It was a fundamental, two-handed chest pass from Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine to DeMar DeRozan in the third quarter of a Feb. 9 game in Charlotte. Big bucks were at stake, and the NBA's most-invested fans were watching closely.
DeRozan caught the pass from LaVine on the move, took a dribble to get into the paint and hit a running jumper off one leg while drawing a foul. The bucket put the Bulls up 67-56 on the Hornets with 7:18 left in the third quarter. It appeared to be a textbook assist from LaVine, but it wasn't scored that way.
Hundreds of statistical data points -- assists, rebounds, steals, blocks and more -- are recorded during an NBA game, many of them requiring interpretation in real time. These days, there's money riding on seemingly every one of them, including LaVine's chest pass to DeRozan.
LaVine was not credited with an assist on the play. Sportsbooks had offered the over/under on LaVine's assists for the game at 5.5. He finished with five assists.
Large online betting communities had teamed up on LaVine's over on assists, including it in long-shot parlays with big payouts. They thought a stat correction was warranted. The NBA did not.
Kenny McAndress, a 28-year-old bettor and social media personality in Philadelphia, looked back at the LaVine decision two weeks later and said, "That one just felt like it was so cut and dry. I have to rethink how I do my bet construction, because I want to avoid assists."
Frustrated bettors have taken to social media routinely to question how plays that impact their bets are scored. A lot of the time, there's disagreement over the interpretation on a close play, like whether a pass truly does "lead directly to a made basket" to qualify as an assist. A handful of complaints, however, have prompted the league to issue corrections. When that happens, some sportsbooks end up paying out on both sides of wagers: the side that was the winner by the initial ruling and then the other side after the box score is corrected.
"Our fans are obsessed with statistics," Scott Kaufman-Ross, a senior vice president for the NBA who oversees the betting space for the league, told ESPN. "We agree that it's critical that we get it right. We've felt this way for a long time, even before sports betting was legal. Of course, there is a brighter light being shined on some of our statistics given the rise of sports betting, but it's always been critical for us to get our stats right."
It's a conundrum with no definitive solution for the league, bookmakers or bettors. Human error is inevitable. Ultimately, most stakeholders realize that stat-keeping mistakes are -- and always will be -- part of the game.
Corrections gaining more notice
Stat corrections happen in every sport. The NFL, for example, releases weekly reports on stat changes. Recent corrections made by the NBA have received more attention, though.
The NBA refutes any notion that there has been an uptick of stat corrections. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the league's official statistician, the NBA has issued far fewer stat corrections over the past three seasons than in prior seasons. Neither the NBA nor ESB provided the percentage of games that receive corrections, but both entities -- and multiple sportsbooks -- characterized them as "rare," especially considering that millions of data points are inputted throughout the season.
In the final week of January, however, the NBA issued multiple corrections. At least two of them were preceded by an outcry from bettors on Twitter and in media coverage, including from ESPN. An assist erroneously credited to Chris Paul was given to Mikal Bridges a day after a Utah Jazz-Phoenix Suns game on Jan. 24, and, three days later, the NBA awarded a steal to Minnesota Timberwolves forward Anthony Edwards that he initially wasn't credited with during a game against the Golden State Warriors. Bettors brought attention to both.
"There is no rash of corrections in terms of volume," Kaufman-Ross said in a February phone interview. "I think people are paying attention to it more."
Indeed, they are. In a way, the increased fan engagement the NBA predicted when pivoting its position on sports betting is now evident when bettors are pointing out the league's mistakes. No one expects them to stop, but more transparency and communication from the league is needed, bettors say.
"I don't know where this goes, if policy doesn't change, because, right now, there's nothing that forces them to do anything," McAndress said.
Basketball is a difficult sport to score live. The action is fast-paced with fewer and shorter breaks than baseball or football. Upward of six people make up the stat-collection teams that are assigned to each NBA game. Four are on-site: a primary and secondary caller, and a primary and secondary inputter provided by the home team. At least one NBA employee from the league's New Jersey office is assigned to each game and is connected directly to the secondary caller on site via a headset. They all have access to video replay from approximately a dozen different angles and the ability to communicate with each other about judgment calls. Still, even with all the technology, mistakes happen, and they cost bettors and bookmakers money.
For decades, the standard house rule for sportsbooks in Las Vegas has been not to recognize stat corrections. Wagers are traditionally graded on the stats initially released. But newer bookmaking companies, like FanDuel and DraftKings, have taken a new approach to corrections, even if it costs them.
"There are probably a handful [of stat corrections] a year that are higher-profile that maybe people notice," Karol Corcoran, general manager of FanDuel's online sportsbook, said. "We appreciate that it's difficult for our stat providers to get everything right 100 percent of the time."
FanDuel's rule on stat corrections is centered on the official box score distributed by the NBA and is written generally enough to allow for changes. The sportsbook ended up paying out on both sides of recent bets impacted by stats corrections.
"What we're trying to do is ensure that the experience our customers are having is not negatively impacted by some of these mistakes," Corcoran said. "It's -- excuse my language -- kind of a s----ty experience when you lose a bet just because of a mistake. Sometimes it's blatantly obvious that you have the mistake; other times it is discretion, so we try, where it's feasible, to kind of make it up to the customers."
Stat interpretation can bring confusion, scrutiny
McAndress, a young Philly sports bettor and media personality, has more than 3,500 members on his Discord server, Moonshot HQ. On Feb. 9, he recommended a five-leg parlay featuring LaVine to get more than 5.5 assists against the Hornets to the community.
Moonshot HQ buzzed after LaVine's pass to DeRozan in the third quarter. Username alopbanana was among the first to notice that LaVine had not been awarded an assist, posting, "bro wtf."
21EnerG weighed in next: "They robbed Lavine of an assist on the and one."
"That's 100% an assist," added simm.
Guy summed up his feeling with, "They hate us."
The chatter gravitated to twitter with scorned bettors posting videos of the play and tagging the @nbastats account.
Here is a video of the LaVine-to-DeRozan play:
Zach LaVine's over/under assists was 5.5 tonight...— The Action Network (@ActionNetworkHQ) February 10, 2022
He finished with 5 and this play below wasn't credited as an assist. pic.twitter.com/RVvBvrkWH2
Both plays look similar, but the NBA did not issue a correction.
In an email response to a fan questioning why an assist wasn't awarded to LaVine, an NBA representative wrote, "Thank you for contacting us about a play in the Feb. 9 Bulls-Hornets game. Please know that assists are credited at the discretion of the arena's in-game statisticians. Additionally, please note that the NBA Operations team does not credit or remove assists postgame; only assists credited to the wrong player are updated."
McAndress says inquiries to questionable scoring decisions often go unaddressed by the NBA, which fuels the betting community's frustration.
"Other than someone like us, if we lose a bet on a particular example, other than us finding it and going to fight about it, who else is complaining about a missed rebound or a missed assist?" McAndress said. "I'm sure that this is something that's probably happened naturally for as long as they've been keeping stats."
The NBA says it is always looking for ways to improve its process, but there were no changes planned for stat collection at this point.
"Unlike some other sports, where you have a play then 30 seconds between pitches or 40 seconds per play, our game is happening in real time -- a steal, a block, an assist, a 3, a turnover ... all that stuff is happening at a really fast pace. It is challenging to do," Chris Berrisford, director of basketball operations for the NBA, told ESPN. "We have a lot of statistics, and they're happening quickly. I think given how many stats we have and the pace of our game, I think we should feel pretty good about it's rare, but it will happen."
And when the stat-keeping mistakes happen, it's a good bet that gamblers will be the ones to spot them first.