Thinking, Lonely Free-Throws and The Washington Wizards
[Washington, DC Ward 6 Anacostia Rec Center – photo: K. Weidie]
A free-throw, the most efficient shot in basketball. But the clear irony is that the easiest way to get buckets, son (shout out to Oleksiy Pecherov, who is tearing it up in the Ukrainian Superleague), is often the most ignored difference-maker in games, unless they come at the very end. Then everyone knows the implications, and everyone is watching. It can get pretty lonely at the free-throw line in one’s thoughts.
In a sport where so many flowing events occur at once, instances where observers can focus on one man with the ball are relatively nonexistent. A solo fast-break is one (imagine Dwyane Wade in the passing lane), but even he must watch his back for a futilely hustling defender. Free-throws are another instance. On the court, nothing else is happening, aside the mental and physical jostling along the lane’s hash marks. White noise ready to rebound. All basketball-curious eyes are on a single, methodical routine. The line can be even more of an island when it’s a technical free-throw.
In 2010-11, 11 out of 30 NBA teams attempted 2000 or more free-throws, including the likes of Chicago, Oklahoma City, Miami and Orlando. The cumulative winning percentage of those eleven teams was 0.542. Ten out of 30 teams attempted 1900 or less free-throws, including the likes of Golden State, Detroit and New Jersey. The cumulative winning percentage of those ten teams was 0.508. There are, of course, exceptions. The 19-win Cleveland Cavaliers attempted the eighth most free-throws in the NBA with 2,075. The 57-win, World Champion Dallas Mavericks finished 27th in attempts with 1850. The Washington Wizards finished one attempt above the league average with 1,999, tied with the Charlotte Bobcats for 12th most in the NBA.
Getting to the line in abundance is one thing, making them is another. Washington finished tied with that Cleveland team with a 0.745 free-throw percentage, good enough for 24th league-wide. Free-throws are part of the “Four Factors” of winning basketball (offensively and defensively), popularized by statistician Dean Oliver. Oliver estimates free-throws as 15-percent of success, compared to shooting (40%), turnovers (25%), and rebounding (20%). Free-throw success in this sense is measured by the ratio of free-throws made to field-goals attempted. In 2010-11, Washington finished with an offensive FT/FGA ratio of 0.216, ranked 23rd in the NBA.
But let’s get into some numbers that really drive home the point: free-throws in close games. The Wizards lost eight games by six points or less last season. Their cumulative free-throw percentage in those games was 0.686. They won 12 games by six points or less. In those games they shot 0.794 from the line. That 10.8-percent is significant.
It’s a stretch to assume that the Wizards would’ve won those eight games had they made more free-throws, putting their record at 31-51 and their lottery position back a couple spots to the later hindsight and chagrin of fans. But it sure would’ve been nice to beat the Miami Heat on December 18, 2010, the day of the Gilbert Arenas trade. The Wizards went 6-10 from the line in the fourth quarter of a 95-94 loss (they were 18-26 for the game). Kirk Hinrich, Hilton Armstrong and Josh Howard (twice) all had trips to the line making only one of two; Al Thornton sank both of his attempts midway through the period. Hinrich missed his with 12 seconds left. Dwyane Wade made both of his with seven seconds left. Miami took the one point victory.
It doesn’t matter now, but it will matter when Washington is trying to make the playoffs, and even further, when playoff seeding counts. That brings us to the culprits.
JaVale McGee attempted 230 free-throws last season, he made 134 for a percentage of 0.583. And he has gotten worse from the line over his young career. As a rookie McGee attempted 162 and made 0.660 of them. As an NBA soph he attempted 116 and sank them at a 0.638 clip. The Wizards cannot afford for their starting center to get worse from the line as his tenure continues. If he simply improved from his rookie campaign to his third year toward a rate of 0.691 last season (which means only making 25 more free-throws in 2010-11), the Wizards jump up four spots to be tied with the Milwaukee Bucks for 20th best free-throw percentage in the NBA.
But McGee clearly isn’t the only one. In fact, when it comes to the importance of free-throws the Wizards should look at their team leader first. In 69 games John Wall led the Wizards in free-throw attempts (393 — 5.7 attempts/game ) and makes (301); his attempts ranked 30th in the NBA. Out of the 31 players with 390 or more attempts in 2010-11, Wall’s 0.766 free-throw percentage ranks 24th; one spot ahead of LeBron James, one spot behind Brook Lopez (source: Basketball-Reference.com):
- Chris Paul >> .847 (6.0)
- Calvin Murphy >> .820 (5.3)
- Russell Westbrook >> .815 (5.2)
- Phil Ford >> .813 (5.1)
- Mitch Richmond >> .810 (6.4)
- Pete Maravich >> .800 (6.2)
- Sarunas Marciulionis >> .787 (5.4)
- Earl Monroe >> .781 (7.9)
- Geoff Petrie >> .772 (7.3)
- Travis Mays >> .770 (5.2)
- John Wall >> .766 (5.7)
- Tiny Archibald >> .757 (5.4)
- Tyreke Evans >> .748 (6.5)
- Dwyane Wade >> .747 (5.1)
- Stephon Marbury >> .727 (5.0)
- Isiah Thomas >> .704 (6.0)
- Allen Iverson >> .702 (7.2)
- Jerry West >> .666 (6.3)
Shooting coaches, scientists and roundball kinesiologists can help hone technique and functionality, but improvement in individuals can be wide-ranging. The consensus, however, that most experts might agree upon is A) technique can improve in consistency with consistent practice; B) focusing on a routine and the process can help tune-out external factors (such as nerves and crowd noise), and C) mental clarity helps — spend time practicing A and B, and when it comes to the game, just shoot the ball. Don’t think about anything else.
John Wall is filming commercials for Reebok in Paris with yellow sports cars. JaVale McGee is dunking in suits for GQ while being aggressive with his plaids. Both players have no doubt been working on their games, in addition to their personal brand. Have you seen the Wall lockout basketball highlights from HoopsMixTape.com? McGee has recently tweeted about pool workouts and going for runs around Runyon Canyon in Hollywood, CA. Even Andray Blatche is working hard with trainer Joe Connelly to become more consistent, as he can also improve upon his 0.777 free-throw percentage in 2010-11, which was a career best, aside from his rookie season when he made 10 of 12.
These Wizards are coming back ready and will be top shape. Because Wall already set the example and Flip Saunders makes the rules: be conditioned to get down the court with John or watch him do it from the sideline; and also, don’t get caught running up hill on defense.
There will be no ’98 lockout hangover in D.C.. Don’t be surprised if the city quickly embraces this young bunch. Hopefully they’ve been working on their cerebral basketball games as well. Wall undoubtedly has. And when it comes to free-throws, here’s to hoping that the Wiz Kids have been working so hard that they don’t have to think at all. The loneliness at the free-throw line need not be enduring, especially after big makes, but nobody wants to keep company with an arena full of groans.
>>> This is John Wall.