Are the Toronto Raptors Unfairly Disadvantaged by Referees?


The Toronto Raptors lost to the Indiana Pacers on Friday night, 104 to 107. The game was neck-and-neck the whole way through, coming down to a final heave from Fred VanVleet to try and even the contest.

Toronto fans were incensed at the officiating, ticked that Lance Stephenson blatantly pushed DeMar DeRozan to the ground with 55 seconds left in the game yet no foul was called. It was later ruled in the last two-minute report that the event in question was an incorrect no-call that unfairly disadvantaged Toronto.

Fans came out in full force on Reddit and Twitter claiming that the Raptors never get any calls and that NBA officiants are biased towards the only NBA team north of the border. Probably just some spirited hyperbole, but you can never be too sure. While I agreed that the foul in question was egregious and the fact that the refs missed it was a little suspect, I was skeptical that officiants are actively biased against Toronto.

After all, the Raptors consistently attempt more free-throws than most teams, draw more fouls than about a third of the league, and are one of the best teams at limiting turnovers, including those imposed by refs. Below are Toronto's mean-rankings since 2014 in referee-impacted categories.

FTA TOV PF PFD
8th 6th 19th 12th

On the face of it, the Raptors appear to actually benefit at the hands of NBA officiants as they've hovered right around the top-third of the league in three-of-four referee-impacted categories.

These numbers only go so far though. Do the Raptors attempt more free-throws because of the refs, or is it because they have one of the best players in the league at creating and embellishing contact in DeMar DeRozan? Do the Raptors limit their turnovers because the refs are reluctant to call them, or is it because their offence has historically been iso-centric with a focus on limiting ball-movement to reduce lost possessions? I'd guess the latter in both cases.

A more accurate way to flesh out a potential referee bias towards Toronto would be to examine last two-minute reports.

Last two-minute reports were implemented by the league in March 2015 as part of an effort to improve officiating by increasing accountability and transparency. The league would publish these last two-minute reports, usually the day after a game, to review referee performance in the final minutes of tight contests. Last two-minute reports corroborate correct no-calls and correct calls, and also reveal incorrect no-calls and incorrect calls.

Since correct calls would ultimately feed into the aforementioned referee-impacted stat categories, incorrect no-calls and incorrect calls should be revelatory in terms of sniffing out bias, especially since referee decisions in the final two minutes of a game are weighted more significantly.

Between 2015 and November 24th, 2017, the Raptors have participated in 86 games that ultimately produced last two-minute reports. Russell Goldenberg has been kind enough to compile and curate data from every single last two-minute report in that timeframe. According to data on his site, the Raptors have been disadvantaged by 71 incorrect no-calls and incorrect calls in the final two minutes of tight games. What's interesting, and this almost seems too good to be true, is that they've also benefited by 72 incorrect no-calls and incorrect calls.

Assuming that last two-minute reports are accurate, they show us that, when it counts, the Toronto Raptors are not unfairly disadvantaged by referees.

Yeah, refs miss calls and make mistakes, but at least they're equitable about it.

All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com, unless otherwise stated.

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