“You’ve got to make free throws. That’s why they call them free.”

This is a thing people say, despite the inconvenient fact that no one makes all of their free throws.

It’s the attempt that is free (of defense).  The result is not a given.

Larry Bird missed 10% of his FTs.
Michael Jordan? He missed 20%.

We don’t bat an eye when a player misses an uncontested 15-foot shot from anywhere else on the court.  Are we surprised when a pro golfer misses a 15-foot putt with no defender between him and the hole?  Do pro bowlers get strikes every time?  

Think about the different reactions to the following, relative to expectation:

  • 30% three point shooter makes a three
  • .300 hitter gets a base hit
  • 70% free throw shooter misses a free throw

In the first two examples, we are far more accepting of that outcome (or its opposite) than we are in the third, despite history saying all three have a 30% chance of happening.  Is it the word ‘free’ that alters our perception so irrationally?

“Wisconsin almost blew it with missed free throws” Saturday night.

Did they?  The Badgers shot 23-31 from the free throw line, or 74%.  This is hardly underperforming their season average of 76%–good enough for 2nd best in the Big Ten.  Based on what, did we expect Wisconsin to make more free throws?

“Those missed free throws came back to haunt Notre Dame.”

Was that the culprit?  The Irish were 10-13, or 77%–better than the 74% they averaged for the year.  No one will say “those made free throws really kept them in the game!”

Perhaps getting fouled more–a feat hard to accomplish when you’re jacking contested threes late–would’ve led to more shots with an 74% success rate.  Why wouldn’t that haunt them?

Notre Dame made the same percentage of FTs vs Kentucky that the Golden State Warriors have made as a team this year.

And the list of NBA teams shooting 80% collectively is a short one:  There are none.

If your son makes makes 7 of his first 9 FTs, and then misses the 10th, you can tell him one of two things:

“You’re shooting free throws as well as Sam Dekker did this year!”

Or, [disappointed voice] “you’ve got…to make…your free throws.”

One of those two is less likely to hinder his 11th attempt.

But either way, he’s fortunate to have Larry Bird as his father.

One thought on “THE COST OF FREE (THROWS)”

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