CL Summer School 2017: Official Charity and Lucky 7’s

About basketball coaches, Wilt Chamberlain once famously quipped that a great one wins you a handful of games a season, a good one doesn’t lose you any while a bad one does.

From that perspective, it doesn’t seem like the line of work for an ego-driven person in search of the spotlight. Indeed, some of the NBA’s most accomplished (and ultimately respected) bench leaders through its 71-year history have been former players of modest skill and even less notoriety, a Rick Carlisle, Jerry Sloan, Rick Adelman, all the way back to Bill Russell’s old nemesis Alex Hannum – glue-and-guile guys.

It strikes me that the mind-set of this type of coach that Wilt pre-supposes is very similar to the approach a referee must take to working a game. The last thing you want as an official – whether calling Bitty-ball or the NBA Finals – is to be the topic of conversation when the final buzzer sounds. A little style and showmanship is allowed – as long as there’s not a big disparity in the matter of fouls.

Though we ideally wish for the players and coaches to determine who wins and loses, it is naïve to contend that officiating does not influence the outcome of a good many games, be it a crucial call in the waning seconds, early foul trouble for a stud, or just the overall tone/emotion of play.
In all sports at all levels, playing at home provides a team with an edge. In the 2016-17 NBA regular season, for instance, home teams won 720 of 1,230 games (.585). There’s no such thing as “Road Field Advantage,” is there?

In pro basketball, does not the home team attempt more free throws in the majority of games … and doesn’t the team that takes more free throws generally win?

Over the past seven NBA post-seasons (2011-17), there have been 585 games – roughly the equivalent of half a season of play. On 325 occasions, the home team attempted more FT’s (55.6%); on 324 occasions, the team attempting more FT’s won the game (55.4%).

The home team took more FT’s while winning 218 times (37.3%) – that’s basically three of every eight games. The yearly rates for home victories while shooting more FT’s ranged from 2012’s high of 42.9% to this season’s low of 31.6%.

Home squads won an additional 132 games (22.6%) during that stretch despite shooting fewer FT’s. The traveling team, on the other hand, snagged 106 wins (18.1%) with more FTA’s and 107 wins (18.3%) with fewer. (Home teams were 15-7 when FTA’s were the same.)

Overall, home teams were 365-220 (.624) for that set of games.

[NOTE: In the following “charts,” the numerical data in all columns except “+FTA,H” represent the number and percentage of games won for the given condition.]

Year (HOME)              H,+          A,+         H,-           A,-        H,=        A,=     +FTA,H   +FTA win

2011 (54-27, .667) 32 (.395)   9 (.111) 22 (.272) 16 (.198) 0 (.000) 2 (.025) 48 (.593) 41 (.506)
2012 (57-27, .679) 36 (.429) 14 (.167) 21 (.250) 13 (.155) 0 (.000) 0 (.000) 49 (.583) 50 (.595)
2013 (53-32, .624) 30 (.353) 17 (.200) 20 (.235) 14 (.165) 3 (.035) 1 (.012) 44 (.518) 47 (.553)
2014 (49-40, .551) 31 (.348) 20 (.225) 17 (.191) 19 (.213) 1 (.011) 1 (.011) 50 (.562) 51 (.573)
2015 (49-32, .605) 32 (.395) 15 (.185) 14 (.173) 17 (.210) 3 (.037) 0 (.000) 49 (.605) 47 (.580)
2016 (58-28, .674) 32 (.372) 15 (.174) 22 (.256) 10 (.116) 4 (.047) 3 (.035) 42 (.488) 47 (.547)
2017 (45-34, .570) 25 (.316) 16 (.203) 16 (.203) 18 (.228) 4 (.051) 0 (.000) 43 (.544) 41 (.519)

(365-220, .624) 218 (.373) 106 (.181) 132 (.226) 107 (.183) 15 (.026) 7 (.012) 325 (.556) 324 (.554)

When the same statistical analysis is applied to the last five WNBA post-seasons (90 games in all), the results are strikingly similar: Team with more FTA’s wins 56.0% of the time; Home team attempts more FT’s 56.0% of the time and wins while attempting more FT’s 37.4% of the time. Home teams were 53-37 (58.9%).

