Following their 122-111 loss to the Lakers on Wednesday night, Suns coach Monty Williams had one thing on his mind — the 46-20 edge that the Lakers had in free throw attempts.
“I can sit here and rant and rave about what I feel like is not a fair whistle. It’s just not,” Williams said to open his postgame remarks.
Williams harped on the free throw discrepancy for the entirety of his 90-second press conference before abruptly exiting the room. Did he have reason to be upset?
Stats prove Lakers get NBA’s most favorable foul calls
Williams does have some statistical evidence to back up his frustration. The Lakers have had by far the biggest free throw advantage against opponents in the league, shooting 387 more free throws than their opponents. That is over twice as much as the next-highest team, the 184 free throw advantage of the Heat.
Insane. top free throw disparities in the league this year. Adam Silver is going to jail for fixing games to get the Lakers in the playoffs pic.twitter.com/e32xotLMbK
— Kevin 🏀 Vote 4 Brandon Johnson April 4th (@NBACouchside) March 23, 2023
The Lakers having such a big free throw advantage could potentially be explained by stylistic differences in play from their opponents. They’re not driving much — they’re 19th in the league in drives per game, per NBA Stats. But they are taking the second-highest percentage of shots at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass, and their defense allows the eighth-fewest attempts at the rim.
With fouls occurring more often on layups than jump shots, that shot profile can at least partially explain the discrepancy that the Lakers have been generating. But that is still an absurdly big advantage.
Austin Reaves is getting a superstar whistle
Some of the Lakers’ high free throw numbers are coming from the usual sources. LeBron James and Anthony Davis both deservedly rank in the top 20 in free throw attempts per game. Neither superstar has gotten as good of a whistle as Austin Reaves.
Reaves’ free throw rate, a measure of the number of free throws taken per field goal attempt, is the eighth-highest mark in the league. He shoots free throws more often on his shot attempts than Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the most prolific driver in the entire league, Luka Doncic, and noted foul-baiters like James Harden, Trae Young, and DeMar DeRozan.
Reaves’ whistle has been on full display over his last two games, during which he has shot an unfathomable 31 free throws.
Part of that may be due to Reaves’ excellent technique. He answered a question about his penchant for drawing fouls after shooting 18 free throws against the Magic on Sunday.
“I mean, I’ve watched James Harden you know, like I said, Trae. Two masters at that. Kind of tried to put it into my game,” Reaves said.
The video of Reaves’ foul drawing is out there, and tens of thousands of people have judged for themselves how legitimate those calls have been.
Here is every single foul that resulted in Austin Reaves 31 free throws in the past two games.
hell of a whistle😭 pic.twitter.com/a4qtUTZDDl
— Teg🚨 (@IQfor3) March 23, 2023
The skepticism about Reaves’ foul drawing shouldn’t take away from the fact that he has turned into a legitimately great player for the Lakers. And his propensity for drawing fouls dates back to his college days, so his ability to get to the line frequently shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. But it’s difficult to fathom how he is this much better than the best stars in the league at picking up fouls on his drives.
Austin Reaves vs Steph Curry foul rate on drives and isolations.
No one is ‘hating’ on Austin Reaves. Simply pointing out the fact that he is getting a VERY generous whistle. pic.twitter.com/QiAllXQRNQ
— Joel Moran (@joelvmoran) March 23, 2023
READ: Austin Reaves stepped up for LeBron James-less Lakers — and set himself up for new contract in free agency
The “sleepless nights” apology to the Lakers from NBA referees
The Lakers have gotten some bad whistles, like every other team in the league. But they are the only ones to get a full-throated apology from the referees’ official Twitter account. That happened after they missed a foul call on a LeBron drive with under a minute left in regulation against the Celtics on Jan. 28. The Lakers eventually lost the game in overtime.
Like everyone else, referees make mistakes. We made one at the end of last night’s game and that is gut-wrenching for us. This play will weigh heavily and cause sleepless nights as we strive to be the best referees we can be.https://t.co/WyN8QVuTOl
— NBA Referees (@OfficialNBARefs) January 29, 2023
That “sleepless nights” phrasing has become a punch line on NBA Twitter and has probably contributed to the idea that the Lakers have been getting preferential treatment from the officials this season. Even NBA players like Tyrese Haliburton have taken notice.
Tyrese Haliburton said he feels alright after the game, but he said he was “trash” in the 4th quarter. Said the team has to be better there.
Also commented on the NBA referees “sleepless nights,” tweet with how few calls were called on the Lakers in the fourth quarter.
— Tony East (@TEastNBA) February 3, 2023