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Victor Oladipo, Pacers

Under the radar: The 2016-17 season was the best free throw shooting season of all-time

Free throws. Free throws never change. Or as Rick Barry, a 90 percent career free throw shooter would put it:

“It’s the only part of the game that’s a constant. It’s always the same distance, it’s always the same ball, and it’s always the same size basket. It’s the only part of the game you can be selfish and still help your team.”

This is also reflected in free throw percentages throughout the history; the league as a whole continuously hovers around 75 percent success rate from the charity stripe. However, this past season was the best in terms of free throw shooting ever, barely edging out the 1973-74 and 2008-09 seasons. The small differences in percentage might seem irrelevant, but just a single percent lower free throw shooting this season would amount to over 500 missed free throws, which would obviously alter the outcome of a lot of games.

Judging by the current outlook of the league, the trend of increasingly efficient free throw shooting is likely to continue. There are a few reasons to make that claim:

1. Small ball lineups are at the peak of popularity. Besides the obvious upsides that small ball lineups provide, such as the surge in pace and various offensive mismatches combined with versatility on the defensive end, coaches utilizing the small ball approach can also count on their players performing better at the line. Just take a look at the Warriors’ second most used lineup, a.k.a. the Death Lineup; they attempted about the same amount of free throws as the lineups they were facing, but made five more on average. Another great example is the Rockets’ most efficient lineup (Harden-Gordon-Ariza-Anderson-Harrell) that completely obliterated the opposition at the free throw line, scoring 10 more free throws on average with a 12 percent better efficiency.

2. Big men shooting skills are becoming more emphasized. In today’s NBA, big men with absolutely no touch outside the rim area have a hard time finding their place under the sun. Some adapt, such as Brook Lopez who shot 387 three-pointers last season on relatively good efficiency after attempting only 31 in his first eight seasons. Other players, who are unable to properly react to the demands of the evolving play style, are seen as points of vulnerability and consequently spend less time on the court. Kenneth Faried, for example, posted a career low in minutes played this season. Having five capable shooters on the floor at all times, which is gradually becoming the focal point of every coaches’ gameplan, naturally yields a higher free throw shooting percentage.

3. There are an abundance of resources aimed at improving free throw shooting at players’ disposals. Besides the obvious help bad free throw shooters can get from shooting coaches and access to training facilities where they can work on polishing their shot through repetition, the mechanics of the free throw shot and the issues associated with it have become the topic of a number of scientific studies. For example, a mechanical engineer from North Carolina State University came up with the “magic formula” for optimizing the free throw shot. Last season we’ve also heard that the Pistons will use VR devices to help Andre Drummond with his sub-par free throw shooting. The news probably made old-school NBA fans’ eyes twitch, but there is no denying the fact that modern NBA players have access to previously inconceivable methods of perfecting their shot, both conventional and unconventional.

The results are evident from less and less absurd free throw shooting forms we are witnessing, such as this absolute gold by Chuck Hayes:

Of course, not everything is black and white, and there are a lot more intangible parameters to consider in terms of free throw shooting, mainly mental strength required to consistently remain successful from the stripe. This season, problems with that mental aspect of free throw shooting were prominently put on display by the (De)Andre Trio. Andre Roberson, Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan were three out of four players who’ve shot under 50 percent from the line on at least 100 attempts, bringing the league-wide percentage down by 0.5 percent.

Despite their other qualities, that meant that they were mostly unplayable in the final moments of close games, which further proves the importance of being at least a decent free throw shooter. We are yet to see if the trio and other players of the same mold manage to adapt and break that barrier, or whether their respective coaches start readjusting the lineups to their dismay. One thing is guaranteed though, with the direction the league is headed, we likely won’t be witnessing any substantial dips in overall free throw shooting any time soon.