The sub-title to this article is too nice because the Thunder aren’t just the worst free throw shooting team among playoff contenders, they are one of the worst free throw shooting teams in the entire NBA.
Only the lottery-bound Lakers’ woeful 70.7% mark is worse than the Thunder’s 71.1 % and it finally slapped OKC in the face in front of a national TV audience when the Thunder blew a 5 point lead with just 16.7 seconds remaining against the Boston Celtics. According to WTLC’s Chris Grenham, before Tuesday night’s game, 884 teams had faced a deficit of 5 points or more with 20 seconds or less remaining in the game, not one of them came out on top. The Celtics drew the lucky-lotto ticket with number 885 and the free-throw challenged Thunder.
When you go to teamrankings.com (one of my favorite sites) and pull up, NBA Team Free Throw %, this is a modified version of what you see:
From the free throw line this season, the Thunder are 7.5% worse than the Rockets, 9% worse than the Trail Blazers, and a whopping 10.2% worse than the defending champs Warriors. Obviously, I picked these teams because they are the teams the Thunder are chasing in the Western Conference standings.
Another teamrankings.com chart:
Based on these numbers in the second chart, the damage caused by the Thunder’s free shooting woes doesn’t appear that bad. Just spotting Portland and Golden State .4 points per game isn’t too bad, but spotting Houston 3.6 points per game, when you consider how many playoff games come down to the wire is troubling.
One more teamranking.com chart:
Per basketballreference.com, the Thunder have attempted 1713 frees throws this year and converted 1218 times or 71.1%. Had the Thunder converted 80% of their free throws (a realistic goal, all it takes is practice and concentration), they would have amassed 1370 makes or 18.8/game.
Become a decent free throw shooting team and the Thunder go from spotting the Warriors and Trailblazers a half a point to being spotted almost 2 points and cuts the Rocket’s advantage from 3.6 to 1.5, a full 2 points per game.
Oklahoma City has already paid a hefty fine as poor free throw shooting has cost the Thunder at least 3 games this season. On 10/22, the Thunder lost to the T-Wolves by 2. By applying the 80% free throw rule of thumb, the Thunder missed 4 free throws. On 12/29, the Thunder lost by 2 to the Bucks after leaving 5 on the 80% line, and of course, that debacle in Boston on 3/20 when the Thunder missed 3 of their last 4 free throws, and 4 of their last six, all in the last-minute, and lost the game by one.
Had the Thunder won those games and not left them on the charity stripe, their record now is 46 and 27 and the Thunder are holding the #3 spot in the Western Conference.
I’m sorry, but forgetting about those costly free throw misses and just moving on is not going to fix what has been a season-long problem. Only overdue hard work and practice will get results.
And before the Carmelo Anthony fans get upset, I’m not just targeting him. This free throw problem is not just on Melo, it’s on the bulk of primary regular rotation players:
Every current starter, besides Corey Brewer, is shooting below their career average or in Steven Adam’s case, below an acceptable level. Again, I’m not targeting just Adams, Jerami Grant and Josh Huestis are also below the RK free throw minimum line, but Adams gets to the line a lot and we saw last season there is another level of FT proficiency available when the big Kiwi puts his mind to it. Pop quiz; after reviewing these numbers, answer the question, “what did Brewer do in LA?”, the answer is fairly obvious.
Call me a free throw snob if you like, but I will never reconcile myself to a professional basketball player shooting under 70% from the free throw line when I watch my niece, a mother of two, who has never played organized basketball in her life, take 20 minutes of practice to regain her rhythm, then nail 35 charity shots in a row. I also don’t accept the starters on a team that says it has championship aspirations shooting well under their career averages because there is only one reason that explains it, lack of commitment.
OKC is #9 in free attempts per field goal attempts, that’s good, but as a bottom feeder converting those free throws the Thunder are leaving priceless points at the stripe. Oklahoma City has nine games remaining in the regular season, they have already conceded home court advantage to the Conference’s top teams ignoring easy teams along the way this season. Ignoring this free throw issue the rest of the way, though we are only talking a few points per game, could be that proverbial straw that breaks the Thunder’s back in the post-season.
A Final Thought
In the 2016/17 playoffs, the Thunder lost game 2 by four points, game 4 by four points, and game 5 by six points. In game 2, the Thunder missed 4 free throws, in game 4, fourteen misses, and game 5, ten blown freebies.
They may not get you on ESPN’s top ten plays, but make no mistake, converting free throws wins big games.