Over the last several days, we’ve spoken about a lot of things that the Lakers need more of if they’re going to beat the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals after dropping Game 3. This team needs Kyle Kuzma to play better, and for LeBron James to activate playoff mode. The Lakers, however, appear to think that at least part of the latter issue is out of James’ control.
After the Lakers’ practice on Wednesday, head coach Frank Vogel was asked about James only shooting 10 free throws so far during this series, and if it was something the team had spoken to James about. Vogel kept it vague enough to avoid a fine for public complaints about officiating, but he also made it clear the Lakers haven’t been happy with the calls James is (and isn’t) getting.
“We’re dealing with the fouls through the proper channels with the league. I think he’s gone to the basket very aggressively, and I’ll just leave it at that,” Vogel said.
This is not the first time this season that Vogel has mentioned the Lakers filing a complaint with the league about not getting enough free throws. In January, Vogel used almost the exact same phrasing to express displeasure with what he perceived as a lack of calls for his team.
Do the Lakers have a point in this series? It’s hard to say. The team has taken 85 shots within five feet of the rim, compared to 87 for Denver. Despite that, the Lakers have taken 78 free throws compared to 90 for the Nuggets. That’s not really irrefutable evidence that a bunch of calls are being missed in the paint, as the Lakers have been putting themselves in the bonus a fair amount (likely the root cause of that free-throw disparity).
In James’ case specifically, he’s only taken 25 shots within five feet of the basket during this series so far, and while 10 free throws total does feel a little low (especially when considering one of them was on a technical foul, and that Nuggets forward Jerami Grant took 12 in Game 3 alone), James also could probably stand to take the ball to the basket a bit more if he and the Lakers really want him to get more calls.
The larger point here, though, is that this likely is not some grand conspiracy to get the Denver Freaking Nuggets to the NBA Finals. The NBA is not trying to rig this for one of the smallest markets in the league playing against two of its biggest stars in the second-largest television market in the country. What this is likely more attributable to is the difficulty in officiating James, one of the biggest, fastest and strongest players the NBA has ever seen, a guy who can power through contact that would send slighter players into the first row. NBA officials are going to be reviewing the same tape the Lakers are, though, and if they see some way that it appears they’re missing calls that should be sending LeBron to the line, it’s likely that will normalize as this series moves along.
The thing we have to remember is that not every officiating issue is some tin foil hat conspiracy theory. Refs are human too, and they miss calls. Usually they acknowledge it and try to fix it, as memorably recalled by current referee Zach Zarba memorably recalled:
Interviewed N.B.A. referee Zach Zarba about commonly held misconceptions about officiating/life in the bubble and he told me a pretty great Kobe Bryant story: https://t.co/jyzRqIfJml pic.twitter.com/NeXoKX0dBL— Sopan Deb (@SopanDeb) September 23, 2020
People are going to razz the Lakers for complaining about this, but this is just their version of telling the refs to “get it together.” This is not the same as the Rockets issuing a memo to essentially declare themselves retroactive 2018 NBA champions due to bad officiating. If the Lakers think their star is getting an inaccurate whistle in the moment, they have to bring it up to the league. Whether or not the officials do anything about it is up to them and their bosses, but this is the same thing any other NBA team would do if they felt the same way.