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Nothing Free About Them

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Poor shooting, of one kind or another, has been the main complaint from myself and the readers of this blog for about 58 games now. The Sixers can't hit threes and they're woefully bad from the charity stripe as well. It's time to take a look at what their poor free throw shooting has cost them, in terms of wins and losses. Actually, I think the findings will surprise you. Thanks to John, from the comments, for suggesting this topic.

The Sixers rank fourth from last in the league in free throw percentage. Only Charlotte, Atlanta and Orlando are worse (odd that two teams below the Sixers are playoff teams. Orlando is dragged down by Dwight Howard). They rank 11th in free throws made, 7th in free throws attempted.

The obvious line of thought is that missing free throws costs you close games, so let's take a look at how free throws have affected the close ones. In games decided by 5 points or less, the Sixers have a 9-8 record. All told, they've shot 75.4% from the line in the 'close' games. 75.7% in the wins, 74.3% in the losses.

Now, it's hard to gauge how much missed free throws hurt a team, because nothing happens in a vacuum. for example, a missed free throw could be recovered on an offensive rebound and turn into two points. The point being, this is not an exact science. All we're looking at is pure missed free throws. That being said, it looks like 2 of the 8 losses can be blamed squarely on the missed free throws.

Here's how I broke it down. Looking at the raw missed free throw number and comparing that to the scoring margin is useless, you're assuming a team could've hit 100% of its free throws, and that is an absurd assumption. Instead, what I did was use an equation to figure out how many points they would've had if they had hit 75% of their free throws, and also how many points they would've had if they hit 80% in that particular game.

These are the two games which would've been affected with improved free throw shooting.

  1. Vs. Dallas, January 19th. The Sixers lost 95-93 on a last-second shot by Dirk Nowitzki. In that game, they shot 14/21 from the line (66.7%). Had they shot 75% from the line, they would've had 1.75 more points, or not quite the 2 they needed. Had they shot 80% from the line, they would've had 2.8 more points, or just over the 2 they needed to win the game.
  2. @ New Jersey, February 23rd. The Sixers lost 98-96 on a last-second shot by Devin Harris. In that game they shot 23/37 from the line (62.2%). Had they shot 75% from the line, they would've scored 4.75 more points. Had they shot 80% from the line, they would've scored 6.6 more points.
On the other side of the ledger, the Sixers would've lost one of those games they won if not for superb free throw shooting. At Houston, they won by one point and shot 20/21 from the line (95.2%). Had they shot 80% from the line, they would've scored 3.2 fewer points. Had they shot 75% from the line, they would've scored 4.25 fewer points.

It's amazing that out of 17 close games, only 3 have really been influenced, at least in a black and white way, by free throw shooting.

Straight free throw percentage isn't the telling stat for the Sixers. If you want a more accurate indicator of their success, use this formula:

(Sixers made free throws - Opponents made free throws) - (Opp. made threes - Sixers made threes)

If that number is a positive, the Sixers generally win. If it's a negative, they don't. Basically, can the Sixers use the line to overcome their disadvantage from deep.

Here's what happens when we apply that formula to the Sixers' close games. In the 9 wins, they averaged +4.67, in the 8 losses, they averaged -2.25. In all wins, they've averaged +2.82, in all losses -3.75.

Obviously, the Sixers do not shoot well-enough from the line. In fact, you can probably take out "from the line" from that last sentence. But at least from a big picture perspective, their free throw shooting doesn't seem to be a huge problem. When you get into the nitty-gritty of the games, which is much harder to accomplish using stats alone, you'd see that a missed free throw in the Nets game allowed Vince Carter to tie the game with a layup when he would've needed a three had the free throw been made. I'm sure there are countless examples just like that one, as well.

So, here's my question to you. Since the stats don't back up, in any way, that free throw shooting has cost this team games. Do you believe it, or is this a shortcoming of statistical analyis? Or, is this just a shortcoming of my methodology?
by Brian on Mar 1 2009
Tags: Basketball | Foul Shooting | Sixers |