Ryan Knaus

The Numbers Game

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Buyer Beware: Free Throw Woes

Wednesday, April 26, 2017


Today's column focuses on free throw shooting. Specifically, missed free throws. Every possession is magnified during the playoffs, where a few missed freebies can be the difference between a win and a loss. Hacking strategies abound, whether you love it or hate it, and the ability of a guy like James Harden to draw fouls becomes more important than ever. Free throws were a massive factor in the Rockets' first-round win vs. the Thunder -- Houston shot 79.8% on 33.6 attempts per game, while OKC shot 68.9% on 27.0 attempts. We'll take our cue from Andre Roberson today, to discuss less-obvious players who struggled from the line in 2016-17.

 

Roberson's defense against James Harden during OKC's first-round series was admirable, and he finished Tuesday's Game 5 defeat with five rebounds, four assists, four steals and three blocks. He went just 1-of-7 from the field for three points, but in the first four games of the series he was a surprising offensive weapon with 13.8 points and 1.8 triples on 59.0 percent shooting. He finished the playoffs averaging an incredible 2.4 steals and 3.4 blocks, which are Draymond-esque numbers.

 

That all sets up the fact that Roberson shot 2-of-21 from the free throw line. That's 9.5 percent accuracy on an unguarded shot 15 feet from the hoop, which is even more inexplicable since he was 41.2 percent on 3-pointers in the series. The psychological pressure of taking free throws is one explanation for his struggles, which prompted Houston to intentionally foul him in Games 4 and 5 (to great effect, and the over-the-top amusement of their bench). Roberson's individual struggles are illustrative of a point that's often overlooked -- big men aren't the only ones who can tank your FT percentage in fantasy leagues.

 

Roberson did manage to squeak out late-round value in 9-cat leagues, thanks to sneaky averages of 0.6 threes, 5.1 boards, 1.3 steals, 1.2 blocks and a mere 0.7 turnovers. He wasn't very appealing in 8-cat or points leagues, but he might have been if it weren't for his abysmal 42.3% FT shooting (on 1.4 attempts per game). Without that anchor he emerges as a top-100 guy in 8-cat leagues, while sneaking inside the top-75 for 9-cat. The worst FT% offenders will always be big men like Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan, but there are plenty of non-centers whose FT woes take a chunk out of their fantasy appeal.

 

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LeBron James was the highest-profile offender this season. He's never been a particularly good FT shooter, peaking at 78.0% in 2008-09, but he slid to a career-low 67.4% on 7.2 attempts per game this year. Perhaps he was expending all his mental and physical energy elsewhere, as he set career-highs in rebounds (8.6) and assists (8.7). His overall performance was terrific and he still finished as a top-15 value in 9-cat, but without the FT% he was a top-5 player (per-game).

 

LBJ's free throw shooting was even worse during Cleveland's first-round sweep, in which he went a combined 22-of-38 from the stripe (57.9%). That's 16 points that weren't scored, in a series in which the combined margin of victory for the Cavs was 16 points. If a couple of buckets go the other way, those free throws could have been huge. It's something to watch for when LeBron and company face off vs. the winner of the Raptors vs. Bucks series.

 

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Justise Winslow's promising season was cut short by right shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum, so he only appeared in 18 games. In that time, we saw his obvious potential (10.9 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.5 steals) and his work-in-progress offensive game (34.9% FGs, 61.7% FTs). That's a lower mark at the FT stripe than teammate Hassan Whiteside (62.8%), and it's lower than the field goal percentages of DeAndre Jordan, Rudy Gobert, Clint Capela and Dwight Howard. Winslow is ahead of schedule in his rehab and Pat Riley recently called him a "glue guy" for the Heat, so he's poised for a huge role next season (especially with James Johnson and Luke Babbitt hitting free agency, and Josh McRoberts weighing a player option). Just keep the percentages in mind on draft day.

 

Another Heat player who must be mentioned in this context is Dion Waiters. I didn't hide my skepticism of him this year, even during his hot stretches, but kudos to those who were able to wring value out of him for weeks at a time. Waiters returned career-highs in 3-pointers (1.8), assists (4.3), rebounds (3.3) and blocks (0.4), while falling just short in scoring (15.8) and steals (0.9). The problem is that he also shot 42.4% from the field and a mere 64.6% from the line. Waiters attempted 2.8 FTs per game, which isn't a huge number, but it's enough to significantly damage his roto appeal.

