Utah Jazz free throws aren't free

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Where have all the free throws gone? Can they come back?

What's the easiest shot in the game of basketball? It's the one where no one is allowed to defend you. This is seen in the open court layup. It's also seen more in these modern eras as a spot up jumper when no one is around you. But fundamentally there should be no easier shot than the reliable free throw. You get the ball from the same spot each time. You can take your time. And no one is trying to stop you from making it. At an elite level free throws can become automatic. We've all played with that guy who can't defend, and doesn't pass well, but he can shoot, and shoot, and shoot, and never miss from the line.

For the Utah Jazz these last few seasons, unfortunately, we've found out that free throws aren't free.

And this truism hurts the offense more than one would casually suspect.

Let us first take a look at where the team is today in regards to shooting free throws,  and look at the larger sample size of the last 25 seasons of Utah Jazz basketball. (N.B. Regular season attempts only)

Season G ORTG Pace FTM FTA FT% FTM/G FTA/G FGA / 100 Pos
1 1989-90 82 110.3 96.1 1,874 2,484 75.4% 22.85 30.29 31.52
2 1990-91 82 108.6 95.3 1,951 2,472 78.9% 23.79 30.15 31.63
3 1991-92 82 112.2 95.5 1,961 2,490 78.8% 23.91 30.37 31.80
4 1992-93 82 109.6 96.5 1,907 2,491 76.6% 23.26 30.38 31.48
5 1993-94 82 108.6 93.1 1,761 2,379 74.0% 21.48 29.01 31.16
6 1994-95 82 114.3 92.6 1,939 2,483 78.1% 23.65 30.28 32.70
7 1995-96 82 113.3 90.0 1,769 2,302 76.8% 21.57 28.07 31.19
8 1996-97 82 113.6 90.0 1,858 2,416 76.9% 22.66 29.46 32.74
9 1997-98 82 112.7 89.2 2,044 2,644 77.3% 24.93 32.24 36.15
10 1998-99 50 105.8 87.0 1,158 1,510 76.7% 23.16 30.20 34.71
11 1999-00 82 107.3 89.6 1,661 2,150 77.3% 20.26 26.22 29.26
12 2000-01 82 107.6 89.8 1,714 2,280 75.2% 20.90 27.80 30.96
13 2001-02 82 105.6 90.3 1,853 2,430 76.3% 22.60 29.63 32.82
14 2002-03 82 105.5 89.3 1,750 2,349 74.5% 21.34 28.65 32.08
15 2003-04 82 101.9 86.6 1,639 2,196 74.6% 19.99 26.78 30.92
16 2004-05 82 104.7 88.4 1,719 2,272 75.7% 20.96 27.71 31.34
17 2005-06 82 104.1 87.8 1,774 2,466 71.9% 21.63 30.07 34.25
18 2006-07 82 110.1 91.6 1,830 2,462 74.3% 22.32 30.02 32.78
19 2007-08 82 113.8 93.2 1,745 2,298 75.9% 21.28 28.02 30.07
20 2008-09 82 110.1 93.1 1,814 2,352 77.1% 22.12 28.68 30.81
21 2009-10 82 110.7 93.8 1,654 2,233 74.1% 20.17 27.23 29.03
22 2010-11 82 108.1 91.0 1,590 2,061 77.1% 19.39 25.13 27.62
23 2011-12 66 106.8 91.4 1,258 1,668 75.4% 19.06 25.27 27.65
24 2012-13 82 106.7 90.9 1,439 1,883 76.4% 17.55 22.96 25.26
25 2013-14 73 103.2 91.3 1,187 1,591 74.6% 16.26 21.79 23.87
Totals 1,993 42,849 56,362 76.0% 21.50 28.28
Average 108.6 91.3 1,714 2,254 30.96

Okay, there appears to be some sort of relationship between being a good offensive team and getting to the line (Duh #1). Secondly, these last few season (the Tyrone Corbin era) the offense seems to not be getting to the line as much. This is partly due to the players (no Karl Malone, no Deron Williams, but instead running the offense around 20 foot jump shots and a bigman who avoid contact in Al Jefferson). As a result, the offensive rating these last few seasons has been really poor.

