In a typical basketball game, a coach yelling at the referee about a foul call is as common as the sound of sneakers screeching on the hardwood. Arguing with the ref seems like a completely futile effort - often hurting the team in the form of a technical foul or even an ejection.
But could there be a rational reason for getting on the officials? After all, referees are human beings, and if you berate them enough, they may eventually find a way to make it up to you.
So we set out to answer this question:
We reviewed all of the games in the 2013-14 NBA season in which technical fouls were assessed against basketball coaches for arguing with the referee. We recorded the foul difference (fouls against vs. fouls for) before and after the technical foul was assessed. The results were simply shocking.
There were 95 technical fouls called against coaches in the 2013-14 NBA regular season. In those games, the team whose coach got called for a technical foul enjoyed an aggregate advantage of 184 foul calls after the technical was assessed. In other words, after a coach was cited for arguing with the referee, his team on average was called for 2 fouls less than his opponent during the rest of the game.
These numbers are especially striking considering this statistic: before the coach was T’ed up, the foul disparity went in the opposite direction - his team had 48 more fouls called against them.
It gets even more interesting when we look at exactly when the foul advantage occurs. Out of the 184 fouls that were called in favor of the arguing coach, 130 of them (more than 70%) were called in the quarter directly after the technical foul was assessed.
It would thus appear that the referees took immediate action in favoring the team whose coach got in their face, and this advantage seemed to wear off as the game progressed.
In the NBA, there are mediocre basketball coaches, there are good basketball coaches, and there are superstar basketball coaches. We wanted to know if there are particular coaches that were specifically good at working the referees in order to help their teams win games.
We narrowed down our study to some of the usual contenders - Larry Brown, Phil Jackson, Doc Rivers, Jerry Sloan, and Don Nelson. It turns out, however, that none of these future Hall of Fame coaches have stats that stood out significantly from the aggregate.
But there was one coach that seems to have systematically mastered the art of working the referee: Gregg Popovich, the 5 time NBA World Champion, coach of the San Antonio Spurs.
Out of the 37 games in which a technical foul was assessed against Gregg Popovich since the 2005-2006 season, Popovich’s Spurs had a positive foul-difference of 80 after his getting T’ed. During these 37 games, the Spurs had more fouls called against them in the quarter after Popovich’s technical only 3 times (8%), while enjoying a positive or neutral foul advantage 92% of the time.
So do these trends actually translate to wins? It turns out that they do.
There were 9 games during which the Spurs were losing at the time that Popovich got called for a technical but then went on to win the game.
To put it another way, the Spurs come from behind to win 39% of the time after Popovich gets a technical.
Here are the raw stats.