How Important are Free Throws in the NBA Playoffs?
by Trevor Whenham - 05/07/2008
We hear time and time again that the ability to hit free throws is crucial in post-season basketball. Futility from the line was why Memphis was supposed to be unable to beat Texas or UCLA, and it contributed to their loss to Kansas. The same common wisdom is held in the NBA - teams can't win if they can't score the free points. As a sports bettor I am naturally skeptical, and I don't like to trust common wisdom without verifying it first. With that in mind, then, here's a look at how well free throws have converted into wins in the playoffs this year.
Free Throw Percentage
The leaders in this category by a huge margin (almost eight percent) were the Raptors. They hit 86.46 percent of their free throws in their playoff series against Orlando. That was 12 percent better than the Magic, but it sure didn't do them much good - Orlando won in five games. Adding to the confusion, the Raptors were a stunning 27-of-28 from the line in their first game. That was their biggest loss of the series.
Believers in the power of free throws will feel a little better about the bottom of the barrel. Phoenix, at 63.82 percent, was the worst free throw shooting team in the first round, and they went down with barely a whimper in five games. That fits more with the conventional wisdom, but it would take a really determined guy to make the argument that the lack of free throws was the only reason, or even the biggest reason, why Phoenix floundered so badly.
Three of the four best free throw shooting teams - Toronto, Dallas, and Atlanta - are watching the rest of the games on TV. Two of the bottom four teams - Cleveland and Utah - are still playing. Not particularly overwhelming.
Free Throw Attempts
This is where it gets kind of interesting. Or bleak if you are an advocate of free throws. The Lakers have had the most attempts so far - 33 per game. The next six teams, though, have all gone home. So has the No. 9 team. Let me say that again - seven of the top nine teams in the playoffs for free throw attempts have all been eliminated. That's pretty much the opposite of what I might have expected - I would have thought that teams that get opportunities are in a good position to take advantage of them. That seems to have been the case in the regular season - four of the top five teams and seven of the top 10 in free throw attempts made the playoffs. There are probably a lot of ways to explain why the same hasn't been true in the playoffs, but it does tell us one thing with certainty - free throw attempts are not something you want to be relying upon in your handicapping.
Free Throws Made
Again, this one doesn't seem to fit the conventional wisdom. Made free throws add to the point total, so it would make sense that teams that sink more free throws do well because they get more points. That doesn't seem to be the case in the playoffs. Of the top six teams in this category only one, the Lakers, has gone on to the second round. On the other hand, Toronto is the only team from among the bottom five that didn't progress to the second round.
Again, this isn't entirely consistent with what happened in the regular season. Seven of the top nine teams in free throws made during the regular season made the playoffs. Strangely, so did four out of the bottom five. Though I can't immediately explain why the top teams performed so much better in the regular season than the playoffs, I'm certainly not worried about it. What happened in the regular season shows that made free throws aren't particularly predictive by themselves.
Change in Free Throw Percentage
Here's one last chance to find a way that free throws could have helped to predict the outcome of games so far in the playoffs - looking to see if teams have improved on their regular season free throw percentage, or if they are less effective in the playoffs than they were before. No luck here, either. Seven teams improved on free throw shooting in the playoffs compared to the regular season, and nine were less effective. It's not much different between first round winners and losers, either - three of the losers improved with their free throws, and four of the winners did. Further more, most of the changes between the regular season and the playoffs were slight - just a couple of percentage points. That's not very significant.
So far at least, I haven't seen anything in these playoffs that makes me believe that free throws are particularly crucial to playoff success.