If you crunch the numbers it gets worse. This season is really bad. It's spectacularly bad. The 2013-14 Jazz have an ORTG that's between 1 and 2 standard deviations below the mean. They also have a FTA per game value that's between 1 and 2 standard deviations below. And to top it all off, and this is the canary in the mine shaft folks, their FTA per 100 possessions is between 2 and 3 standard deviations below the mean. That's statistically significant.

Getting to the line seems to matter more than if the team is actually good from the line or not. But it always helps to make your shots. For this 25 season time frame the Jazz are 42,849 / 56,362 -- which is good enough for 76.0 ft%. This season the Jazz are below that, but not by much, only -1.4%. That is only a difference of making 22.274 more free throws during the season (73 games so far).

That's not bad. What is bad is that the combination of our Xs and Os, and our players, have made us a team that goes to the line the least in a quarter of a century. Seriously, the Jerry Sloan led squad that featured Andrei Kirilenko, Matt Harpring, Greg Ostertag, and Raja Bell got to the line more per game, while playing at a much slower pace. When you adjust for pace it's just insane how poorly this team gets to the line.

And well, if you watch how the team plays (shunning the bigs), a series of jumpers from no-man's land after another, it's not hard to figure out where the problem is.

So how do you fix it? Well, aside from throw out our playbook you have to look at the players. And identify which players are capable of helping your team fix their free throw-less problem.

This is our squad right now. Not everyone has even taken a free throw attempt yet. I have pulled in data from a bunch of sources. The normal things are games (G), free throws made, attempted, and percentage (FTM, FTA, FT%). Beyond that there are other things that matter. There's USG% which should be normal enough now for most of us. There's FT/FGA which is the ratio of FTA to FGA. It precisely identifies the ration between these two shot attempts.

From NBA.com we have player tracking data. There are touches (which aren't always offensive or finishing plays) for players on the offensive side of the court (Front court touches, or FC), at the Elbow (EL), and close (CL). There are also things we have to consider with drives as well, how many drives per game (/G), and the players PPG from drives (pPPG), and the team's PPG from a single players drives (tPPG), which assumes drive and dumps and drive and kick outs. Following along so far?

From MySynergySports.com we have a lot more to incorporate. There's Points per Possession (PPP), and a value for how frequently a player draws a shooting foul (SF%). For fun I've also listed all the And 1's a player gets. THEN we have play type data, for how frequently a player is involved in that type of play. (E.g. 39% of the time Trey is in a pick and roll). For the ball handlers the P&R section is when they are the dribblers, for the bigs the P&R section is for when they set the pick. Cuts are when you cut to the basket (think flex offense). H-Off is Dribble Hand offs, which we're seeing more of this season. And Post is obviously post ups. These four play types are not all the plays a player is involved in (missing are spot ups which don't collect fouls a lot, isolations which the team doesn't run a lot, and transition -- which are free points anyway). But these four play types should be the types our Jazz team should focus on -- and are the attacking plays that should get us to the line, hence, the Att% which shows how much of a player's offensive plays should elicit defensive contact.

And here are our players, ranked from most FTA for the season to least.

40_at_40_part_31_-_free_throws_1

It's a lot of data for 15 players. Let's eliminate all the players who don't have an Att% of at least 35%. This list is 7 players long and from it you do miss Richard Jefferson (UFA) and Marvin Williams (UFA) who are two guys who are taking more and more spot up jumpers. They make them, which is good. But they are not serious threats to get to the line. The table above clearly identifies that. Parsing this list down to just seven players you get, well, a familiar list of people.

40_at_40_part_31_-_free_throws_2

These are the players the fans want to see the most of. And these are the players on the team who are the biggest threats to get to the line. And as we pointed out, this season the team is getting to the line fewer than ever before. Which is a problem because teams that get to the line have better offenses. (Heck, even getting to the line and missing shots means the other team gets more fouls still, and if you get enough, the other team has to pull their best defenders so playing offense gets geometrically easier as the game goes on.)

.

Alec Burks:

He gets to the line the most, but he doesn't make the most of it because of his FT%. It's only 74.2% this season, and by my own internal logic, you can't start at the SG spot by shooting less than 80.0%. Of course, we could start a 6'6 guy at SF . . . but that takes too much brain power for some coaches. So in order to become a better weapon (I see him like a stiletto) he needs to make a higher percentage. That's the easy part. If you want easy listen to a guy paid for by the same people who own the team. Burks has the best FT/FGA ratio on the team as well, and takes the most drives per game on this team. He also has the highest pPPG and tPPG from his drives. This is a big part of his game, and it shows. He drives and get fouled as well. Synergy tells us that 10.5% of the time he is on offense he draws a foul. He's also second on the team in And-1s. So how do we fix Alec?

