Following another loss to their division rival Utah Jazz, the Denver Nuggets are once again associated with another officiating controversy. More specially, Nikola Jokic. He is not the one facilitating it, but why he is not getting to the free-throw line is a mystery. Part of the outrage stems from the free throw story in the most recent game against Utah. On Sunday, the Jazz recorded 29 free throw attempts to Denver’s 8. After the game, Aaron Gordon offered his sentiment.
“It’s crazy Jok doesn’t get more free throws,” Gordon said. “They’re all over his arms, they’re all over his body, they’re grabbing him. He’s just not officiated the same way as everybody else.”
Gordon then echoed the recent topic of Jokic being disrespected as a former MVP saying, “He’s the reigning MVP of the league, and he’s getting three free throws a game, still doing what he’s doing. But he needs more foul calls because they’re fouling.”
Jokic played 37 minutes against Utah, notched 99 total touches, and attempted 12 shots in the paint. He only had three free throws. Rudy Gobert attempted seven shots, all in the paint, and was given seven free throw attempts. To be clear, analyzing whether the officials are right or wrong is very difficult to do through a statistical lens. Officiating is established through the eye test on an individual basis but to reiterate Gordon’s point with the eye test in mind, it does not appear Jokic is officiated like other stars.
To earn a comprehensive viewpoint of the situation, we have to look at the scope of officiating relative to this season. The NBA made several rule changes in an effort to hinder players from exploiting the whistle. This of course has translated to fewer free throw attempts. In fact, The NBA is averaging 16.2 free throws per game which is the lowest figure since the 1946-47 season.
Nikola Jokic is certainly not the only player affected by these rule changes as several players were disgruntled by the new rules. At the start of the season, Atlanta Hawks star Trae Young was quoted as saying, “I don’t want to get fined too much, but it’s frustrating,” he said. “There’s a lot of missed calls.”
On the other hand, there are players who appear to support the new initiatives. Washington forward Kyle Kuzma tweeted, “The new rule changes to the sport are the best thing the league has done in recent history.” One of the league’s most popular stars Steph Curry agreed. “The goal is to put the ball in the basket and not be out there just living and dying by trying to get to the free-throw line any way you can. I love the effort.”
As the season progresses there are fewer whispers of disagreement about these rule changes. The NBA saw issues in fouls that were falsely drawn and those that elongated the game unnecessarily. Many fans and players appreciated the fact the NBA put their foot down after years of players like James Harden and Manu Ginobili flopping to get to the line. In their defense, they found a method that yielded positive results for them, but it was time to eradicate some of that play.
Although the rule changes provided some impact, it’s not as large when you begin to look at individual players. For instance, Giannis Antetokounmpo led or was tied for the league lead in personal fouls drawn per game (PFD) for the last four seasons including this one. This season, he has seen an increase from 7.7 PFD to 8.5 which is the largest figure of his career. The same goes for Joel Embiid. His 8.1 PFD are the highest of his career and two full points ahead of 3rd place Rudy Gobert. Jokic actually ranks 5th with 5.9 PFD, but this is where we start to witness a disparity between Jokic and the rest of the league.
Giannis and Embiid are first and second in PFD but their rank is also identical when it comes to free-throw attempts. Giannis gets 10.8 FTA to lead the league and Embiid gets 10.6 per game. Although Jokic is 5th in PFD, he slides all the way down to 25th in free throw attempts with 5.1 per game. If you compare the top ten league leaders in PFD to the leaders in FTA, the list is nearly identical as it pertains to which names are on the list, yet Jokic dips 20 spots.
So I guess the question many Nuggets fans have is why doesn’t Jokic get as many calls or free throws as Giannis and Embiid? I too raise that question, but I am not in the mind of an NBA official so although I don’t know why, I can point out a clear discrepancy in the numbers. To reveal those I had to compare playing styles. From a macro perspective, we know the three players have their own distinct qualities, but they do share two main aspects to their game. They all play psychical and love to dominate the paint.
