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Mavs, Fouls, And Phil Jackson

A few posts back Wes quoted Phil Jackson last week after the Lakers game. Jackson made this rather provocative claim:

"So when you come in here, there's a lot of fouls called. The Mavs play that kind of game, so you've got to be real careful because it can change the concept of how you are playing."

But is this true? Do the Mavericks animate the referees so much that more fouls are called when the Mavericks play than when other two teams play? I decided to look into this. To answer the first question, I looked at the average fouls called in games for each team in the league. If Jackson is right, the total number of fouls for the Mavericks and their opponents should be much higher than average.

Here is what we have:

The total fouls per game in a Mavericks game this year is 44 per game.
The total fouls per game for the league (excluding the Mavericks) is 42.5 per game.

So, there is at least some basis for Jackson's comments, right? Well, no. If you look at the Lakers, their games average 44.5 fouls per game. That's right, the Lakers create more of a fouling environment than the Mavericks do, so Phil Jackson's comments are without merit. In fact, while the Mavericks' games generate more fouls than the league average, the Mavericks only rank tenth. Not only behind the Lakers but the Celtics as well.

Perhaps Jackson was talking not just about the Mavericks, but games called at the American Airlines center. Does the AAC create more of a fouling environment? Again, the answer is no. In Mavericks home games this season, there is an average of 43.7 fouls per game. While away from the AAC, there is an average of 44.2 fouls called per game. So, the American Airlines Center appears to actually generate fewer fouls.

Home Court Advantage

While looking over the data, I noticed an interesting illustration of home court advantage: The Mavericks get called for fouls more than their opponents at away games.


Fouls called on Mavs: 21.9
Fouls called on Opponents: 21.8
Difference: .1 in favor of Mavs


Fouls called on Mavs: 22.4
Fouls called on Opponents: 21.8
Difference: .6 in favor of opponents

In other words, the Mavericks have a slight home court advantage of receiving .1 fewer fouls from the referees, and a significant .6 disadvantage on the road.

Overall, the Mavericks are hurt by the referees. They have been called for .6 more fouls per game during the season than their opponents. This made me wonder how the Mavericks ranked overall. Well, the answer is that they have the 9th worst differential in the league. So it would be false to say that the referees have targeted the Mavericks more than any other team, but it would be accurate to say that the Mavericks get called for fouls significantly more than other teams.

By the way, which teams receive the best treatment from the refs and which receive the worst? Take a look:

Worst foul differential:

Minnesota 5.6
Indiana 2.7
Toronto 2.1
Cleveland 1.9
Utah 1.7

If I was a Minnesota fan, I would be livid. It's not just that the Timberwolves are number one in the league at having more fouls called on them per game than the opposition, it's just how extreme that number is. It is over double the number two team, which is Indiana with a 2.7 differential. Such a massive difference for a full team over half a season is almost unbelievable.

Best foul differential:

Orlando -3.0
Memphis -2.9
Denver -2.8
Lakers -1.7
Boston -1.2

Take a look at the above list and what I said earlier, and two teams should stick out--The Lakers and the Celtics. We have already seen that the Lakers and Celtics generate a lot of fouls in their games, both being in the top ten in games generating fouls. Here we see that both teams are near the best in the league at using that to their advantage. The Lakers rank no. 4 with receiving 1.7 fewer fouls than their opponents, while the Celtics are right behind, receiving 1.2 fewer fouls on average than their opponents.

One thing we can take from this is that Phil Jackson is completely wrong with his characterization of the Mavericks and fouling. It is his team that generates more fouls per game, and it is his team that is able to use that to its advantage.

The Fouling Environment Advantage

As I  mentioned, the Celtics and Lakers use their fouling environment to their advantage. In short, the more fouls called in their games, the more of an advantage they have. An interesting question is whether this type of advantage can be created. For example, the Mavericks have fantastic free throw shooters. If they could create a situation where a lot of fouls are called in their games, and they could somehow create the environment where those calls are called on the opposition much more than the Mavericks, then you are looking at an advantage good for a few points a game. Is this possible?

My instincts are to say "No, that's crazy. You can't finesse the refs into favoring your team while also calling a lot of fouls." However, I looked at the top ten list of teams that generate foul-heavy games and teams that benefit from them, and the results are interesting. How many are on both lists?

Top ten teams that generate fouls and benefit from them:

Orlando, Denver, LA Lakers, Boston, Sacramento

That's right, five of the top ten teams that generate the most fouls per game in the NBA are also the beneficiaries of the types of games where a lot of fouls are called. A little deeper digging and you see that Atlanta is at no. 11 and No. 9, so six of 11 are on both lists.

What is even more mind-blowing is that it doesn't work the other way. Only three of the top ten teams (and 3 of 11 if we include Atlanta) that are the best at avoiding games with a lot of fouls are in the top ten worst differentials. In other words, you can presumably take advantage of your differential by creating a foul-heavy environment, but you cannot avoid your poor differential by creating an environment with fewer fouls.

So where do the Mavericks sit? Well, as I mentioned, the Mavericks are no. 10 at creating a fouling environment. However, they are a wretched no. 21 with a negative foul differential. In short, the Mavericks create a fouling environment but are hurt by doing so. I used to think that you couldn't do much to change this kind of thing, but Phil Jackson has made me start to think otherwise.