Well, you don't want him to get too one dimensional, as a slasher 41.5% of all of his offensive possessions are either P&R, Cut, Dribble Handoff, or post ups. (We don't actually post him up though, which makes sense) The improvement here has to incorporate him slashing more. He cuts only 3.5% of the time. He's a finisher, and most of the time we seem to be using him as a guy who has to create his own shot. Imagine how muted Shandon Anderson would have been if couldn't cut and finish. Imagine how useless Ronnie Brewer would have been if he had to dribble the ball on his way to the rim. Our current offense doesn't use Burks at his best. Or, specifically puts him in situations where he has to dribble all the way each time.

He's good at that. But he should be finishing 12-15% of his plays off of cuts. He would be even more dangerous there, and gather more free throw attempts. This doesn't mean make him shoot fewer spot ups, or prevent him from driving all by himself. It just means to run more plays for him, and better diversify. We know part of this means having good passers on the team. I think TB, GH, and even DF are good enough. Beyond Xs and Os he also needs to shoot above 80 ft% though. That's on him. That's discipline, one of the three Ds for this season.

.

Gordon Hayward:

G-Time is actually making over 80.0 FT%. That's a good start. He also drives a lot, but a huge part of his game this season is taking pull up jumpers. Hayward takes too many jumpers period. And while he is third on the team in highest FT/FGA ratio he's not as focused on attacking compared to Alec. That's by design because he has to set up other players. I get that. But sometimes Gordon has to be more decisive and go to the rim -- make the ref call that foul, instead of dumping it off to some random SF 18 feet from the basket with a defender on him. Gordon's pPPG and tPPG-pPPG are almost even. That means he's just as likely to dish as try to score. That's fine, but it still results in fewer points than Burks (who has a tPPG of 1.1 more on 0.2 more drives a game).

I think part of that is based upon decision making and the desire to set other guys up. You need a distributor on this team, and Gordon has taken up that mantle. In the big picture I don't think it's wrong to expect a guy with the ball in his hands as much as Gordon has it to get to the line more than 5.0 times a game. Gordon is close, and he's not the problem. But he's not quite there yet.

.

Derrick Favors:

In the history of the game no one has gone to the free throw line more than Karl Malone. Why is that? It's simple. It's because he got the ball, and then shot the ball. Favors seems to collect useless touches. And until we figure out hockey assists, we're not going to know just how well he's being used on offense. As it stands right now he seems like our biggest threat to get to the line as 72.5% of all of his offensive plays are these attacking plays (P&R, Cut, Handoff, and Postups).  He has the most close touches on the team, per game. And he leads the team in And 1's, and is second in SF% (Burks, somehow, is 3rd).

So what's the problem? The proportions are there, just not the portions. Favors needs the rock more. Sure, he only makes 67.1% of the free throws he takes.But it'll only get better with the more shots he takes.

.

Enes Kanter:

Much of the criticism for Favors goes to Kanter as well. He needs to take more shots, but we have to recognize that he takes more pick and pops. He has recently demonstrated that he can beast and take it to the rack though. So let's see more of that. In his third season he's shooting 73.0 ft%, which isn't bad when you compare it to other bigmen who have come into the league and never gotten comfortable taking and making this shot.

Enes doesn't really get to the line a lot (compares his 0.230 FT/FGA ratio with Favors' 0.406), and he is only fouled on 5.8% of his offensive possessions. It's funny because he's the vastly better offensive player compared to Derrick. If there is a guy who should step it up it's Kanter. I think it should be possible for him to get to the line at least 4.0 times a game. And this season he's only getting there 2.4 times. Part of that is getting on the floor, getting the ball, and attacking. These are not things he reliably does just yet.

.

