Much ado has been made by a significant subsection of irate Celtics fans about the foul discrepancy in the 2010 Finals versus the Lakers, a number that may astonish at first glance: 174-156 personal fouls, a difference of 18 fouls called in the Lakers favor.
News flash: if you foul a lot, you will get called a for a lot of fouls. This unfortunate consequence has nothing to do with conspiring officials or David Stern machinations.
This is not directed solely at the Boston Celtics, although they obviously were the impetus for writing this. This is also directed at the Utah Jazz, who, like the Celtics, have developed a reputation for fouling everything in sight in the same way that Wilmer Valderrama hits up every upcoming starlet in Hollywood.
There is nothing wrong with either, but it is surprising that so many cry "foul" when their beloved team that plays physical, hard-nosed defense also gets more fouls called on them. It's an accepted side effect of playing the type of defense that wins games for them. If you're fouling all the time by the letter of the law, it becomes a question of judgment for the refs to decide which fouls are egregious enough to call. But sometimes you get caught playing that game at the wrong time. Just as if you travel well in excess of the speeding limit all the time, you're going to get to your destinations faster (theoretically) but if you do it all the time, you're also going to pick up a lot more tickets than the person who only speeds occasionally.
But how do I know that the Celtics and Jazz foul more than other teams? If you take a look at the league foul totals for the whole of the regular season, the Jazz had the second most fouls called on them, and the Celtics were ninth. The Lakers were 27th. Oh, those Lakers are always getting the benefit of the whistle! But wait, heading that list is the Golden State Warriors? That doesn't seem to match my impression of that team. And that's when I remembered the trusty lesson taught by Prof Fishmore about pace. I have to adjust these fouls for pace, and figure out which team fouls the most per possession. With the help of Neil Paine of basketball-reference.com/blog (I asked him in the comments section of one of his mailbags), I have procured a handy table of fouls per possession by team for the 2009-10 regular season (table only, Mr. Paine does not necessarily endorse this post):
See it after the jump
Ah, now this matches my recollection of the games better. Detroit tops the list, with the Jazz and the Celtics right behind them. At the bottom of the list are teams like the Mavericks, Lakers and Knicks.
Now if you accept that the regular season officiating over all the games and teams is not biased (you might not, in which case I have to ask why you even watch "fixed" NBA games), you will see that indeed, the Celtics fouled teams a full 15% more than the Lakers.
So in light of that fact, is the Finals foul discrepancy all that surprising? The 174-156 foul totals translate to the Celtics being called for 11.5% more fouls than the Lakers, less than their regular season differential. In fact, if you go back to 2008, the story is much the same, where the Boston Celtic were 3rd in fouls per possession and the Lakers 25th, with a 16% differential! You could make an argument that the real anomaly was that in the 2008 Finals Lakers were called for more fouls than the Celtics 156-148. But I won't be making that argument (some of those fouls came when they were behind in score but close at the end of a game).
I only wish to point out the the Celtics did and do indeed foul more than the Lakers as point of statistics, and they reaped the benefits and all the drawbacks that come with it. With more resources at my disposal, I would even posit that being in the penalty early in a quarter hurt the Celtics much more than it did the Lakers, as each foul thereafter generated two free throws, and the Celtics propensity for fouling created more fouls after the penalty and thus more free throws.
I know that this doesn't directly attack any accusations of referee bias, but it does show that the Celtics got called for a lot more fouls, even when they weren't playing the Lakers, which I contend is not an indication of any league bias, but a mere byproduct of consistently playing physical defense (which includes a lot of fouling).
Must the calls be balanced evenly for the officiating to be deemed proper? Isn't it possible that one team actually fouled much more than the other?
Now in the same comments section of basketball-reference, there was a response that the while the Celtics fouled a lot, they also got fouled a lot, and the Lakers likewise, they didn't foul much and they didn't get fouled much. This actually is true, but only by a 3% or 4% difference, so you would think that the combination of a Celtics-Lakers matchup would result in more fouls against the Celtics.
There are also considerations of how a physical (read: fouling) team will appear against a not-as-much-fouling team, and what happens when the less fouling team is aware of this, but I leave this to you to fill out and discuss in the comments section.
UPDATE: I started writing this post yesterday, and today Neil Paine followed up, so please continue reading more on this at his excellent basketball-reference blog (while I don't agree with parsing of stats to individual players, the team stats are very meaningful).
His emphasis is that while the foul disparity is not that unusual, the FT disparity is. I thought that this was because Boston was in the penalty more, meaning the Lakers got to the line more on non-shooting fouls. I did more research, and found that the non-shooting penalty FTs didn't hurt the Celtics as much as I thought it did (see the comments section on Neil's blog). But they still committed a lot of shooting fouls,so for a follow up, I would have to do more digging, and hope that I could also confidently state "If you don't want to have so many free throws taken against you, don't foul so much in the act of shooting" - I would have to see how often Boston was in the bonus during the regular season and find out how much of the FTs taken against them were due to shooting fouls, or FTs awarded due to the penalty alone.
But without that data, ask yourself this - why was the fouls per possession in line within normal rates for the Celtics and Lakers, but the FT per possession were not? Do you think the refs carefully selected the shooting fouls, and then ignored the non-shooting ones so that somehow the totals for fouls per possession ended up being within range? That would be a strange and difficult way to go about things.
The foul disparity ends up being something of a red herring for fans looking for blame. The Celtics fouled their opponents more all year, and they accumulated a winning record and got to the NBA Finals. When they win, it's a sign of their tough, aggressive defense. It's only in the face of a losing result that it is looked upon as a negative.