Part 2 — Why the NBA is Broken: A Conspiracy Theory Involving Elite Players and Free Throws

A lot of you read my post yesterday about how the NBA is giving calls to its superstars to allow them to have more control of the playoff games and had some objections to that idea. Sure, playoff basketball is different, but it’s different for all players and you can’t believe that the elite players and teams are the only ones changing how they play.

Let me start out by clarifying that this post is a follow-up to yesterday’s and is intended to expand a little on some data surrounding objections to my original, not to suggest any new theories. If you haven’t read yesterday’s post, you need to. Check it out by clicking here.

Again, I’ll be using only the first two games of the playoffs, which is an admittedly small sample size. Again, I’ll only be looking at per-game stats since per-40 or -48 minute stats aren’t available for these playoffs just yet. I’m not trying to statistically prove that the NBA is a joke, but I’m going to use the data to try to show why I feel a certain way about the current state of the NBA.

TIm Duncan doesn't believe my NBA playoff free throw conspiracy. Luckily, I've got more to convince him.

I got some feedback yesterday that suggests that people think the playoff game is one that necessitates the best player on each team taking more shots and being more aggressive, which would cause them to see an increase in their free throws per game. I was also told how the playoffs are a more physical game, which results in more total fouls and free throws. If you believe these things, then it would be reasonable to think that the players on all teams will be shooting more free throws. To deal with these ideas, I thought it would be necessary to provide not just the per-game free throws for the elite players on the favorite teams, but also the same stats for the best players on the other teams.

The table below will compare the regular season and playoff free throws for the player on each of the underdog teams (5-8 seeds) who shot the most free throws per game in the regular season. I repeat: these are not just players I chose to make my point, they were chosen by the same criterion that the players in my original post were chosen. (Thanks again to ESPN.com for the stats.)

Player Regular Season FTA Playoff FTA (through 2 games) Percent Differential
Danny Granger

5.9

0, 6 -49%
Lou Williams

4.7

2, 7 -4%
Josh Smith

4.1

7, 0 -15%
Zach Randolph

5.3

8, 1 -15%
Chris Paul

4.8

12, 12 +150%
LaMarcus Aldridge

5.5

4, 8 +9%
Danilo Gallinari

6.3

6, 2 -37%

*In most cases, the player listed on this table is the best scorer on his team. The only confusing one is Lou Williams, who leads the 76ers in both total free throws attempts and free throw attempts per game. If you have a problem with me using him instead of Brand, Iguodala, Holiday or any other player, let me assure you that all of those players are seeing the same type of free throw stagnation or drop in the playoffs and no single 76er except for Williams is shooting more than 3.5 free throws per game in the playoffs.

If these player all shot their regular season average, you would expect them to have shot 73.2 free throws per game through two games. In reality, they are doing just that, totaling 75 in actual game action. But you know there’s more than just that to take from this chart.

Across the board, all players except Chris Paul are seeing playoff free throw attempt averages at or below their regular season averages. Paul is without a doubt the best player in the chart, and I would expect him to be given the same superstar treatment as the guys from yesterday’s post in terms of calls going his way.

Trust me, Chris Paul, you're good. It's hard to believe, but the referees are helping you more than the other players.

Combining my chart from yesterday with this one, we see a noticeable trend: The game’s biggest superstars and the best players on the favored teams are seeing an increase in free throw attempts, while the rest of the best players remain at regular season production. You could say that the best players are capable of upgrading their games to some new gear for the playoffs, but (1) there’s no way you can expect a handful of players to be capable of something that no other players are and (2) even if you did believe that, it doesn’t explain the entirety of the increase in free throw attempts, which is more than double in some cases.

To give you a better picture of the overall free throw numbers for the whole league in the regular season and the playoffs, the two tables below contain the same data for the teams as a whole.

Favorites

Team Regular Season FTA Playoff FTA (through 2 games) Percent Differential
Bulls 24.5 32, 34 +35%
Spurs 24.2 47, 32 +63%
Heat 27.9 39, 29 +22%
Lakers 24.1 33, 22 +14.1%
Celtics 23.1 18, 16 -26%
Mavericks 22.6 29, 26 +22%
Magic 25.6 30, 36 +29%
Thunder 29.3 28, 28 -4%
Total 201.3 per game 479 total, 239.5 per +19%

Underdogs

Team Regular Season FTA Playoff FTA (through 2 games) Percent Differential
Hawks 21.1 29, 17 +9%
Nuggets 29.6 33, 37 +18%
Knicks 25.5 16, 27 -16%
Blazers 22.4 13, 27 -11%
76ers 22.6 15, 20 -23%
Hornets 23.1 33, 32 +41%
Pacers 24.8 17, 27 -11%
Grizzlies 24.2 33, 29 +28%
Total 193.3 per game 405 total, 202.5 per +5%

You’ll see that the favorite teams are seeing a bigger increase in free throws taken in the playoffs than the underdogs. That goes along with what I’m trying to say, but more importantly, you’ll see that while the playoff style of basketball does actually increase the number of total free throws taken, it certainly isn’t by very much (about 12% total). That doesn’t come close to explaining how guys like Derrick Rose, Manu Ginobili, Dirk Nowitzki, Dwight Howard and even Chris Paul are seeing such huge increases in free throws per game.

Just watch the games. You’ll see that the big-name guys are getting beneficial calls. The rest of the players aren’t. The whole game changes because these players know they’re going to get calls and create contact in anticipation of a whistle being blown in their favor. The games are still competitive — largely because only the best good teams are still playing — but the free throw distribution is giving certain players on certain teams an advantage that other players don’t get.

If you think that the differential in free throws is due to some players being able to turn it up in the playoffs and get to the line 10 times more per game, I understand that, but try to consider another possibility: fouls in the NBA are very subjective calls, and the numbers show that the league’s most marketable superstars are being given more chances to affect the game from the free throw line than the rest.

As always, feel free to comment if you have ideas. Some of you did for the first post and I’d like to know if these numbers changed your mind at all. As always, tell your friends.

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