As the NBA's preseason reaches its midway point, the most pressing question around the league might be this: Will the whistles continue? There is little reason to believe that the NBA's regular referees are anywhere near returning to work, which means the league is close to opening the season with replacements for the first time since 1995. While reviews of the fill-ins, mostly from the NBA D-League and the WNBA, have been mixed, it has been impossible to ignore the trend toward more fouls during the preseason.
Through Wednesday, there had been an average of 55.9 fouls called per preseason game. While sloppy exhibitions tend to feature more foul calls, that is still a sizeable increase as compared to the incumbent referees. A recent Associated Press story reported that last year's preseason games averaged 49 fouls, as compared to 42.1 during the regular season.
While the by-the-book style has its supporters, most notably Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban ("If there's 100 fouls, call 100 fouls," he told Sportsline.com's Ken Berger. "The number of fouls is only an issue if they weren't fouls."), it has mostly led to complaints about excessively-long, slow games. The USA Today found that, as compared to the same period a year ago, games during the first week of the preseason averaged six minutes longer.
Of course, it's one thing to call 75 fouls in a preseason game in Laredo, Texas. Doing so on national TV at STAPLES Center is an entirely different thing altogether. Will the NBA's apparent edict toward--or at least tolerance of--the exuberant officiating continue into the regular season?
To try to answer that question, we turned to the past and the referee lockout of 1995. Using the incomparable Basketball-Reference.com database, Justin Kubatko was able to pull statistics that compare games officiated by the replacements (through Dec. 12) with the remainder of the season called by the regular referees.
Referees PF% FTA/PF FTA/Pos ORtg 2P% 3P% TO%
Replacement .226 1.21 .120 109.8 .484 .362 .145
Regular .212 1.12 .105 109.8 .486 .368 .142
Now, before we go any further, it's important to remember a topic we touched on last December--the tendency for the NBA game to change as the season goes on. I used that same month-by-month breakdown provided by my cohort Bradford Doolittle for the 2007-08 season for comparison purposes, splitting December stats between the two periods to account for the fact that the regular refs returned midway through the month in 1995-96.
In this context, the replacement referees do not appear to have been particularly whistle-happy during the last lockout. The foul rates on a per-possession basis from mid-December onward are similar--.212 in 1995-96, .214 in 2007-08. Meanwhile, the replacement refs did call slightly more fouls early in the season. However, the difference is minimal. Ultimately, our estimate of the impact of the replacement refs is that they increased the foul rate by .005--one call, that is, per 200 possessions, which is a little more than one game.
Games with replacement referees in 1995-96 did feature more trips to the line, as explained by the rate of free throw attempts per foul. That rate actually went up slightly over the course of the 2007-08 season, which suggests that the sharp decrease in 1995-96 can be attributed to the replacement refs. This could indicate that there were more technical fouls shot in these games, or simply that the replacements were using a different standard for shooting fouls (either calling more, which would mean increased two-shot fouls, or fewer, which would mean less and-ones; the latter seems slightly more plausible given NBA referees' love of the continuation).
One surprising finding of the breakdown of the 1995-96 season is that offenses were just as efficient during the first month and a half of the season as the rest of the way. That runs counter to the typical trend, which sees offenses claim the upper hand in their battle with defenses over the course of the year. In 2007-08, for example, the league-wide Offensive Rating was 2.0 points better per 100 possessions from mid-December onward as compared to November and early December.
Part of this, naturally, is the fact that teams were getting more scoring from the line with the replacements. However, their improvement in shooting during the final two-thirds of the season is less than we would expect. It's tough to say whether this is attributable to the change in referees, since their role is subtle as far as influencing offense's success or failure from the field. Calling more fouls might mean less defensive pressure, for example, but this is an indirect effect. Turnover rates were also lower than expected under the replacement refs, which might indicate that they were slow to whistle violations like travelling. (Don't tell the college fans who believe NBA refs never call travelling.)
Overall, the stats suggest that the replacement referees had only a limited impact on how the game was played 14 years ago. Now, contemporary accounts certainly suggest that there were issues with the replacements outside the box score, particularly in their ability to manage the physical nature of the NBA game. However, they were also in a different situation. For example, during most of the replacement period teams of two referees were working games as opposed to the standard crew of three that has been maintained this time because the league has a deeper pool of available replacements.
Certainly, the league will suffer with second-tier officials calling games instead of the ones we are so often told by the league are the best in the world. (I don't disagree.) The sooner the regular refs get back to work, the better for everyone involved. Still, this look back to 1995-96 offers some hope that the prodigious foul totals we have seen so far during the postseason may not continue when the games count. For everyone who prefers basketball to free throw contests, that's a good thing.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.