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Myth Busting the NBA: The Jazz just foul all the time, and the Lakers do not get special treatment

Two nights ago, as is customary for the month of April, the Utah Jazz played the Los Angeles Lakers. The Jazz tend to play the Lakers a lot at the end of the season – and truth be told, we’ve had our seasons ended by them a number of times. This appears to hold true at the very least for the last few seasons. This season the Jazz were eliminated from playoff contention on the same night as a loss to the Lakers. These two teams have seen a lot of each other over the last twenty years – in fact over the last four seasons in just the months of March, April, and May these teams will have met a grand total of 20 times. (There’s one more game remaining between the two, on April 5th, 2011, that’s on the regular season schedule.)

In these games in March, April, and May the Lakers have an outstanding 16-3 record against the Jazz. The Jazz fans hold the Lakers as one of their most hated rivals (up there with the Portland Trailblazers, Houston Rockets, and Denver Nuggets) – but it hasn’t been much of a rivalry as of late. The average margin of defeat for the Jazz is 7.5 points a game.

The Los Angeles Lakers are a really good team this year (like most years), and are one of the best franchises in the league. None of this is new information. I fully well expected losses in these two April games when the schedule came out. I wanted losses as well, after my team blew up and I decided that winning games this year was no longer worth it. Curiously, watching Friday’s game still got my hackles up. Maybe it was because I still like my team, or maybe it was because (homer hat fully on) I felt like our team was getting jobbed by the refs at home (…again.). The Utah Jazz, if you haven’t noticed, tend to have a strong home court advantage. Maybe not this year, but usually over the last 20 years, in this gym the Jazz tend to go to the free throw line – regardless of who the other team is. This, also, should not be new information.

Going to the line is a big part of the Jazz offense, and it’s partly aided by the home court advantage that refs give to the home team. As a result, the Jazz are usually quite competent at home. Outside of the San Antonio Spurs and Boston Celtics, only the Lakers are really able to negate this ‘understood’ home court advantage for the Jazz. And it got me off the couch and onto to investigate further. Even a two-bit analyst will parrot off the common theory that "The Jazz just foul all the time" which is supposed to absolve NOT getting calls on their home court. How true is this? Do the games against the Lakers fit the norm for what’s expected for a Jazz game, or are the calls statistical outliers? Click on to read more . . .

Setting it all up

I’ve attempted to Myth Bust other ideas before here and here. Really, I should have been doing one of these a month but I just got lazy. I don’t watch the TV show, so I don’t know what buzz words to use, but I do know my way around Microsoft excel, so we’ll see what happens . . .

The main metric that I’m going to look at is Free Throw Attempts. Sure, you get them for a lot of reasons – technical fouls, illegal defense calls, delay of game calls . . . it’s not a 1 to 1 ratio with aggressiveness on offense and getting fouled by your man anymore. Also, the ref isn’t going to call everything. Also, not all refs call the game in the same way. Still, instead of watching 350+ games I’m going to just look at the box scores for free throws.

The first data set we’re going to get is looking at all the games (so far) from the last four years that the Jazz have played in. This data set will include home games against the Toronto Raptors and road games in the playoffs against the Lakers and Spurs. This should give a baseline for free throw attempts per game for the Jazz and the opponents. The numerical difference in free throw attempts will be used to judge how bad the Jazz are, in terms of ‘fouling all the time.’

Next we’re going to look at the change in this free throw difference between Jazz home games and Jazz road games. This helps us identify what, if any, the baseline ‘home court advantage’ is for playing games in Utah.

Lastly, we have to look at the games against the Lakers over the last four years that take place in March, April, and May. These are the end of season games that help determine playoff position, and are the actual playoff games as well. We have to look at the difference in free throw attempts over all, and on the home vs road.

Step 1 is finding out if the Jazz foul all the time. Step 2 is finding out if the Lakers get special treatment.

The Jazz foul all the time – they don’t play defense. They are just lumberjacks in basketball shorts.

I actually hate that some people not only say this (on tv, or in their articles),but I am more upset that some people also believe it. Phil Jackson used to say this to the media before series’ vs the Jazz just to start working the refs preemptively. It’s a douche move, but no one said that Phil Jackson wasn’t a douche. (Buddhism is about non-attachment, there’s nothing zen about a $10 million dollar yearly salary. Cash your checks but have the moral integrity to tell people not to call you the zenmaster anymore.) Hearing Phil say it has made some media people repeat it like it is Gospel. If all the Jazz did on defense was foul people all the time then there should be an appreciable difference in free throw attempts awarded by the refs. Right? Well, let’s look at the 349 games the Jazz have played in the last four seasons.

I’m not denying that the Jazz aren’t a great defensive team. I’m not denying that the Jazz even put other teams to the line. I am contesting the point that all the Jazz do is foul people. If it was just the Jazz doing it then, well, why is there only a free throw attempted advantage for the Jazz opponents that stands at +1.0 FTA / game? Yes, it’s that small. The Jazz have played in 349 games so far these past four seasons. And they have sent the other team to the line 9995 times. That’s an average of 28.6 FTA per game. Frequently you’re reminded that the Jazz are one of the most fouling teams in the league. Well, the Jazz have gone to the line 9630 times over this stretch. This is an average of 27.6 FTA per game. Objectively, honesty, and good reporting would also mean that you have to admit that the Jazz also GET TO THE LINE at one of the highest rates in the league.

