Jaren Jackson Jr. has become a popular pick for Defensive Player of the Year over the past several weeks. Before Saturday, he had become the favorite to win the award at every major sportsbook, with odds at some dipping below minus-200. When CBS Sports made our mid-season awards picks, seven of eight voters chose Jackson as the Defensive Player of the Year. Several other notable outlets followed suit.
And then, on Saturday morning, a lengthy post gained traction on Reddit. The thread, by user u/ADMassive6666, was titled “Memphis Grizzlies scorekeeper posting fraudulent numbers.” The post itself alleged that the scorekeeper working Grizzlies home games was artificially inflating Jackson’s block and steal numbers, which, in turn, fueled the momentum behind Jackson’s Defensive Player of the Year campaign.
Soon after, Caesars Sportsbook removed Defensive Player of the Year odds from the board. Other books left the odds up and saw a significant movement toward other candidates. According to The Athletic’s Fred Katz, the post “is making its way around the league now, not just the internet.”
The Grizzlies, for their part, have Jackson’s back. Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins called the criticism “foolish” following the team’s 112-100 win over the Indiana Pacers on Sunday, “JJ is one of the best defensive players in the game. So glad to have him on our team.” Jackson finished that game with 28 points, eight rebounds and five blocks.
The NBA is no stranger to citizen journalism. The scandal that eventually cost former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Bryan Colangelo his job was initially uncovered by a Twitter user who directed The Ringer’s Ben Detrick to investigate further. But this is something new entirely. Fans frequently use social media to gripe about how players are treated, but as Katz reported, the league is at least monitoring this one, and for good reason. So let’s dive into one of the more bizarre controversies in recent NBA history and why such a seemingly minor difference in a few statistical columns could have enormous ramifications on the future of basketball.
So… what are the allegations here?
The central thesis of the post is that Jackson is being unfairly awarded extra blocks and steals by the Grizzlies’ scorekeeper when he plays at home. In 16 home games, Jackson has accumulated 66 blocks and 22 steals. In 17 road games, Jackson has blocked 37 shots and racked up only 12 steals. The post listed seven specific plays in which the writer believed that Jackson was unfairly awarded either a block or a steal. Video for all seven can be found here, but below is the first example cited:
On the play, Zion Williamson drives into traffic and seemingly loses the ball without going up for a shot. Jackson was awarded a block. Each of the seven clips alleges that Jackson was unfairly given credit for a play that he did not make. Tim Frank, the NBA’s senior vice president of communications, issued a statement denying these allegations and explaining the league’s procedure for such matters.
“In order to ensure the integrity of our game statistics, auditors, independent of the statisticians on-site, review all plays and stats decisions in real-time during NBA games,” the statement read. “If changes are necessary, they are made at that time or following a postgame review. All of the plays questioned in the post on Memphis games were scored consistently within the rules set forth by the NBA statisticians manual.”
NBA scorekeepers are not employed by the league. Instead, each team provides scorekeepers at their home arenas. According to Katz, the Grizzlies are using the same scorekeeper that they did last season. Historically speaking, home arena stat padding is a relatively common and accepted practice. This most often manifests in assists, which are by far the most ambiguous stat to track. The traditional definition of an assist is a pass directly leading to a made shot, but home scorekeepers tend to be more generous to their own passers than their road counterparts.
This season, the average home team is assisting on 25.3 buckets per game, whereas the average road team is finishing with only 24.6. On a league-wide basis, that gap is relatively minor. It can manifest more aggressively with individual players. This season’s assist leader is James Harden, who is averaging 11.5 assists at home and 10.6 per game on the road. Blocks and steals are a bit more concrete than assists, though, and the gaps we’re talking about, especially in regard to blocks, are significant.
What does the film say? How about other numbers?
The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor posted a thread Saturday afternoon covering Jackson’s blocks. He watched all 66 of them in slow motion and found that only three of them were ruled incorrectly. The thread as a whole makes a thorough argument against the relevance of any alleged stat-padding in Memphis.
It is also worth noting that not all statistics are tracked by the official scorekeeper. Starting in 2016, the NBA began tracking what it calls “hustle” stats on NBA.com. According to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, they were tracked out of the NBA’s Secaucus replay center by league-trained personnel. These numbers also show a disparity in Jackson’s performance at home and on the road. In Memphis, for instance, Jackson is averaging 11.9 contested shots and 1.9 deflections per game. Everywhere else, he’s averaging 10 contested shots and 1.3 deflections per game. This would support the idea that Jackson is merely a better defender at home than he is on the road.
As far as Jackson’s Defensive Player of the Year candidacy goes, he remains a strong choice regardless of how many raw blocks he is credited for. The Grizzlies still have the NBA’s No. 1 defense. They were ranked 20th on the morning of Nov. 15, when he made his season debut. That defense is eight points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor than it is without him. Since Jackson’s debut, the Grizzlies are allowing opponents to make only 60 percent of their shots in the restricted area. The gap since then between them and second-place Brooklyn (62.5 percent) is bigger than the gap between Brooklyn and seventh-place Oklahoma City (64.6 percent). In other words, there is plenty of evidence supporting Jackson as the NBA’s best rim-protector this season that goes beyond the number of shots he blocks.
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Why does any of this matter?
To the common fan, it doesn’t. The outcome of games is not determined by how many blocks a scorekeeper awards an individual player. But financially speaking, the NBA is concerned with far more than just the outcome of games.
In 2021, the NBA named FanDuel and DraftKings its official sports betting partners. Caesars operates an in-arena sportsbook at CapitalOne Arena in Washington D.C., home to the Wizards. FanDuel operates one in Chicago’s United Center, home to the Bulls. Sports betting is no longer merely adjacent to the leagues themselves. They are official partners, and sports betting relies on precision.
Say, for instance, a bettor bets on Jackson to go under a certain number of blocks in a home game. If the way in which blocks are recorded is not standardized and completely above board, that bettor might feel cheated if a play like the first example listed on Reddit was the difference between winning and losing a bet.
Defensive Player of the Year voting is, inherently, an imprecise enterprise, but all awards are somewhat subjective and based on narrative. If Jackson gained momentum based on false block numbers, those who bet on other candidates might feel as though voters are voting with inaccurate information. Ironically, voters will now have to weigh the numbers laid out in this Reddit post. Even if O’Connor’s suggestion that only three of Jackson’s home blocks were ruled incorrectly is accurate, there are going to be voters that struggle to shake these numbers out of their heads.
And then there’s daily fantasy. Imagine losing a $1 million contest because the winner had Jackson and got an extra block. The stakes are lower on season-long fantasy, but the theoretical consequences would be similar.
These are now serious revenue-generating industries for the NBA, and no matter how these disparities arise, they call the legitimacy of the entire enterprise into question. At the very least, the questions posts like these raise should force the NBA to consider a more standardized method of scorekeeping. If home scorekeepers are awarding numbers unfairly, it might be worthwhile for the league to either keep stats remotely or employ its own scorekeepers rather than outsourcing that responsibility to teams.