If LeBron’s Selling Calls, Who’s Buying?

Sometimes it seems like LeBron James is reaping the harvest of too many years crying “wolf.” Or maybe it’s just part of this vague sense that the NBA (or perhaps more precisely, ESPN) would rather move on from the 31-year old superstar, and empower the next generation.

Whatever the cause, we’ve witnessed a precipitous decline in James’ free throw rate even as he takes more shots at the rim. Yet with his foul-drawing fortunes in decline, he’s being cast even more as a culprit, flopping like the fish in that Faith No More video.

After DeMarre Carroll deflected a Thompson arm into LeBron’s face prompting James’ best imitation of a Chevy Chase pratfall – falling down in a sort of backwards Running Man – he was murdered on social media. The real kind wasn’t much kinder.

James was unrepentant in the postgame: “I’m not trying to sell a call. I got hit with an elbow. I didn’t know from my own teammate. I thought it was DeMarre, but I watched the replay, it was from my teammate. So no—sell a call for what? There was no call there to be sold. That’s it. I was going to say something else to you, but I’m going to leave it alone.”

It’s hard to blame James for doing more to sell calls. He’s watched his ratio of foul shot rate to close shots plummet to a third of his playoff peak and two-thirds the rate of last season’s playoff. This accompanies a forty-percent decline in his year-over-year regular season ratio. This is in addition to a wholesale decline in his free throw rate. In layman’s terms, he’s getting less free throws even though he’s taking more shots at the rim.
Part of this is the issue with LeBron being such a physical specimen and the nature of refereeing. There’s an excellent article in the Atlantic on the myth of the perfectly called game this week, and it’s sort of emblematic of the issue. The author Robert O’Connell suggests this search for perfection is fruitless, and in a game like the NBA, where so much contact goes on from play to play, that’s doubly so.

We believe the rules take this into consideration and create things to help defenders such as verticality and only outlaw contact that unfairly impedes the ballhandler. Well what impedes a LeBron shot at the basket?

“He’s so strong when he’s attacking the basket, guys tend to bounce off of him,” said Lue during yesterday’s pregame presser.

As a result, in order to effectively contest LeBron, opponents have to be even more physical than they are with other players. This results in some very hard fouls at the rim, which, Lue notes, is pretty much necessary if you’re going to defend the rim.

“You’re supposed to get a hard foul going to the basket, especially being that strong and powerful,” Lue said. “If you don’t foul him hard, you know he’s going to finish the play. You’ve got to be physical with him so you know he’s not going to take the contact and finish.”

This potentially creates two issues for LeBron. One, since he finishes so strong and is met with such force when fouled, more minimal levels of force maybe don’t register. Or perhaps don’t rise above the mental bar of truly impeding LeBron. (We asked a scout who told us league foul rates have been steady. However, it sure seems like they allow more contact at the rim than they did just a couple years ago, during, for example, Dwayne Wade’s heyday.)

The second complementary issue is that since LeBron finishes so strong, it often doesn’t even look like he’s getting fouled. Combine that with a touch of ageist bias to a very subjective activity and you have something approaching Brittany Spears career trajectory.

"Nowadays to get a flagrant foul, you’ve got to fall down and grab your head and roll on the ground," said Lue a few days ago. "LeBron being so strong, guys bounce off him. He’s not going to hit the ground as hard as other guys do.”

Of course, for many years, James did receive the star treatment, wherein superstars get calls most guys don’t. But the jealous feeling of prejudice apparently lasts longer than the advantage.

“Everybody sells calls,” Carroll said. “But when we got to the playoffs, our guys haven’t been selling calls as much as they did [in the regular season] because we don’t get’em. We learned that in the first series. They’re not going to give us those calls. But they give certain people certain calls.”

We imagine Carroll clearing his throat and coughing “LeBron” into his hands though he didn’t do this.

For his part, LeBron claims not to think about it, and we think that’s his intent, though we doubt he could say it doesn’t bug him. That’d be like not being bugged when U2’s Bono ruins a terrific live version of “Silver & Gold” with his endless, mock poetic, off-the-cuff hectoring.

“I don’t get involved in it too much I just play the game, whatever the referees decide the call may be and just move on,” James said in yesterdays presser. “I can’t let my focus go somewhere else. I can’t allow my energy to be somewhere it shouldn’t be.”

That sounds a lot like Lue’s advice. Leave it to the refs, because you can’t let yourself be diverted into something that’s not constructive.

Because James doesn’t receive a lot of calls, he almost has to exaggerate to get the call. Lue says he can’t let it effect his play.

“It’s about realizing when he’s being hit, you got to let the referees know you’re being hit,” Lue said. “He’s going to have to continue attacking. Referees have done a great job of calling fouls when he’s being hit, so he’s got to keep attacking and being aggressive.”

Lue offered a little gamesmanship, buttering up the refs. Casey did the same thing before Game 3, talking about how he’s coached international and in college ball, and the NBA has the best refs, before bashing them to the tune of a $25,000 fine for the comments during his the Game 3 postgame presser.

He’s a candidate for Lobbyist of the Year after bitching about a lack of fourth quarter calls, when the Cavaliers took just one more free throw in the entire second half (8 to 7). Of course, the Cavs took 32 more shots the first two games in Cleveland, so Casey surely doesn’t want to see a reversion.

In the end, it often comes down to being the aggressor. The person who initiates the action often gets off, while the one that responds is often flagged as the culprit.

"[It's about] hitting first and not retaliating," Lue said. "I think when you come out and play aggressive and when you play physical, you tend to get more calls. I think the referees lean that way, and that’s what they did last night. They brought the physicality to the game and we retaliated all night."

We’ll be at the Air Canada Center for tonight’s game. We expect the Cavaliers to take the game. LeBron has a streak of road victories in playoff series to preserve at 25, and we suspect the combination of the Raptors very high level of play and the Cavaliers relatively low level of execution will right itself. They let their poor offense influence their defense – an occasional regular season malady – for the first time in the playoffs during Game 3. We don’t expect a repeat.

We’ll be posting video, commentary and snark from the game. Follow along on Twitter @CRS_1ne, and read our postgame analysis tomorrow morning, here in the Scene and Heard section.
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