If the Jazz just foul all the time, so does every other team (on average) that plays against the Utah Jazz. Be honest. A -1.0 FTA per game disadvantage by the Jazz does not equal the myth that the Jazz just hack people all day long. If the Jazz just fouled people all day long you’d expect the other team to go to the line, I dunno, more than +1.046 times a game on a sample size of 349 games, and over 19.6k total Free Throw attempts, right?

Maybe the Jazz just foul all the time, so much so that the refs stop bothering to call fouls against them? Is this really your honest, full capacity brain power rebuttal? So maybe a rapist who just rapes all the time will end up getting away with a few every year because the cops can’t call him on all of them? Obviously that’s not the same thing, but it’s not like the refs swallow their whistles when the Jazz are playing. They call all the fouls – even ones that aren’t even fouls. The Jazz aren’t getting away with anything, especially not this season when there’s no Hall of Fame Coach Jerry Sloan swearing at them.

What about the difference in free throw attempted differential between home games and road games?

In home games the Jazz, gosh darnit, have a positive free throws attempted differential! Wow, I thought the Jazz only foul all the time – or is it that the refs cheat in Utah’s favor in Salt Lake City? You’re going to have to pick one or the other, you can’t hold both myths to be true. Fouling all the time means the other team has more FTA per game than the Jazz do. Refs cheating for the Jazz is the opposite. How about we just recognize that at home, against all the teams (regular season and in the playoffs) the Jazz get more free throw attempts than the other team. Keep this in mind when we look at the Jazz home games against the Lakers. What about the road?

Hmmm, the Jazz get to the line 27.9 times a game at home, and on the road they get there 27.3 times a game. That’s pretty consistent – regardless of home or the road. The Jazz do get called for more fouls on the road though, and that’s not a surprise. The home team is supposed to get to the line more, and the road team is supposed to get called for more fouls. That’s the home court advantage. It exists in all sports, at all levels. To deny this would be dishonesty. So here the Jazz opponents get to the line 2.9 more times a game than the Jazz. The average for the Jazz (home and road) is -1.0 FTA per game. The average at home is +0.8 FTA per game. The average on the road is -2.9 FTA per game. So the difference between home games and road games is 3.7 FTA.

What have we learned so far? We’ve learned that the Jazz (despite the stigma of being lumberjacks who just hack on defense) only go to the Free Throw line one less time per game than their victimized opponents. We’ve also learned that over the last four years (regular season and playoffs combined) that the Jazz go to the line more than their opponents on their own home court. The difference between their free throw attempts at home and on the road is 3.7 free throw attempts. (+0.8 NET FTA at home … -2.9 NET FTA on the road) If you care, the standardized deviation for Net FTA difference in Jazz games is 1.9. The average was -1.0 (home and road combined, remember). So a value between -2.9 NET FTA and +0.9 NET FTA is one standard deviation, and so on. As fate would have it, the Jazz net FTA at home is +0.8, and on the road it is -2.9 – both within one standard deviation. Keep this stuff in mind.

The Glorious, rainbow pooping Los Angeles Lakers

Despite the necessary smarminess I must blog with, I have respect and admiration for the Lakers. They get the big name players, get on TV, sell the jerseys, and win the titles. As a fan, that’s what you want from your team for the most part. That said, We have to look at this ‘so called rivalry’ in terms of free throw attempts as well.

Without repeating lots of the data here the critical thing is that the Jazz are at a net FTA difference of -3.4 per game against the Lakers. It’s over the -2.9 / 1 STDEV threshold, but way lower than the -4.8 / 2 STDEV threshold. It’s high, but not really significantly so. But hey, they are the champs, they have Kobe, and they are the better team. Against everyone the Jazz are a net FTA of -1.0 – and I can totally handle being a net FTA of -3.4 against the best team of this era of basketball. The Jazz get to the line 28.5 times a game which is above their normal (over 349 games) rate of only 27.6 times a game. The Lakers, on the other hand, get to the line a whopping 31.8 times a game. In fact, in the 19 games between these two teams in this time period (just games in March, April, and May), the Lakers have had 30+ FTA in 11 games. The Jazz managed this feat only 6 times. Well, you know what they say, right; ‘The Jazz just foul all the time . . .’

Wait, didn’t we disprove that myth? Their NET FTA difference is only -1.0 over 349 regular season and playoff games . . . well, let’s just disregard that point and look at the road and home free throw attempts.

