David Berri is a professor at Southern Utah University. He is a past president of the North American Association of Sports Economists and serves on the editorial board of both the Journal of Sports Economics and the International Journal of Sport Finance.
The Toronto Raptors are shocking the world. Many basketball fans don't believe the Raptors can actually defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers in this best-of-seven series, even with Toronto's latest victories. And many Raptors fans wonder why the referees seem to be rooting against them.
The data, though, tells a different story on both counts.
No NBA team this season spent more money on playing talent than Cleveland. The Cavaliers spent more than $70-million (U.S.) on just LeBron James, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson – more than the Raptors spent on their entire roster.
Here's a truly shocking thought: The Cavaliers are really not as good as their payroll suggests. Yes, Cleveland was the best team in the Eastern Conference, but not by much: The Cavaliers won just one more game than the Raptors did this season.
If we look at the individual players, the Cavaliers definitely have the best player in the series. BoxScoreGeeks.com calculates how many wins each player produces, and James was worth 15.4 wins this season.
Of course he gets help from Thompson, who rebounds and hits the shots he takes.
But apart from those two, no Cleveland players managed to produce as many wins in the regular season as Toronto's Kyle Lowry, Bismack Biyombo and Jonas Valanciunas.
So the data show the Raptors have a real chance at winning this series.
That is if Toronto can somehow overcome those referees, right? Yes, the Cavaliers have attempted 25 more free throws and have been whistled for 26 fewer fouls. And yes, Toronto head coach Dwane Casey really believes the referees are not getting this right. But that doesn't prove the referees are biased.
Economist Christian Deutscher published a 2015 study in Sports Law Analytics that examined NBA referees' propensity to be biased in close-game situations with two minutes or less to play. The study looked at, among other things, favouring the home team or a star player.
Mr. Deutscher's study relied on more than just looking at the frequency of calls and instead reviewed video to see if there was a systematic bias. He found there really isn't a bias: "The empirical analysis for 113 games and 1,229 total calls finds no support of referee bias in foul calling."
It may make sense that the NBA wants James in the finals more than the Raptors. But if the NBA really was fixing the playoffs to get the best matchup, there is no way the San Antonio Spurs would have advanced to the finals as often as they have in the past 20 years.
I realize that's hard for Toronto fans to believe. But they should know that it is likely all fans in the NBA think the referees are against them. And fans have always thought this. The data, though, tell a different story.
And more importantly, the data show something all Canadians should be excited about: The Raptors can win this series.