Is Raptors’ Darko Rajakovic right about Lakers referee bias? What stats, film say about free throw advantage

The Lakers have been accused of having the best whistle in the NBA for a while now.

Former Suns coach Monty Williams and Pacers star Tyrese Haliburton both complained about it last season. And after his team experienced a 36-13 free throw disparity in a 132-131 loss on Tuesday night, Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic went in on the referees in his postgame comments. 

“That’s outrageous,” Rajakovic said. “What happened tonight, this is completely BS. This is shame. Shame for the referees. Shame for the league to allow this. Twenty-three free throws for them and we get two free throws in the fourth quarter?” 

At first glance, Rajakovic seems to have a great point, but how much truth is there to the idea that the Lakers get the best whistle in the league? 

MORE: Why Lakers head coach Darvin Ham is on the hot seat

The Lakers have had the biggest free throw disparity for two years running

The undeniable fact is that the Lakers shoot way more free throws than their opponents. They led the league by a massive margin last season, and they’re doing it again (albeit to a lesser degree) this season. 

The Lakers are No. 8 in free throw attempts with 24.3 per game. Where they really hammer their advantage is by preventing other teams from getting to the line. They are tied with the Celtics for the fewest free throws allowed, at 19.4 per game. They also foul the least frequently in the league. 

That has led to a massive 186 free throw attempt advantage this season, which is 40 free throws higher than any other team. What could potential reasons for this be, other than the referees having some sort of pro-Laker bias? 

The Lakers should draw a ton of free throws

When you see the free throw disparity, the easy conclusion is that the refs want the Lakers to win, but style of play is a big consideration in their discrepancy. 

The Lakers are not a good shooting team. LeBron James has complained about the lack of “lasers” around him. That has led to them being 27th in 3-point attempt rate, per Cleaning the Glass. What Los Angeles is very good at is getting shots up at the rim — only Orlando shoots a higher percentage of shots within four feet of the basket. 

MORE: The best trade candidates to help LeBron James and Anthony Davis

Layup attempts draw fouls at a rate far higher than jump shots. It makes sense, then, that the Lakers would get to the line more given their shot profile. How much more is certainly up for debate, but that play style accounts for part of their huge advantage. 

The Lakers also have a ton of players who have historically been great at drawing free throws. LeBron is going to the rim more frequently than he has in years. The same goes for Anthony Davis, who is shooting at the rim more than he has since his rookie year. And Austin Reaves has self-admittedly studied the premier floppers in the league to try and get his freebies more often. 

Why do the Lakers never foul? 

It is a bit odd that players who have joined up with the Lakers recently have seen their foul rates drop precipitously. But there’s an explanation for that, too. 

With a Defensive Player of the Year candidate anchoring the paint, teams don’t go in there often to challenge Davis. The Lakers allow the sixth-fewest attempts at the rim and the sixth-highest percentage of shots as 3s, per Cleaning the Glass. With teams attempting so many jump shots, they’re not going to get to the line as much. 

Los Angeles also has very good defensive technique under head coach Darvin Ham, who seems to emphasize not fouling. His message to his team last year became fodder for a popular meme.

Was the officiating unfair for the Raptors? 

So how bad was the officiating in the fourth quarter for the Raptors?

The Raptors were getting called for a TON of ticky-tack fouls — a touch foul on Chris Boucher, another on Dennis Schroder, one by Immanuel Quickley that was upheld upon a lengthy review, an extremely late whistle on a Thaddeus Young foulan RJ Barrett swipe

On the other end of the floor, the Raptors probably should not have shot more free throws. Looking back at all 27 of the shots that they took in the fourth quarter, there are no glaringly obvious missed foul calls in that entire sequence, although there are some close ones. 

That includes three critical plays with a minute left: a Scottie Barnes missed layupan illegal screen to wipe out a 3 where Davis exaggerated the contact and another Barnes drive where he made contact with Max Christie on a dunk.

The league’s last two minute report confirmed that the referees made the correct decisions on all three of these plays. To add insult to injury, it said that the Raptors were advantaged by two incorrect calls in their favor.

The Raptors may have some legitimate complaints that the game wasn’t called as closely for them as it was for the Lakers. Whether that’s part of a conspiracy in favor of the Lakers is much more dubious. It’s a phenomenon that seems extremely suspicious at surface level but looks more reasonable after a deeper dive. 

Source : ESPN.com

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