Here are the games in LA (n=10) for these two teams in March, April, and May. The Jazz lose every one (no surprise there), and lose by a margin of defeat of -10.2 ppg. Wow, the Jazz aren’t in any of these games at all. The Jazz still get to the free throw line 28.2 times a game . . . but the home team advantage balloons up to the Lakers getting to the line 34.6 times a game. That’s a NET FTA difference of -6.4, which is pretty high. The Jazz have a Net FTA difference on the road of -2.9. A value of -6.4 is still between 1 and 2 standard deviations though. However, it is inching closer and close to 2 standard deviations (which would have been -6.7, only -0.3 FTA off). Regardless, we’ve established the magnitude difference for road games. The Lakers have accumulated a 221% bonus on the NET FTA difference when the Jazz are on the road. In all fairness, because most of these games are playoff games, I’m sure we’ll see something similar when we look at Lakers / Jazz games that take place in Utah. Right?

Wrong. The Jazz get to the free throw line an average of 28.8 times a game in their home games. (Remember we already established that they usually get there more often at home than their opponents do – it’s part of that understood homecourt advantage that all teams get; and is not unique to Utah.) The Lakers get to the free throw line an average of 28.8 times a game in their games in Utah as well. There is no difference. The Jazz do not get a homecourt advantage against the Lakers. Over 349 games the Jazz are a Net FTA difference of -1.0; but at home they are a +0.8. That’s a difference of +1.8 FTA at home, against the normal average. Furthermore, the difference between road game and home game NET FTA for the Jazz in these 349 games is 3.7. Also, the Lakers got a 221% increase compared to the Jazz average deficit in NET FTA when the Jazz were the road team.

Any free throw attempts per game advantage that home teams usually expect / are awarded is removed when the Jazz host the Lakers in March, April, or May. A ‘normal’ Jazz average difference between NET FTA between home and road games is 3.7. But against the Lakers during this time period, it’s 6.4. Well, to be honest, it’s a -6.4 . . . while it’s not a statistically significant value, it does make a difference.

The last game these two teams played, a Jazz home game, the Lakers went to the line 30 times, and the Jazz 18. The Last 8 FTA were all awarded to the Jazz after the margin was too high to make any difference, so at the critical juncture of the game the NET FTA difference was +20 for the road team (the Lakers were up 30 to 10); that’s pretty much the opposite of how home court advantage usually goes. But hey, they are the better team. The average margin of defeat for the Jazz at home against the Lakers is 4.4 points. The normal home advantage is about +1 FTA for the Jazz. Who is to say that doubling that (the Lakers advantage) to a +2 FTA per game doesn’t make the games a little more fair and competitive for the home team?


The Jazz foul a lot, by their ranks per season and cumulative score for Opponents FTA per game. However, by the same taken, the Jazz get to the line a lot as well – especially at home where they average out to get to the line more than their opponents. If all the Jazz do is hack, then their opponents are no better.

The Lakers are a great team, they have many advantages. It’s easy to call another team undersized because they don’t have the ability to go with a 7’1 center, backed by a 7’0 power forward and a 6’10 small forward. That doesn’t mean that taller players aren’t capable of fouling shorter guys. The Jazz pretty much ONLY go into the paint, and a large part of their offense is based upon drawing fouls. If you remove this part of their game (either by good coaching, great team play, or unequal refereeing) then the Jazz look pathetic. The Jazz have looked pathetic against the Lakers in these select games, going 3-16. At home the Lakers have a Net FTA difference of +6.4 against the Jazz (who are usually disadvantaged by a 2.9 margin). In Utah the Lakers have a NET FTA difference of +0.0 against the Jazz (who are usually going to the line more at home than their opponents). The Lakers do get special treatment, if we are going just on simple applications of statistical averages – which is how I framed this investigation. It’s just not a statistically significant (2 or more standard deviations from the norm) advantage.

Myths Busted: 2


There’s no way you can say that the Jazz deserve +2 FTA just because they are at home, you have to ref the game how they play it. Furthermore, there are only two games out of the 9 home games where the Jazz lost the game by under 4 points. (May 16th, 2008 by 3; and May 8th, 2010 by 1) Maybe giving the Jazz two more free throw attempts (not points) could have changed the over-all outcome of those games, but maybe they would have lost them anyway. You can’t play ‘what if’ with simple things like this. Giving the Jazz more FT attempts at home may have made some of the games more competitive – but they would not have changed the overall outcome of the series’. The Lakers are the better team and may be capable of exploiting these matchups because of talent, size, athletic ability, or (dare I say it) coaching. Maybe they get more fouls called against their opponents because they are adjudicated differently than the rest of the teams in the league. Well, they are better than the rest of the teams in the league. Karl Malone and John Stockton had a number of defenders frustrated because of their abilities to draw fouls too.

I think it is safe to say that the Lakers do get more calls – in effect destroying whatever home court advantage the Jazz are used too – but quantifying just why this is happens to be more difficult than finding out the raw numbers. Lastly, I think it is also safe to say that the Jazz do get some of these types of calls when we’re doing well and have an ‘air’ about us. Right now the Jazz are a lotto team, and the Lakers are the cream of the crop. It doesn’t make it fair. But that’s just the way the game is. The Jazz don’t always hack (or at least, get hacked almost as much in return). The Lakers get an advantage compared to lesser teams in Salt Lake City. Neither is significant statistically. Two myths busted. Effect upon the big picture? None.