Managing Referees in the NBA

The best NBA handicappers have to use everything that they can to beat the NBA betting lines with regularity. Today, we’re going to be discussing one of the most underrated and underused handicapping tools for basketball bettors. All too often, bettors spend so much time analyzing the 10 men on the floor at any given time and the 10-12 others that will come off of the bench to play. However, it is often forgotten that three other men or women are on the court as well.

The argument could be made that the three officials play just as much of a role in the outcome of any given game as the players on the court.

Analyzing Officiating Stats

Back in the 2012-2013 season, there were 107 different officials that officiated games in the NBA, 55 of which refereed at least 49 games. Not surprisingly, there was only one official of the 55 that posted a winning SU record for road teams in games, and that was Brian Forte. However, as we dig a bit deeper, we can clearly see that officials have very different statistics, just like players do.

Fouls Called Per Game

It isn’t exactly a linear function, but there is a bit of a correlation between the amount of fouls called in a game and the amount of points that are scored in a game. Last season (2013), the highest number of fouls called per game amongst officials with at least 49 games reffed was 43 by Scott Foster. The lowest was Ken Mauer at 37.2 whistles per game. Not surprisingly, Foster’s games featured nearly four points per game more than Mauer’s games.

The range of officials’ points per game last year went anywhere from 190.3 all the way up to 200.9. There were six referees who saw their average games reach at least 200 points per game, and of those six, each featured at least 38.9 fouls called per game. Five of the six refs went above the league average of 39.1 fouls per game.

Road Team Disadvantage

Normally speaking, when discussing home court advantage in sports, the issues at hand are the familiarity with the home surroundings, the fact that no travel is required, and of course, the crowd factor. In the NBA, there is definitively a difference in the officiating as well, and this might be why the home court advantage is as high as it is in the league at nearly three points per game.

Of the 55 referees that officiated at least 49 games that we were speaking of earlier in the 2012-13 season, only eight called more fouls against home teams that home teams. Only one of those refs, Bill Kennedy, called less than 49.6 percent of his/her fouls against the road team. On the contrary, there were 21 officials that called at least 51 percent of his/her fouls against the road team.

That difference doesn’t seem to be all that big, but when you really think about it, the difference does amount to be a full call per game. In the NBA, where close games often come down to a crucial whistle in the fourth quarter, you definitely want that call going in your favor.

Referees and ATS Statistics

It shouldn’t be all that surprising that there are some officials who really played into the hands of bettors as well. It doesn’t seem to be all that much of a mistake that there are officials who simply do better for home teams than they do for road teams from a betting standpoint. The best official in the 2012-13 season for home teams was David Jones, who led clubs to an absolutely insane 39-25-1 ATS. Karl Lane wasn’t far behind at 31-19 ATS.

However, there was a decent split of refs who also had winning ATS records for road teams. Thirty officials had winning ATS records, while 27 had losing ATS records on the campaign, and for every ref like Jones, there was one like Brent Barnaky, who went 14-35-1 ATS for home teams on the season.

Proven Referee Homers

The home/road splits for some of the referees are relatively interesting to study. Ron Garretson, for example, is an official who seemingly always has a better ATS record for home teams than road teams. Last season, he was 40-32-1 ATS for the hosts including the playoffs, and if you just bet all of the home teams blindly in games in which he was officiating over the course of the last five seasons, you would be 157-130-4, or a 54.7 percent winning percentage.

You’ve probably never really heard of a ref like Garretson, because he isn’t in the limelight with the media. However, if you take a look at some of his stats from last season, you’ll understand why he was a winning ref for home teams. Garretson kept his foul calls per game down to just 37.6, but he whistled 51.4 percent of his fouls called against the road team. Not surprisingly, the hosts won nearly 72 percent of the games SU that Garretson called with that stat being the case.

Debunking the Joey Crawford Myth

As we mentioned before, you may have never heard of Garretson before reading this piece, but you probably have heard of Joey Crawford. Crawford has been known to issue technical fouls to players who probably didn’t deserve them, quite possibly just to hear SportsCenter mention his name throughout the next day. The general assumption out there with Crawford is that he is a complete homer of a ref, and there were even articles published that suggested that Game 6 of the NBA Finals this past season was a bit shady due to the fact that Crawford was calling the game.

It’s true that the Miami Heat, facing elimination, did go on to win the game in overtime against the San Antonio Spurs to setup a Game 7, but the bettors that laid the 6 ½-points with hosts were inevitably left unhappy.

In fact, Crawford really isn’t a biased ref when it comes to the average game from a betting standpoint. Last season, Crawford was split right down the middle at 37-37-1 ATS, and he hasn’t had a winning season for home team bettors since the 2008-09 season.

There isn’t really an exact science to handicapping officials, but there is definitely something to be said about it. By no means should this be the only tool used for handicapping NBA games, but it can be a useful guide to put you on a play that you were thinking about making or taking you off of a play that perhaps wasn’t your best as well.