Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Sixers Fail Charity

Miss And A Prayer
Imagine the following narrative.

In the Patriots-Broncos game that decided who would go to the Super Bowl for the AFC, the Patriots were unable to defend Von Miller, in particular, from pressuring Tom Brady. It might have been the margin of the game.

So, rather than snap play after play in which Miller disrupted the offense, they just went to the ref before the play began, and told him that they were going to hold Miller on this play. The refs would then make Miller try a field goal, and if he missed, the Patriots would benefit.

That makes no sense at all, right?

Let's try baseball instead. Justin Verlander plunks David Ortiz, but rather than taking first base, the Boston slugger takes a moment to contain himself, then gets to face a batting practice pitcher for two throws. If he can hit a home run to a certain area of right field on either of the next two pitches, Boston gets a run.

That's also nuts, right?

And yet, this is pretty much how basketball is run, because the game is just, well, like that. Players have to do lots of different things, and an uncontested shot that seems easy and borderline effortless, and yet is missed by the best shooters in the history of the game at least 1 time out of 10, because the context of when it happens is in the midst of an exhausting athletic contest.

Since free throws are just something that happens so often as to be trite, while still being more or less unparalleled in any other sport, people don't generally think about them very much. But I do. Free throws are, to me, a supremely hidden statistic, both from the matter of how often they occur, and as to how many points are left on the table. And they are also a fine indicator, at some level, of the overall quality of the player, especially when it comes to guard play. (I also have a relatively functional case of OCD, and I do analysis for a living. So.)

Look at the top players in the league when it comes to free throws made per game. You'll find James Harden, DeMarcus Cousins, DeMar DeRozan, Danilo Gallinari, Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Paul George -- in other words, some of the best offensive players in the league this year. With the exception of Cousins, all of them shoot in the mid to high 80s from the stripe. And it seems like an easy corollary to make. Good form in free throws, good ability to draw contact and get to the line, hey presto, effective offense. If this is true for players, it's true for teams.

Now, let's take a look at free throw percentage at a team level.

Philly is 19th in the league on free throw attempts per game. That may not sound too bad, but it actually is, because they play at a faster offensive pace than most. Then we get to how many of them turn into points, and there's where the rubber hits the road. Third fewest, or 28th, because from a percentage standpoint, only Detroit is worse. 68.8%, and in general, the league average is just over 75%. On a team average of 20 to 25 attempts per game, that's a hole of 2-3 points, just from the stripe. (To be fair, Philly is also terrible at avoiding turnovers, and in the past month, defense. But I digress.)

It's not even just a case of one terrible shooter who gets hacked when the team is ahead, the way things work for Detroit, Houston or the Clippers. Philly has a half dozen guys that make between 1.8 and 2.5 free throws a game (the list: Jerami Grant, Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, Ish Smith, Rovert Covington and Isaiah Canaan), and only Covington and Canaan are actually any good at it, coming in at over 80%. (Notice that they aren't actually very good at it, just better than average.)

The rest? Ye gads. Noel is at 61%. Smith is at 65%, and honestly, that's inexcusable for a point guard. Grant and Okafor troll around 68%, and even the shooting guards who rarely get there because they only shoot from the arc, Nik Stauskas and Hollis Thompson, come in at 68 and 72.

So while it seems like a relatively small thing, it's really not, given the pace they play at. It's more like a five points per game hole that this team has to try to crawl out of. It's one of the big reasons why they've been utterly terrible at protecting fourth quarter leads. It's unlikely to turn around next year, even if the team gets a massive infusion of significant talent (Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, several high draft picks), because all of that new talent is going to do the same thing that the young talent does...

Which is, well, struggle to make their free throws.

Look back to that list of individual players that I referenced earlier. Notice anything in common?

Yeah, none of them are all that new to the league, right?

So maybe next year they get a little better about this. Maybe they get to 2 or 3 points a game in the hole. But it's not going to become a net positive for a long while, and for a team whose best assets are inside, rather than outside...

Well, if you are looking for reasons to doubt The Process, you aren't lacking for reasons right now. And until this gets to the point where the team has an edge at the line, rather than a hole?

That's when they might be able to win a game when everything *doesn't* go right...

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