Australia has yet to medal in men’s basketball in the Olympics. And they fell so agonizingly close in their one-point loss to Spain in the bronze-medal match at the 2016 Rio Olympics. You can’t blame their free-throw shooting, as they went 13 of 15 for the game. That’s an excellent 86.7%. Spain on the other hand could have had a far easier victory if they had shot better from the free-throw line, as they hit only 15 of 22 free throws.
Perhaps more critically, Croatia loss to Serbia by three points, while shooting a decent 78.9%. This was out of 38 attempts to Serbia, which only had 25 attempts, which meant that as a team, Croatia was effective at getting fouled and getting to the free throw line. If only they had hit three more free throws, Croatia could have had a shot at gold against the Americans instead of Serbia.
Coaches are always scheming to figure out how to gain more points than the other team, either via offensive or defensive schemes. But when it comes to the free-throw, the coach can only hope and pray that the shooter has practiced enough to hit the free throw with regularity. After all, no is guarding you. It’s just you against the basket.
The question is, would an improvement in free throw shooting impact a team’s win-loss percentage?
Let’s look at the 2015 Detroit Pistons, which shot 66.8% collectively for the season. They hit 1,399 free throws over 2,095 attempts. Now if they hit 80% of their free throws, like the New York Knicks did that season, the Pistons would have had a total of 1,676 successful free throws, or 277 more points, or 3.4 more points per game over an 82-game season. Would that have taken considerably higher than their 44-38 win-loss for 2015? Possibly, perhaps enough to help them finish ahead of the Indiana Pacers for second place and avoid a first-round meeting with the Lebron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers.
In other words, if you had an idea how to instantly improve free-throw shooting percentage by 10 to 20% points, you would think any NBA or national team coach would be hiring you for tons of money to teach them your secret. You would think so, wouldn’t you?
And yet, as Malcolm Gladwell recently explained in his fascinating podcast, Revisionist History, basketball coaches and players at all levels of basketball have resisted one of the proven, most effective ways to make free throws. In this podcast, Gladwell told the well-known story of Wilt Chamberlain of the Philadelphia Warriors, and the game on March 2, 1962 when he scored 100 points against the New York Knicks. What is less well-known is that Chamberlain hit 28 free throws, still an NBA record.
Chamberlain had improved his free-throw shooting from 50% to a career-best 61% that season. In that 100-point game, he hit 28 of 32 for an amazing 87.5%. What is even more amazing, he did it using the “granny throw”. That is the technique basketball great Rick Barry made famous.
It’s a throw that starts with both arms hanging naturally in front of the body. Then with an easy upward swing of the arms, and simultaneous flick of both wrists, the ball is lofted lightly toward the hoop. Barry hit 90% of his free throws over his career with that technique, the best in NBA history at the time of his retirement. And Chamberlain hit the century mark that wonderful night in Philly over 54 years ago because of that technique.
But after that season, Chamberlain gave it up, and reverted back to being a very poor free-throw shooter, a rate which waffled between 38 to 50%. Why would he abandon a huge part of his offensive weaponry? Why would one of the most fouled players in NBA history give up easy points by shooting his free throws holding the ball as everyone else does, starting from around his forehead?
Ah…the answer is both complex and simple, and I defer to the great Gladwell to tell this stunning story about why people and pride get in the way of results. See my next post.