(HOME)            H,+           A,+           H,-            A,-           H,=         A,=      +FTA,H     +FTA win
(53-37, .589)  34 (.378)  17 (.189)  18 (.200)  17 (.189)  1 (.011)  3 (.033)  51 (.567)   51 (.567) 

Hmm … this post-season data of recent vintage seems to reveal two trends. First, home teams are indeed more likely to take more FT’s than the other guys and tend to win with more frequency when they do. On the other hand, visiting teams win just about as often when they attempt fewer FT’s as they do when they shoot more freebies. In the women’s league, the 37 road victories include 17 with “plus” FT’s, 17 with “minus” FT’s, and three “even.”
But just what’s being revealed here? Is a team simply more apt to play crisper, more error-free ball in familiar surroundings with a supportive audience – or does the environment sway some officials, if only sub-consciously?

Of the 128 Game 7’s that have been staged in the 71-year history of the National Basketball Association (of America), the home team has won and shot more FT’s nearly every other time – 60 games (46.8%). Win or lose, the visitors have attempted more FT’s in a Game 7 just 45 times (35.2%) – about one game in three.

Interestingly, there’s a relatively even balance in the matter of FTA’s when we limit the pool of Game 7’s to those occurring in the championship round, albeit a sample size of a mere 19 games. Though winning only one time (Cavs, 2016), the road team has earned more FTA’s in nine Finals Game 7’s. Only three other teams have won a Finals Game 7 on foreign turf – 1978 Bullets, 1974 & 1969 Celtics – all while “minus” on FTA’s.

And here’s the real puzzler – home teams have won more times when “minus” (8 games) than when “plus” (7 games) on FTA’s.

(HOME)                               H,+        A,+           H,-            A,-           H,=         A,=      +FTA,H    +FTA win
Game 7 (102-26, .797)   60 (.468) 9 (.070)  36 (.281)  16 (.125)  6 (.047)  1 (.008)  76 (.594)  69 (.539)
Final 7’s   (15-4, .789)     7 (.368)  1 (.053)    8 (.421)    3 (.158)   0 (.000)  0 (.000) 10 (.526)   8 (.421)

Maybe free-throw disparity isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. After all, Bill Russell was 10-0 in Game 7’s. You know how many times his team took more foul shots than the other guys? ONCE. 

Abacus Revelation for the Road

Sherman, set the Wayback Machine for 40 years ago, 1977. The place, Framingham, Mass.

A high-school senior named Dave decided to join a summer team being put together by a gentleman named Leo Papile representing the brand-spankin’ new Boston Amateur Basketball Club. Coach Papile’s Boston boys would soon be competing successfully on a high level, even winning the AAU national tournament in 1983 from the Kenny “The Jet” Smith-led Riverside Hawks out of NYC.

By then, young Dave had spent four years at Princeton with Pete Carril and was playing (eventually coaching) overseas, chasing his own hoop dream.

Papile’s B.A.B.C., which endures to this day, has helped forge the path of hundreds of young athletes, some good enough to play in the NBA. Numerous DI players and dozens of coaches spot its all-time roster.

But only one alum has gone on to become a Head Coach in the NBA – Dave from Framingham, whose surname happens to be Blatt.

While the NBA has never lacked for the “improbable” – from a Cousy no-look pass, to a Havlicek steal, all the way to an LBJ Russell-esque run-down swat – David Blatt’s ascension to the 2015 NBA Finals has gotta rank pretty highly on the WTF list.

But that said, Framingham’s favorite son is definitively not the most unlikely fellow ever to have coached an NBA team to the final round of the playoffs.

In 1954, George Mikan’s dynastic Minneapolis Lakers won their final title. The championship series – all seven games – had been worked by a five-year veteran referee named Charley Eckman (with two different partners along the way).

One season later, Eckman was again working all seven games of the league finals – only this time he was the bench coach of the Fort Wayne Pistons, who lost to Syracuse. Ironically, the Nats had been the Lakers’ opposition in ’54. (For the record, Mikan and Co. had attempted seven more FT’s in the ultimate game.)

Coach Eckman did a little better than Coach Blatt, holding on to his job for 3+ seasons.

Charley Eckman’s is one of the many voices in Tall Tales, Terry Pluto’s iconic oral history of the NBA’s formative era.