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LeBron James says he needs to ‘learn to flop’ amid changing NBA officiating

It could be asserted that Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James knows how to flop, but why is that no longer as effective in today’s league?

After leaving Wednesday's 114-101 loss to the Clippers during the fourth quarter with a groin injury, the four-time NBA MVP made known his frustration with this season’s officiating.

"I love physicality," James said. "But I would also like for the whistle to be blown when I get hit. I mean, four free throws once again. I look at a lot of guys tonight, shooting a lot of jump shots, and they're going nine, 13 times to the free-throw line. I gotta learn how to flop or something. Seriously, I need to learn how to do that. Swipe my head back or do something to get to the free-throw line. Cause the 'I missed it' is getting too repetitive. Three straight games of 'I missed it.'"

James is correct that he’s getting to the line less this season. He’s averaging a career-low 4.8 free throws per game. His shooting statistics this season actually work as a surface explanation for this shift though, as he’s currently putting up 7.1 threes per game, 24.9 points per game and shooting 23.9 percent outside the arc. If the NBA season were to end today, that would be the lowest 3-point percentage in his career, eclipsing his rookie season in 2003 when he shot 29% from deep.

Still, there’s more to the foul call conversation than just James’ performance.

Fouling, flopping and the full picture

Referees will always be a hot topic in every sport. This NBA season feels a bit different though, with a major headline circulating every week about an athlete’s gripes regarding game officiating.

Aside from the report of a referee cursing at Dallas Mavericks guard Spencer Dinwiddie, or Jordan Poole and the Warriors’ reactions to increased carry calls, most of the issues have mirrored James’ frustrations with hearing, “I missed it.”

The Sacramento Kings, for example, have seen two games potentially impacted by missed shooting foul and travel calls on game-winning threes that the NBA later acknowledged in Last 2 Minute Reports.

The Los Angeles Clippers-Cleveland Cavaliers game Monday night had several missed and incorrect foul calls, according to the NBA. Coming down to the last possession, the NBA admitted that Reggie Jackson should have been called for a foul on Darius Garland when he stole the ball from the Cavs guard. Then Paul George should have been called for a foul on Jarrett Allen when he contested the big man's shot at the rim. Finally, George should not have been called for a foul on his contest on Donovan Mitchell's 3-point attempt with 4.6 seconds remaining. It all culminated in a Cavaliers two-point loss after they had a 12-point lead going into the final four minutes.

Team performance ultimately impacts records the most. However, it’s clear that league officials are struggling to consistently catch fouls and call them correctly. Maybe that’s because foul rules have changed. After “The Harden Rule” was introduced in the summer of 2021, an offensive player can no longer draw a foul by initiating contact and must be in the act of shooting to be attributed a shooting foul.

There's always an adjustment period when something is new. While James Harden initially struggled to make it to the line after the rule change, he seems to have adapted. It's possible that James and the rest of the league's experiences reflect a struggle for officials to do the same.

Nov 6, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA;  Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (6) pleads his case after a foul call in the first half against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James doesn't think he's getting the right calls. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports)