze those 254 minutes but I know from previous games that I have seen that James has exceptional body control; I am not convinced that this entirely explains the streak, though.

At Sunday, January 06, 2013 12:02:00 PM, Blogger Matt said...

Slightly mistated. I meant that he doesn't for as many steals relative to his comparable defenders like Pippen as Jordan did (though era has a part to play there), so relative to *them* he is more like Dumars.

But then again, Kobe doesn't get that many steals either and his PFs (2.6) are more in line with Pip/MJ. Sigh. I guess I can forget that theory.

At Sunday, January 06, 2013 3:20:00 PM, Anonymous Chris said...

The main reason for Lebron's low personal foul count is that he tries to use his hands as little as possible. His defense mainly relies on positioning, lateral movement, bodying up with his hands down and not going for pumpfakes.
He also does not try to block jumpshots and his contests on jumpers are - compared to waht NBA players usually do - never early.
He also does a good job of getting his hands close to the ball on lay ups und adrives without making contact with anything, trying to bother and disturb the player without going for all or nothing.

Consindering his abilities, he could average many more steals and blocks than he does, but when he learned defense from Mike Brown, he inherited the Spurs Dogma of never fouling.

It is also of note, that he basically stops defending altogether once he gets in foul trouble - just watch him if he gets an early foul in the first quarter for the next 5 minutes or so - and he overall seems to adhere to the principle, that superstar should never get themselves into foul trouble.

Anyway, I watched every Heat game during that streak and I do not remember an instance of the top of my head were he actually fouled someone. But guys like LeBron and Kobe commit so many offensive fouls that are never called - or the other way - that it should be obvious to anyone, that such streaks should be taken with a grain of salt.

At Sunday, January 06, 2013 10:07:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Those are some very plausible explanations for the streak.

At Monday, January 07, 2013 10:03:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

LBJ does a great job of not reaching on defense. He's a two way mismatch defensively -- either too quick or too strong (or both) -- and does a great job of using that/those advantages instead of gambling or hoping to get away with grabs and reaches.

It's really not surprising he went through that streak if you combine the above with the inevitable superstar treatment. The truth is he's an awesome defender and doesn't get enough credit for it.


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