The most common question I hear from the regular NBA fan is ‘How can a player be in the NBA if he can’t make free throws?’ I usually just laugh it off and point to all the positives that make players vital assets to their team. But when you think about it more in depth, really, why are some NBA players horrible at free throws? And to take it even deeper, what is the real effect it has on their teams? Let’s check it out.
Put this in perspective, Kareem Abdul-Jabar is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer at 38,387 points. He was a 72.1 percent free throw shooter. Very respectable for a seven footer.
Fifth on the list is Wilt Chamberlain at 31,419 points. Wilt was a 51.1 percent FT shooter. Directly behind him on the All-Time leading scorer list: Shaquille O’Neal at 28,596. Shaq is an official synonym in Webster’s dictionary for not being able to make a free throw. But actually a better career free throw shooter than Wilt at 52.7 percent. Regardless, both Wilt and Shaq left a lot of points on the table due to their inability to convert at the free throw line.
How many points you ask?
Shaq made 5,935 free throws throughout his career, but missed 5,317. So he’s not going to make them all obviously, but let’s say he shot Kareem’s 72.1 percent for his career. That would have been an extra 2,177 points to his career total. Wilt, he missed 5,805 free throws throughout his career. If he shoots the same as Kareem from the line, he is third on the NBA’s all-time scoring list with an extra 2,748 points to his name. Opportunity cost, opportunity lost. The name of the game for free throw shooting.
All the individual statistics and records are great, but the most powerful impact is felt on the team. Would L.A. now be the Clippers’ city if DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin don’t go a combined 23-47 (48.9 percent) over the final three games of their 2015 playoff series with Houston? Free throws win and lose games, and hold the power to alter history.
The tangible negative aspect of free throws is obviously the lost of points on the board. But what is rarely ever talked about is the morale boost/loss of missed free throws. It’s very demoralizing for a team to step to the line and miss a pair of free throws. Most coaches and teams hold the theory that defense leads to offense. However, I would contend that it is just the opposite; points on the offensive end lead to increased intensity on the defensive end and overall team morale boost.
Over the course of the 2014-2015 NBA season, after a team converted on both free throws their defensive points per possession was an average of 0.878 on the next possession. When they missed the pair of free throws, the points per possession rose to 0.935. That’s the equivalent of nearly a six-point swing.
Let’s keep going deeper. Of the Top 7 NBA teams in free throw percentage last season, six were playoff teams. Three of those teams were also in the Top 5 in defensive points allowed. The others were either in the Top 10 or very near it. As you can see, there is a direct correlation between free throw percentage and team defense. So it only makes you wonder, what is the real direct impact on games won vs. games lost based on free throw percentage.
Credit 82games.com and a study based on a team free throw shooting percentage of 78 percent as the standard (2014-2015 league average was actually 75 percent, the lowest it has been since 2005-2006 season). The results of the study showed that if the losing team had shot 78 percent from the line every game (as opposed to the percentage that they did shoot), they would have won 5.6 percent more games, which cumulates to an average of around two extra wins per game.
Think the Oklahoma City Thunder could have used two additional wins last season?
So the question is, how can NBA players earn so much money, and in some cases, earn max contracts and still not be able to make a free throw to save their life (or their team)?
Are their hands too big to shoot free throws? Nope, that can’t be it. Kawhi Leonard, with some of the biggest paws in the game, shoots 80.2 percent.
Are players too muscular and athletically tightly bound? That can’t be it either. The most explosive athlete in the game, Russell Westbrook, shoots 81.9 percent from the line.
Then what is it?
Being a shooting coach for NBA players, the biggest thing I teach my guys is confidence. The second most important thing I teach? Confidence. And I continue to breed and breed confidence into them. Think about it, if a player steps to the line questioning himself, feeling all the eyes of the crowd on him, and genuinely feeling uncomfortable, there is no way he is going to succeed. But if the player steps to the line with the mindset ‘automatic points’ and feeling comfortable and relaxed then he will have a much better chance of making those free throws. Literally, free throw shooting is between 80-90 percent mental. Simple as that.
It’s very similar to golf. Five-foot putts should be automatic for the best in the world. But they’re not. It’s the difference between a Tiger Woods in his prime and a David Duval falling off the face of the map. It’s as simply stated as confidence and as simple as doing the same exact routine every single time while in game-simulated situations.
Dwight Howard has openly admitted that he shoots better on the road because he doesn’t feel the weight of the entire home crowd on his shoulders, as if he’s more concerned about letting them down than succeeding at the line. It’s a known fact that DeAndre Jordan shoots above 75 percent at practice when the statistics are recorded, but yet it is night and day difference in the game. And you know it’s an issue when the league is in a debate about adding a rule to James Naismith’s game based on a player not being able to make free throws.
Here is one of the main reasons why players and teams struggle from the free throw line: Most like to end practice and workouts with ‘make x amount of free throws.’ How many times in a game is a player going to sit at free throw line and shoot 50 in a row? Practice like you play, right? Isn’t that preached at every single basketball program throughout the globe?
In summary, why do some of the best players in the world struggle mightily from the free throw line?
1. Confidence and consistency in routine at the line – 80-90 percent of the battle.
2. Improper practice. Instead of shooting a mass of free throws, the most effective way to practice free throws are at random times throughout the session and a maximum of three at a time.
3. Mental approach. Knowing every shot at the free throw line is going in, instead of hoping it goes in.
That’s it. There’s no magic analytical concocted secret to it. It’s not hand size, muscle size, nothing physical. It’s extremely simply complicated (if that makes sense).
Basically if you want a good indicator of whether your team is going to make the playoffs or not and if they are going to lock down on the defensive end, look first at their free throw shooting percentage. It will hold the key to the future.
David Nurse is a professional shooting coach. You can learn more about him at PerfectShotsBasketball.com, the best shooting and skills basketball website in the world. You can also follow him on Twitter @davidnurse05.