Trey Burke:

Trey, for me, is the lynch pin here. All across the league you see point guards darting into the paint and getting to the free throw line. A 31.87 year old Tony Parker shouldn't be more athletic at this stage than a 21.38 year old Trey Burke. Trey takes a lot of jumpers. That's kind of his thing. But his thing should be getting to the line because for much of the season he was shooting 91% from there (right now he's "down" to 89%). The Jazz should bring back that UCLA cut. (Why did we ever stop doing that?) But that's an Xs and Os thing and I don't want to blame this all on the Xs and Os we run. Part of this is on the players, and Burke HAS to become a guy who gets to the line more if we're going to be a more explosive and efficient offense.

His team points per drive (not listed, but tPPG / drives per game) is not much better than 1.00. (It's 1.09) For comparison, Alec is at 1.25. Gordo is also at 1.09, so these guys aren't getting enough out of their 'attack mode'. A big part is the desire to pull up. Tony Parker doesn't pull up. He does have a floater, but he also scores at the rim or gets to the line.

We're not worried when other players pull up on us (unless they are retro- Steve Nash or Stephen Curry). We're worried when they go all the way.

Trey needs to go all the way more. Even if he gets blocked more he'll also go to the line more. Which is kind of the point of this research here -- figuring out why free throws aren't free anymore.

.

Jeremy Evans:

Why is Evans here? Well, I wouldn't normally think of him as a candidate to get to the line more because this season we're seeing him take more jumpers. But he is by the numbers. He's in our Top 6 at this when you remove the guys who are mainly spot up jump shooters. (Att% lower than 35%). Evans is remarkable at one thing -- cutting. He cuts a lot. And when you cut you have a chance to get fouled. He doesn't get fouled a lot, but it wouldn't be hard to imagine a situation where Evans cuts to the basket enough to get to the line 3 times in a game. Right now he gets to the line 1.09 times a game. He doesn't dribble drive, so that's not an option. He rarely posts up. So if you are going to coax more out of Evans it has to be at that one thing he's already doing a lot of. How much blood can you take from a stone?

It's sad that a guy like Evans makes this list, while guys who drive more can't make it by the numbers.

.

Rudy Gobert:

If you ask the right fans you know that you can't ever play Rudy because he's the worst ever. He is really bad at basketball, and especially offense. Hence, it's easy to defend not playing him -- because again if you ask the right fans you will know that he's the worst. Ever. At everything. I don't hold that point of view, mainly because I'm probably not the right type of fan.

What I do know is that Gobert breaks things. What does he break? He has gone to the line more, by proportion, than anyone else on this 7 player list. He has more FTA than FGA. He's a foul vacuum. Trey Burke has the ball in his hands and is the starting point guard. Trey gets to the line 1.64 times a game. Rudy is a third string center who rarely plays at all. He is averaging 1.63 FTA per game. Sure. He's not GOOD at it right now (despite shooting well during summer league and in France). But that, as we saw with Kyrylo Fesenko, is a confidence issue. (Fes shot +20% better in the NBA-DL than the NBA)

Gobert never gets the ball, and his PPS is the lowest out of this seven player group. But there's hope here because no one gets to the line more by FT/FGA or SF%. You know how Alec gets to the line a lot? Alec has a SF% of 10.5. Rudy's got a SF% as a rookie of 15.1%. He's one and a half times better at this. Or at least that's just what the numbers show.

If you could run Rudy through the same Xs and Os that Jeremy runs though (cuts, cuts, and more cuts) you could have a center off the bench who gets to the line way more than he should. Of course, he's not getting you points from the line. But as we saw from the first table, being good on offense isn't always related to making your free throws -- it's getting free throws.

I wouldn't mind seeing Rudy on the court in the 2nd quarter in some games, running around, drawing two fouls on a guy before halftime. If anything, that seems to be precisely what Rudy CAN do on offense. That doesn't mean he needs to play 20 minutes. But could be enough to justify (outside of you know, the DRB% and defense) playing him 8-14 mpg every game. And not the 38 of 73 he's played this year.

.

So . . . ?

So it's possible that with a few tweaks to the offense and a directive for some of the players that the Utah Jazz of 2014-15 can get to the line more than the Utah Jazz of 2013-14. Getting to the line more doesn't solve every problem there is. But it should give the Jazz more opportunities to take the fundamentally most easy shot in the game of basketball. And in doing so, climb back up to the quarter century averages established by this franchise for FTA, FT%, and FTA/100.

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