Over the course of the 2022-23 NBA season, a lot of podcast topics were filled and ink was spilled on the Los Angeles Lakers leading the league in free throw attempts, averaging 26.6 per game. That number was less than a full free throw per game more than the Detroit Pistons (25.7), the latter of whom suspiciously few argued that the refs were rigging games for, but I digress.
During the NBA playoffs, all that has evened out a bit, with the Lakers dropping to sixth in attempts (22 per game, tied with their second-round opponent, the Golden State Warriors, and less than the Phoenix Suns, who were the most notable team to melt down over the way the Lakers were officiated in the regular season).
Now, the Lakers' advantage in that department was always probably always a bit overstated — and likely was mostly due to how they attempted more total shots within five feet of the basket than all but two teams — there also may be a simple, logistical reason that partially accounts for how many trips to the charity stripe they made that came down directly from the NBA replay center.
As ominous as that sounds, it’s (probably) not a conspiracy. According to Jake Fischer of Yahoo Sports — who recently wrote a feature on Monty McCutchen, the NBA’s senior vice president and head of referee development and training, and his work in the replay center — some small market teams are operating at an officiating deficit, but it’s not for the reason you (and those team’s fans) may think.
Let Fischer explain, on the latest episode of his “No Cap Room” podcast with Dan Devine (emphasis mine):
“One thing I learned though, that was pretty crazy, the overwhelming majority — and you see it on TV broadcasts, but it didn’t really click in my head until someone there said it — the overwhelming majority of these replays that take extra time to review, they’re decided by an angle from the robocam on top of the backboard. Where obviously no official is standing... What I learned though is that not every arena has that robocam, and it’s definitely a thing where all season long, fans have been pointing out, media have been pointing out that the Lakers have been getting a very favorable, unbalanced amount of whistles...
“So look, if fans out there want to say that there’s a big-market agenda, I’ll say this... A lot of the smaller markets don’t have that robocam! They have a disadvantage at getting the calls accurate. Because if you don’t have that angle, then this crack team (at the replay center) can’t review it. And some teams only have it on one basket! So on one side of the floor you get all this access, all this optionality of figuring out what the correct call is, and the other basket you don’t.
“So that was one of the most interesting takeaways to me, that this crucial element to what they’re doing there doesn’t exist in some of these arenas... There is some type of credence to the fact that a smaller market team may not be getting the same benefits as bigger market teams given that their arenas haven’t paid for that camera to be on the backboard.”
Over the course of an entire season, this could lead to a legit advantage, as a team with robocams in its arena will be mathematically guaranteed to play more games in an arena with such cameras than a team that doesn’t, the latter of whom would play 41 of its games without such a benefit allowing the replay center to help officials get foul calls correctly on both sides of the ball.
These cameras are not an automatic free-throw advantage, however. The Golden State Warriors have arguably the nicest arena in the current NBA, and as such likely have robocams, but ranked 30th in the league in free throw attempts because they took the fifth-fewest total shots within five feet of the basket in the league during the regular season (the Suns were dead last in that category, Monty Williams).
But when you combine those cameras giving officials a better ability to get calls right on both ends with a team that lives in the paint as much as the Lakers, and add in accomplished foul drawers like LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Austin “Harden Ginobili” Reaves, you will start to see a discrepancy.
So the next time an opposing fan comes crying to you about how many free throws the Lakers received in a game, celebrate whatever win the Lakers just got (because that’s the only time this happens)! But after you’re done doing that, explain to them that their favorite team should probably just pay for cameras on top of the backboards so that officials can get more calls right.
Or that they should just drive and seek contact more. One of the two.
You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.