Free throws are among the least exciting aspects of a typical NBA contest. After all, it sometimes takes 90 seconds or so for a player to shoot his two or three attempts1, thus slowing the game2. In outings where the officials are a bit whistle-happy, this can add substantial time to the game — sometimes producing a product that does not always flow smoothly.
Nonetheless, so frequently, these freebies help dictate the final outcome of a game. How often can one review a team’s close loss and find clanked free throws a major key? These 15-foot tosses are anything but sexy, but yet making or missing them helps determine the score at the buzzer.
The Utah Jazz are naturally not immune to this. Last season, there were a handful of games where missed free throws were a major factor in a loss. Some of the most painful moments in team history have included errant attempts. Think the 1996 Western Conference Finals and the 1997 NBA Finals. Remembering those missed opportunities causes angst to this day, and most likely always will.
If the Utah Jazz are to take another step forward and achieve their goal of making the playoffs in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, simply put, they will need to make major improvements from the free throw line.
In 2014-15, Utah shot a mere 72.1 percent from the charity stripe — fourth-worst in the league. This signified the team’s lowest mark since the 2005-06 campaign. Moreover, this was the third-lowest percentage in the franchise’s 41 seasons dating back to the New Orleans days. In the past three years, the Jazz have dropped from a solid 76.4 percent to 74.7 to this 72.1 percent clip. Stating the obvious here, but that is an unhealthy and concerning trend.
Last season’s low mark was significant, as Utah was in the NBA’s upper half in regards to earning trips to the line3. Had the Jazz shot the league average of 75.0 percent, they would have tallied 56 more points over the course of the season, or 0.7 additional points per game. Adding that to Utah’s actual +0.2 PPG differential, a +0.9 PPG mark would have moved the team from 17th to 13th in the league. That may have added a few wins, though probably not enough to have helped the Jazz nab that final postseason berth. It should be noted that Utah’s opponents shot a much higher 74.4 percent.
A few Jazz players saw drops in free throw percentage, including Trey Burke’s dramatic and perplexing decline from 90.3 percent to 75.2. Another factor was having other lower percentage players occupying bigger roles, such as Rudy Gobert4 and Trevor Booker. The incredible bevy of rookies on the roster added to an already youthful team. And young teams tend to struggle from the line.
As the preseason winds down, things have dropped even further. The Jazz are connecting on just 70.5 percent of their tries from the charity stripe. That is the wrong direction.
To be blunt, Utah must improve as a free throw shooting squad. The way the team is constructed — defense-focused with hopefully some moderate adjustments offensively — there will be some low-scoring affairs. In those games, each point can mean so much more. While each player is a year older, this roster is still quite young. Teams with less experience need to control the nuances of the game that they can, and free throw shooting is one of the more obvious ones.
There are some reasons to believe this situation could get better, but it will take work. The Jazz have five players who could boast above-average free throw rates in Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks, Derrick Favors, Rodney Hood and Gobert. It is important that this quintet take advantage of this by knocking their free shots down. Burks shot a career-high 82.2 percent in his abbreviated season, so his return to health is a welcome addition. Hood will be a major rotation player from day one, and has excellent at 87.5 percent in the preseason. With head coach Quin Snyder opting to keep just two point guards on the roster, there will be a lot of three-wing lineups. Such rotations could lead to an uptick in free throw attempts.
Hayward is shooting just 68 percent in the preseason, which will go up. For him to take another leap as a player and NBA star, hitting 83-85 percent would be a nice development. He worked hard this summer to put on even more muscle. His impressive strength and hopefully some more respect from the referees could result in more free throws for Hayward.
Lastly, the bigs will spend a lot of time at the charity stripe. Both Favors and Gobert need to show consistency there. With the physical way they play, opponents will hack away. If they fire blanks, they will get hacked more. If they were to shoot even a few percentage points better, it would make them an even more formidable duo up front. Both show a great desire to fulfill their immense potential each year, and this would be one way they could5.
It would also be nice if Burke’s solid preseason aggression carries over into the regular season. His low free throw rate (which was quite high compared to Dante Exum’s) is known, but if he can even make a modest increase, that would help. The Jazz did add some reserves who could prove to be solid from the stripe in Tibor Pleiss, Jeff Withey and Trey Lyles.
Now, this is not to say that the Jazz are not working on their free throw shooting extensively. Undoubtedly, the team practices them each day. It simply needs to translate into in-game play. Free throws require discipline, execution and focus, things Snyder is working hard to press upon his impressionable team6. It is rather clear-cut: Made free throws open things up. They add easy points, while freeing things up overall. Conversely, missed shots muck things up. They cause unneeded tightness and urgency, which can adversely affect offensive sets.
Championship contending teams tend to be very good from the line. If Utah wishes to continue that quest to return to the playoffs and eventually join the ranks of contenders, consistently good free throw shooting is a must. This would be a good season to see some big jumps in this area.