Much has been off for the Lakers and LeBron James here in the early part of the NBA season, but his lack of opportunities at the free-throw line has been the one issue that has most gotten under his skin.
As ESPN’s Dave McMenamin reported, the Lakers have seen such an obvious decline in calls that have gone James’ way that they contacted the league office on Tuesday.
Wrote McMenamin: “The Lakers’ main point of contention is how LeBron James was officiated, according to sources. The Lakers shared various clips showing what they believe to be clear illegal contact by Heat defenders against James that went unnoticed by the referees.”
One Eastern Conference scout contacted by Heavy Sports about James’ complaints came to his defense.
“He is absolutely right, he is taking as much contact as ever and he’s getting clobbered at times without getting a call,” the scout said. “Some of that is just, you expect it. He is older, he is a step slower, the refs are not under as much pressure to make an immediate call. They’re not calling it automatically like they used to. And in general, the league is trying to swallow the whistles a little bit more—even LeBron James is not getting foul calls as much. But it seems like he is paying more of a price for that.”
Numbers Show Lakers’ LeBron James Fouls Dipping
Indeed, LeBron James and the Lakers are not getting the same level of foul calls to which they are accustomed. James is going to the free-throw line 5.7 times per game, which is tied for his career lows in 2020-21 and 2021-22.
But James has been aggressive early in the season, shooting within three feet of the rim on 37.4% of his attempts, per Basketball-Reference.com, his highest percentage since 2018-19. That was his first (and injury-shortened) season with the Lakers.
After Monday’s loss in Miami, coach Darvin Ham told reporters (via ESPN), “We just want balance and consistency, that’s it. I see Bron shooting four free throws. And the amount of times he attacked the rim, the amount of times he was slapped on the arm, which I could see plain as day, for that not to be called, man … he’s not flopping. I’m watching him go to the hole strong.”
Fouls Are Down Across the NBA
Now, it should be pointed out that the Lakers are not the only ones with some concerns about refereeing early in the season. After NBA teams went to the free-throw line 23.5 times per game last year, one of the highest totals in league history and the most in eight years, there is a concerted effort to allow defenses to be more physical.
That means fewer fouls, even if only by a slim margin. Thus far, teams are going to the line 22.2 times per game in 2023-24.
Still, the campaign for LeBron James and the Lakers to get more fouls is on. It’s likely to achieve some success, too.
“Watch, his numbers will go up on the fouls,” the scout says. “Players like LeBron James, teams like the Lakers, they know how to work the refs and work the league. They’ve planted a seed. Now every ref is going to be on their toes watching for that contact and ready to call it.”