Before the postseason began, I looked at the number of free throws attempted by every player in the NBA. I created a model for the expected number of free throws attempted based on the player's field goal attempts near the hoop and drives (data for both is available on NBA.com). The theory (which is obvious enough) is that the more a player attacks the basket or attempts high-percentage shots near the basket, the more likely it is that he'll draw fouls from opponents. Even if the parameters themselves are imperfect, it's a difficult theory to refute, and the correlation is fairly obvious. When I ran the numbers in March, James Harden had attempted 368 more free throws than expected, while Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James had attempted 35 fewer free throws than expected.
Given the physical nature of the playoffs, and how much the tenor of the officiating can impact a game or series, I wanted to look at the numbers again to see if James continues to receive a less than generous deal from the officials when the calls take on even greater significance. In the playoffs, James has attempted 26 fewer free throws than expected based on how he attacks the hoop.
James has attempted 85 free throws in the playoffs, sixth most in the league. However, based on where he shoots and how often he drives, one would expect him to have attempted 111 free throws thus far. To help put it in perspective, James has attempted fewer free throws than ninja/groin-kicker Draymond Green, and is sandwiched between Marcus Morris and Jeremy Lin on the leaderboard for free throw attempts per game. In Game 1 of the NBA Finals, James attempted four free throws, the same amount as Shaun Livingston despite attacking the hoop to the tune of 14 field goals within five feet of the hoop.
Other players who had a tough time forcing a whistle in the playoffs include Goran Dragic (34 fewer free throw attempts than expected, Dennis Schroeder (32 fewer), and Cory Joseph (27 fewer). LeBron James (26 fewer) had the fourth greatest free throw deficit, and is the only player in the top 10 of free throws attempted in the playoffs to attempt fewer three throws than expected. The greatest beneficiaries from the officials include Kevin Durant (a whopping 65 more free throws than expected), Bismack Biyombo (41 more), DeAndre Jordan (38 more, easily explained by intentional fouling), Paul George (33 more), and Kevin Love (28 more).
Is this all a bunch of bad science to make a case for James to receive more calls? Possibly. For what it's worth, the linear trendline for the playoffs was virtually identical to that for the regular season, support that it's a sound model. If you look at the chart, the relationship is obvious enough.
But does it mean that James is receiving a raw deal from officials? Not necessarily, though it's compelling evidence that he is. There are plenty of reasons James would attempt fewer free throws than expected: players deliberately avoid contacting him, he's especially adept at avoiding contact, his lesser athleticism (compared to his prime, anyway) makes his shots easier to contest, he creates open/uncontested shots for himself in the paint, other players, officials have persistent and random whistle malfunctions when James goes to the hoop, and probably a bunch of other stuff I have neither the will nor imagination to consider.
But among the list of plausible explanations is that James is subject to a double standard, and does not receive calls commensurate with the contact he withstands near the hoop. Personally, I think James has been harmed by the Shaquille O'Neal effect: his physical strength subjects him to a double standard, because officiating him like, say, James Harden or Kevin Durant, would result in a foul on virtually every possession. Or maybe he just receives less contact than other star players — but if you believe that, I have a timeshare I'd like to sell you. Interpret the information any way you'd like, but it's strong evidence that James doesn't get a free pass like many people assume he does.
It will be interesting to see how the series unfolds, with Game 2 on Sunday. But if the Golden State Warriors feel they have free reign to bludgeon LeBron James, the Cavaliers will have to get creative with their offense to generate good shots.