Basketball: The charity shot conundrum; a few thoughts on foul shots

There a was a food-for-thought article in The New York Times last week about how there's no direct correlation between free-throw shooting and winning, even though every coach pays lip service to making the freebies.

Those who follow the NCAA have probably heard the factoid that only North Carolina is in the AP Top 25 and among the top 25 teams in Division I (which has 343 teams) in free-throw percentage. It is a similar story in Canada; only one Final 8 team was among the top eight in free-throw percentage. That's just a bit of a cheat, since No. 3 seed UBC is ninth and No. 8 St. Francis Xavier is 10th.
  1. Carleton: 6th (.728).
  2. Calgary: 15th (70.1%). Only one team in the country has attempted 600 foul shots in a season over the past three years and it's been the Dinos every time (609 this year, 678 in '07-08, 677 in '06-07).
  3. UBC: 9th (.716).
  4. Western: 29th (.665).
  5. Ottawa: 14th (.701).
  6. Dalhousie: 23rd (.669)
  7. Concordia: 34th (.643)
  8. St. FX: 10th (.709).
However, not making free throws seems to be a thread which ties together some of the teams which were in and around the Top 10 all season, but fell short of the Final 8.

Cape Breton (.637) was second-last in the AUS and 37th nationally, despite the fact guard Mark McGarrigle was the country's only 90% shooter at .909 (he only got to the line 55 times in 19 games). The Capers made just 31-of-56 foul shots in their final two games, a double-OT loss to St. FX in the final regular-season game and a one-pointer to Dal in the AUS semi-final.

UVic (.621), nationally ranked for much of the season (and they represented well in RPI), were last in Canada West. Only RMC was worse nationally.

Windsor (.658) was 13th in the OUA and 33rd nationally.

There's a lot in that Times piece, how namely free-throw shooting has never improved over time.
"Ray Stefani, a professor emeritus at California State University, Long Beach, is an expert in the statistical analysis of sports. Widespread improvement over time in any sport, he said, depends on a combination of four factors: physiology (the size and fitness of athletes, perhaps aided by performance-enhancing drugs), technology or innovation (things like the advent of rowing machines to train rowers, and the Fosbury Flop in high jumping), coaching (changes in strategy) and equipment (like the clap skate in speedskating or fiberglass poles in pole vaulting).

" 'There are not a lot of those four things that would help in free-throw shooting,' Stefani said."
It also noted that the WNBA has recorded a higher free-throw percentage than the NBA in two of the past three seasons. Wouldn't you know it, a cursory glance (there isn't time to add it all up) would suggest that female players in the CIS are more proficient than their male counterparts.

Four women's teams, Concordia (.761), Laval (.757), Winnipeg (.753) and Windsor (.753) hit the 75% threshold, ahead of the most accurate men's team, Ryerson (.748). The most accurate free-throw shooter of either gender was the U of T's Alaine Hutton at .927. More women's teams (17) shot 70% than men's teams (15).

Now, this is curious, but it's likely one of those weird statheaded logical absurdities. I mentioned that Cape Breton and Windsor just missed the Final 8, but their female counterparts were each in the top 10 nationally from the line and those Capers and Lancers were in the Final 8. (For anyone wondering, which is probably just Rob and myself at this point, Cape Breton was a 67% team if you completely factor out CIS scoring champ Kelsey Hodgson's 90.4%.)

Four of the top nine free-throw shooting women's teams (and six of the top 12) made it to Regina last weekend, a slightly higher rate than for the men. Still, Simon Fraser, 17th in the country at just more than 70%, were the ones cutting down the nets last night in Regina.

Again, it's just some food for thought. We'll never know the answers to this stuff. It is funny how the best teams aren't always the best ones at a simple act.

You probably remember that Windsor Lancers lost in November to Laurentian, the fourth-best free-throw shooting team at 73.6%, but an also-ran otherwise in the OUA. The game must have turned on that, eh? Nope. Laurentian was 15-of-20 that night. Windsor was 15-of-21.

For Free Throws, 50 Years of Practice Is No Help (John Branch, The New York Times, March 5)
The Cost of Throwing Away Free Throws (The Wages of Wins Journal)
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  1. I'd argue that free-throw percentage isn't the most important factor here. Sure, there's a difference between Carleton's .728 rate and Concordia's .643 clip. However, say each of those teams takes 100 free throws and hits them at their rate: Carleton only comes out 9 points ahead (73-64). If Concordia gets to the line 14 more times, they would hit 9 of those shots and it would be tied. Thus, percentage in a vacuum doesn't tell you all that much; it would be more valuable to be a worse-shooting team and get to the line more. Dave Berri is absolutely right that free throws can make a big difference for players and teams; however, in my view at least, Shaq is not the worst free-throw guy in the NBA. Consider his 06-07 season, when he went 124-294 (.422); he still scored 124 points for his team from the line in 1135 minutes. By comparison, Andrea Bargnani played 1629 minutes that year and hit 117 of 142 attempts, a lights-out percentage of .824. Still, only looking at free throws, I'd take Shaq, widely regarded as one of the worst shooters, over Bargnani, one of the best that year. Shaq put up seven more points from the line in almost 500 less minutes because he drove the basket and got fouled. Free throws aren't like regular shots; no one else can take them, so there's less emphasis on efficiency. Efficiency is still very important, but it does you no good if you can't get to the line in the first place.

  2. Andrew,

    You're kind of using extreme anecdotal evidence with Shaq vs. Bargs, especially since O'Neal plays in the post and Bargnani initiates his offence out at the 3-point line.

    Yes, going 20-of-30 from the line is better than 10-of-12 almost every time, no doubt. But if you're clanking both or splitting free throws, then you're having a lot of empty possessions.

  3. Andrew's got the right idea. FT% isn't the most important factor in isolation, but it might as well be tied for first with FG% in this situation.

    Since most players have a better FT% than FG%, getting fouled on anything other than a no-doubt shot is better for the shooter: the foul will increase the number of points the shooter can expect to get on that possession. If FG% is way down (the worse-shooting team Andrew mentions), the benefit of a pair of free throws is even greater.

    Put another way, the average CIS men's player shot 68% from the line and 46% from the field this year (two-pointers only). So there's a half-point advantage to the offensive team when the average player is fouled on a typical layup and goes to the line for two. Fouling the shooter on unlikely shots is even more damaging (coaches/players know this already, but the math supports it).

    So in the Carleton-Concordia example, it's not whether Concordia gets 7 more fouls (and therefore 14 more foul shots), but whether or not those 7 fouls came on 7 shots they were likely to sink.

  4. @Neate: Yeah, I wasn't trying to say the Bargnani-Shaq comparison is the last word on the subject; I just found it interesting that a guy reviled as one of the league's worst free-throw shooters actually produced more points from the line in less minutes than someone at his position with one of the top percentages. My point's just that I don't think free-throw percentage means a lot without information on the attempts. For example, both UBC and Calgary have earned more points from free-throws (400 and 427) than Carleton (350) despite lower percentages (.716 and .701 vs. .728).