Which NBA Teams Receive the Best Refs?
Revealing a top-10 ranking of NBA teams in RefScore from 2022-23.
A few years ago, I noticed something about the NBA games I was watching. If I flipped on the Golden State Warriors game, I could usually name each of the three officials working the game. But if I switched over to the Orlando Magic game, I’d have a hard time naming even one.
What was up with that? Why did it seem like the Magic were being used as a farm system for referees? That’s when I decided to track officials for every NBA game and see whether certain teams got preferential treatment from the NBA. This … was no small undertaking. My database spreadsheet is clocking in at 582,338 cells with about 80 columns of info. And that’s just for one season’s worth of data.
So here’s what I found: it turns out that the NBA does not spread its high-quality officials equally among its 30 teams. How do I know? Well, every year, the NBA selects its best officials for the playoffs (typically 36 officials) and the Finals (typically 12). I discovered that certain teams consistently receive a higher proportion of those premium officials. On the flip side, those marquee teams seemed to have fewer rookie refs in their games.
Recognizing this pattern, I investigated further and developed my own metric, RefScore, which quantifies the referee quality for each game based on the NBA’s distribution of assignments. For those that want to nerd out a bit, you can see the methodology at the end of the post. To be clear, this is NOT my own subjective ranking; this is an objective measure derived off of the NBA’s role assignments.
Today, I’ll release the Top 10 teams in RefScore from 2022-23. The plan is to release the remaining teams later in the week, with some overall takeaways/Findings at the end.
Cool? OK, enough of the throat clearing. Let’s get to the good stuff. So which team saw the best crop of officials?
You might want to sit down for this …
Los Angeles Lakers | 3.146 Ref Score
Surprise, surprise: the Lakers received the top average RefScore among all 30 teams. The Lakers only saw a rookie referee seven times last season, the lowest total for any NBA team (Utah saw 23). On the other end of the spectrum, no team saw more referees that worked the 2022 Finals than the Lakers (61). In other words, the NBA treated Lakers regular-season games like playoff games.
This Finding will do little to kill the perception that the league office takes care of the Lakers. The team received an overly-apologetic Sleepless Nights tweet from the referees’ official Twitter account and fans noticed a historic free-throw differential this past season. The Lakers were on national TV a ton in the regular season and the NBA evidently didn’t want to mess around with inexperienced referees working LeBron’s squad.
2023-24 preview: As I reported earlier this month, the Lakers will be on National TV 28 times this season, one fewer than the league-leading Golden State Warriors. As such, my expectation is that the Lakers will see the NBA’s crème de la crème once again. My prediction: you won’t see former NBA Finals referee Eric Lewis on Lakers games any time soon.