Big Ten Wonk
Tuesday, November 07, 2006
Free throw proficiency is the Pluto of the hoops offense solar system
In my Iowa preview this week I said the Hawkeyes' offense last year was below-average across the board. Strictly speaking, that's not true: Iowa in fact led the league in free throw proficiency.

FTM/FGA (2006, conference games only)
1. Iowa (.293)
2. Michigan (.274)
3. Michigan State (.251)
4. Wisconsin (.241)
5. Indiana (.236)
6. Minnesota (.227)
7. Ohio State (.211)
8. Penn State (.203)
9. Illinois (.197)
10. Northwestern (.189)
11. Purdue (.180)

Leading the conference in FT proficiency shows, I think, that Steve Alford had a laudable grasp of his team's strengths and limitations on offense. But I think it might also speak to confusion regarding the relationship between free throws and offense. And, on a notably more arbitrary note, making free throws an avowed objective of your offensive scheme (as opposed to getting free throws as a byproduct) bothers me aesthetically.

FT proficiency is one of hoops analyst Dean Oliver's paradigmatic "four factors," along with FG shooting, rebounding, and turnovers. Previously I've offered a reading that says that "factors" here should be understood in the literal algebraic sense (these are the four factors in the equation used to determine points per possession) and not in a "keys to the game" manner. And in fact Oliver notes that FT proficiency is the least weighty of the four factors.

But FT proficiency isn't merely less important than foundational stats like shooting, rebounding, and turnovers. It's less important than ephemeral stats, too. For example, in "major"-conference games last year there was a weaker statistical correlation between FT proficiency and points per possession than there was between PPP and attempted threes. Not made threes, mind you. Attempts. (Heck, my silly little "effective possessions" stat that I cooked up on my own in the Wonk kitchen is much more strongly correlated to PPP than is FT proficiency. Of course it is--ePoss is a patently derivative stat that piggybacks shamelessly on the self-evident correlation between not turning the ball over and scoring points.) Made free throws are simply not required for a good offense.

Even more important than the fact that FT proficiency doesn't matter, though, is the fact that I just don't like games with lots of free throws. (Let's keep the focus on me.) And in this vein I find myself thinking back to various instances where Alford, in his postgame comments, has to my ears come perilously close to evincing an a priori need for free throw attempts--regardless of the type of game or style of the opponent. Not complaining of a free throw discrepancy between Iowa and their foe, understand; merely that his team didn't shoot free throws (even if the opposing team didn't either). There's a substantive chasm, surely, between wanting refs to just stay out of your way and wanting them to channel a key element of your offense for you. It's a chasm that players surely pick up on and it's roughly equivalent to your football coach not going for it on 4th-and-1 at midfield when you're down 14. It's a chasm that says: left to our own devices we're not good enough.

Not that you don't need to make your free throws when you do get sent to the line. Of course you do. But FT proficiency speaks to the share of your offense that comes from free throws as opposed to field goals. And over the course of a season, FT proficiency is best thought of as adverbial (like assists)--as describing stylistic inclinations, not level of performance.

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