Playing in the paint is important in this situation because as we know, that is where most of the physical play happens, thus that is where the fouls are called the most. Below is a chart displaying where most of the fouls were called during the 2020-21 season:
Nikola Jokic is the leader in touches per game with 98.6. So he gets the most action with the ball in his hands of anyone in the game. Giannis and Embiid have almost 30 fewer touches a game. Jokic obtains more paint touches than both at 8.2 per game and more elbow touches with 7.9 per game (league leader) all by a wide margin. Where Embiid beats Jokic is post-ups per game. Embiid gets 11 per game which ranks first and Jokic gets 8.7 a game ranking him second in the league. Moreover, the frequency at which Embiid gets fouled in those post-ups is 21.3% which is 11th in the league. For Giannis, that figure is 16.4%. Jokic doesn't even place in the top 75 in the league. His 9.9% shooting foul frequency on post-ups ranks 78th. I don’t think there should be any ranking that has Jokic at 78th except for speed.
This tells me Jokic has just as many, if not more, opportunities to get fouled because of where and the frequency at which he receives the ball but he doesn't get the whistle. However, that could be a stretch because there are so many other factors, so let’s dive deeper.
Furthermore, we look at their shot types and frequencies. The majority of Jokic’s and Antetokounmpo’s shot attempts come within 10 feet. Jokic has 400 on the season and Giannis has 388, while most of Embiid’s come via the pull-up jumper with 222 attempts. Then we move to the shots that are most likely to draw a foul.
Most of Jokic’s shot attempts come when the closest defender is 2-4 feet away and what NBA.com titles as “tight” coverage. He has 362 of those attempts. Giannis shares similar numbers as most of his shots come when the defender is in “tight” coverage with 319 attempts. Embiid not so much. He records most of his shots when the defender is 4-6 feet away or as NBA.com describes it— “open.” He has 224 of those shot attempts while his second-most is in “tight” coverage with 203 attempts. When it comes to shots where the defender is 6+ feet away or “wide open,” Giannis has 103 attempts and Embiid has 104. Jokic has just 52. To top it off, Jokic has more shot attempts than both when the closest defender is 0-2 feet away or “very tight” coverage.
So not only is Jokic shooting more contested shots, he shoots half the number of wide-open shots as Giannis and Embiid, yet he gets half as many free throw attempts.
Many think Jokic plays the whistle like a Harden or Ginobili and he does to a certain extent. He knows the rulebook and how to draw a whistle, so people think he does receive the calls but they are not shooting fouls. This is correct as Jokic does draw more non-shooting fouls than Embiid or Giannis. If you add all the categories together for shooting fouls drawn via PBP Stats.com, Jokic drew 126 shooting fouls so far this season. He has drawn 216 fouls overall which mean 90 of those fouls are non-shooting. When you do the same math with Giannis and Embiid, Giannis has 80 non-shooting fouls and Embiid has 66.
So yes, Jokic does draw more non-shooting fouls but Embiid and Giannis draw more fouls overall by a wide margin. Again Jokic has 216 fouls committed on him this season, but Embiid has 260, and Giannis has a whopping 316. When you look at the rate at which their shooting fouls are drawn (SFD), it tells the same story. Jokic has a 12.8% SFD rate while Embiid is at 22.56%, and Giannis is at 23.1%.
When you analyze how these three play the game, where they play it, and at the rate they do so, the lack of calls for Jokic reveals itself. Yes, statistics do not always tell the entire story but they do reveal a pattern. This pattern states Jokic places himself in similar opportunities if not more, to get to the free-throw line yet he is not awarded the calls. It’s almost like the exercise when a teacher gives you three words and you choose which word doesn’t belong. Jokic, Embiid, and Giannis. They are all superstars with a ton of touches, they’re physical, they play in the paint and shoot contested shots, but one is not getting the whistle.
Jokic vs the referees. It’s a Serbian standstill resulting in mysterious inactivity at the free-throw line. We may not know why, but at least we know it exists.