 

Brandon Ingram was another prime dual-offender in the percentage categories, combining woeful 40.2% shooting with a 62.1% mark from the line. The 19-year-old forward had an Average Draft Position of 125.1 in Yahoo leagues this year, but he came nowhere close to that value in the vast majority of formats. His shooting did improve after the All-Star break, to his credit, as he averaged 13.2 points on 47.5% shooting. That was paired with a dip in his FT%, however, from 65.5% pre-break to 54.5% post-break, which erased most of his gains in other categories. Ingram shot 68.2% from the line with Duke, so this isn't exactly shocking, and I'm not expecting any miracles next season.

 

When drafting a point guard, owners typically expect strong assists, steals, 3-pointers and FT percentages. There are guys who fail in one or more of those categories, and among them Elfrid Payton stands out -- he averaged just 0.5 triples (27.4% from deep) and went 69.2% from the free throw line. The latter stat is actually a vast improvement for Payton, who was 55.1% from the line as a rookie, and 58.9% last season. He's trending in the right direction, to be sure, but is still a major liability in that category. That will be especially true if he begins drawing more fouls -- he went from 2.4 attempts before the A.S. break to 3.1 attempts post-break.

 

Rajon Rondo is an obvious PG who can't make his free throws, but we also saw Jrue Holiday inexplicably drop off from 84.3% last season to a mere 70.8% this year. What explains the disparity? That's hard to say, especially since he made a career-high 45.5% from the field. Off-court issues may have taken a toll on him mentally, and I'm betting on a bounce-back next season. I'm not as confident about Tony Parker, whose percentages slipped both from the field (46.6%) and from the line (72.6%, his lowest since 2007-08). Parker has been on an obvious decline anyway, with his minutes decreasing in five straight years, so it shouldn't matter if he misses his FTs while floating on your waiver wire.

 

A point worth emphasizing is that the guys I'm discussing can be viewed positively, as potential pairings with big men like Drummond or DeAndre, as well as Rudy Gobert, Jusuf Nurkic, etc. If your first- or second-round pick dooms you to losing FT% every week (or most weeks), you're free to grab complementary guys like Winslow, Payton, Waiters and Roberson. More FT%-damaging players include Kent Bazemore (70.8%), Austin Rivers (69.1%), Tony Allen (61.5%), Moe Harkless (62.1%), and a slew of power forwards including Julius Randle, Marquese Chriss, Thaddeus Young, Kenneth Faried, Draymond Green, Blake Griffin and Aaron Gordon.

 

One final thought is that a player doesn't have to be completely awful to hurt your chances of winning FT%. The average top-150 player (9-cat) this season shot 77.4% from the line on 3.46 attempts. Andrew Wiggins shot a reasonable 76.0% this year, but he nearly doubled up the average number of attempts with 6.6 per game. The heavy weight attached to his high-volume attempts means that even a slightly below-average mark from the line is exaggerated -- it's the LeBron effect in miniature. Another victim was Jabari Parker, whose 74.3% average wouldn't be a real problem if he hadn't gone to the line 4.3 times per game. Giannis Antetokounmpo was even a mild drag at 77.0% on 7.7 attempts -- he's had more than his share of struggles in the playoffs, going a combined 18-of-33 in five games.

 

Random playoff notes: Marcin Gortat has yet to attempt a free throw...Derrick Favors is 7-of-17, Clint Capela is 6-of-13, Nene is 12-of-22, Thad Young is 5-of-10, and DeAndre Jordan is his customary 13-of-30...Dwight Howard (66.7%) and Rudy Gobert (60.0%) have been tolerable...and we'll end on a happier note, with four players who have attempted at least 25 freebies with just a single miss: Damian Lillard, Marc Gasol, Gordon Hayward and of course Kawhi Leonard, who is 47-of-48 from the stripe. Enjoy the playoffs! They've been terrific fun so far.



Despite residing in Portland, Maine, Ryan Knaus remains a heartbroken Sonics fan who longs for the days of Shawn Kemp and Xavier McDaniel. He has written for Rotoworld.com since 2007. You can follow him on Twitter.
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