Advanced Stats Series: Part IV
It is not true. Free throws are not free.
If free throws were free, don’t you think that Jodie Meeks would take more of them? If these throws were just lying around free on the court, don’t you think Meeks, 90.6 % shooter at the line, would have taken more than 85 in 1644 minutes last season? Just 85 free throws in more than 27 hours on the court.
Clearly they are not so free. And sometimes they cost a bruise.
Free throws are important, though. Because while they are not free, they are good value. NBA players made 75.2 % at the line in 2011-12. Those same players made 44.8 % of field goals. But players, and teams, do not take the same number of free throws. The ones that take the most free throws often put themselves in the best position. Thus, the fourth stat in the Four Factors: Free Throws Made Ratio.
Remember Hack-a-Shaq? One of my favorite Hack-a-Shaq moments was when the Spurs hacked Shaquille O’Neal five seconds into the 2008-09 season opener. That was Greg Popovich’s way of playfully prodding O’Neal, who had been given the treatment frequently in the postseason prior, courtesy of the Spurs.
While teams occasionally want to put an opponent on the line, almost every time they are doing everything they can to avoid putting an opponent at the line. It is a last resort. And for good reason. Even the teams that don’t shoot so well at the line are getting good value on a possession when they shoot free throws.
The formula, via basketball-reference, is FTM/FGA. It measures how often teams shoot free throws compared to how often they shoot field goals. You can look at it from an offensive or defensive standpoint. Or, like the chart at the top, both.
Lakers: Kobe Bryant made the third most free throws in the NBA in 2011-12. Only Kevin Durant and LeBron James made more. Free throws are pretty important. They are the weapon of choice of the NBA superstar. The Lakers boasted the eighth best offensive free throws made ratio – and the very best defensive free throws made ratio in the NBA.
Nuggets: The Nuggets ranked in the top four in both offensive and defensive free throws made ratios. The team’s breakneck pace kept defenses back on their heels, reacting. The Nuggets attempted by far the most shots at the rim of any teams in the NBA, which not coincidentally is where teams most often draw fouls.
Thunder: No team lived at the line like the Thunder in 2011-12. For the second season in a row, the Thunder finished with the best offensive free throws made ratio in the NBA. They finished third the year before that. Durant (1), Russell Westbrook (5), and James Harden (8) ranked in the top ten in free throws made overall – just impossible to keep off the line. In related news, the Thunder were the second-best offensive team in the NBA last season.
76ers: The 76ers are interesting. They never really turned the ball over, but they also never really got to the line. In the end, they were right in middle offensively.
Warriors: In spite of putting opponents on the line frequently while rarely getting to the line themselves, the Warriors were an above average offensive team in 2011-12.
Raptors: They fouled a lot. The Raptors actually played in a game last season against the Grizzlies where the teams combined to shoot 89 free throws.
The team’s best night at the line last season? They made 30 free throws, in a road win against the Heat.
The Bucks were right around average at the line, all things considered. And this is a good time to point out that simply shooting free throws at a good percentage is only part of the picture. The Bucks ranked eighth in the NBA in 2011-12 shooting 77.4 % from the stripe. But they only attempted the 19th most free throws. This relates back to the case of Jodie Meeks in the intro, the former Bucks guard who is a great free throw shooter, but who rarely gets to the line.
Likewise, the Bucks were pretty proficient once they got to the line – it was just a matter of getting there. Brandon Jennings ranked 44th overall in free throws attempted last season, highest on the team. The Bucks also were rather average in keeping opposing teams off the line.
The more time that Jennings and backcourt mate Monta Ellis spend at the line, the better. As focal parts of the offense, the duo will inevitably take a lot of shots. Ideally, they will balance those runners and jumpers and threes with free throws. In his first three seasons, Jennings has increasingly taken and made more shots at the rim, and this marks perhaps the most important progression in his game in the NBA. The next step is to get more calls on the shots at the rim that he misses.
Monta Ellis averaged a career-high 6.1 free throw attempts per game in 2010-11, and while that number fell to 4.7 in 2011-12, he remains a strong slasher. In limited minutes as a rookie, Tobias Harris displayed a genuine comfort working in the paint, and he got to the line at an impressive rate.
As a rookie, Ekpe Udoh rarely got the line, registering a .189 fee throw ratio. In his second season, he still did not take many shots from the field, but managed to find his way to the free throw line much more often. At the same time, he improved his accuracy from 65.6 % as a rookie to 75.4 % in his second season. And so just like that, Udoh had it all – he shot more at the line and he shot better at the line.
The rest of the Bucks could afford to follow in his footsteps.
My passions? Writing and the Bucks, to start. So it is good to be here. I have reported on media row for just about every Bucks home game since 2009-10 – almost all of that time writing for BrewHoop. I have also written for the Milwaukee Brewers Baseball Club, SB Nation, ESPN Milwaukee, Slam Online, etc. You can follow me on Twitter @alexboeder or email me at email@example.com.