The free-throw line is one of the most interesting aspects in all of sports. There are few other scenarios across any sport where the game freezes and a player is simply given a free shot with an attempt to score. One of the rare aspects where analytics and old-school basketball minds agree is the importance of taking advantage of shots at the charity stripe. The Philadelphia 76ers have wisely taken note of its importance.
The statistics that have shown increased relevance in recent years are the ones that reflect efficiency. One of the bars that have been set on the analytics end has been ensuring that a minimum of one point per possession is scored with hopes for more. The Philadelphia 76ers currently rank 15th in the NBA in points per possession with a rating of 1.080. It is only the OKC Thunder who rank under the standard of one point per possession as they convert 0.997 points per possession so far this season.
In contrast, the Utah Jazz rank first in the NBA by scoring with 1.127 points per possession. It is also worth noting that the Jazz rank first in the NBA in three-pointers made per game and 2nd in the league in percentage of points from three-pointers. But when considering how tight the margin is between first and last in the NBA, it is clear how impactful some free shots at the line could be to impacting this number.
The Importance of Joel Embiid
You do not have to look far to see the importance of knocking down free throws, as Joel Embiid is a prime example of weaponizing this area of the floor. Since coming into the NBA, Embiid has made it a point of emphasis to get to the free-throw line and ensure that he capitalizes on these opportunities. The MVP front-runner averages 9.3 free-throw attempts per game throughout his career, with him shooting a career-high 11.3 attempts this season. This also ranks the most free-throw attempts per game from any player so far this year and is a large reason why the 76ers lead the NBA in the percentage of points from free-throws.
However, it isn’t just getting to the free-throw stripe that is important as you must capitalize on the opportunity. Embiid has been an 80.9% free-throw shooter throughout his career with and has shown steady improvement as a shooter since coming into the NBA. The 7-footer shot a career-high 85.9% from the stripe last season and is still shooting 81.3% this season.
This is especially impressive considering the track record that some big men have shooting free throws. Shaquille O’Neal is regarded as an all-time great big man and tallied an impressive 15 all-stars, was a 4-time NBA champion and led the league in scoring twice during his Hall-of-Fame career. But Shaq never shot higher than 62.2% from the free-throw line and shot 42.2% during the 2006-7 season.
Even Wilt Chamberlain, whom we have seen Embiid compared to on many historic stats lately, was unable to utilize the free points that were available from the free-throw line. The 4-time league MVP was a career 51.1% free-throw shooter. Wilt shot just 38% from the free-throw line during the 1967-68 season with the 76ers and also averaged 11.4 attempts from the stripe over his career.
Ben Simmons Struggles
The importance of free-throw shooting was proven in last year’s playoff series as the Hawks declared mental warfare on Ben Simmons by repeatedly sending him to the line. As media members questioned Doc Rivers for not considering taking the struggling Simmons off the court, Rivers stood by the principle that if Simmons made one free throw every time he stepped to the line, he was helping the team. Simmons was unable to live up to this bar and ended the playoffs with a 34.2% free-throw percentage last year. As much as many parties rose to the defense of Simmons, it cannot be disputed how this played a major impact in the 76ers’ disappointing playoff exit.
While free throws are important throughout the entire game, it is especially put on display toward the end of games. Being able to put the ball in your primary ball-handlers hand is essential as teams often attempt to climb back into the game by intentionally fouling. Having the ability to put the ball in the hands of your best player with the confidence they can step to the line is a true asset to every team.
James Harden’s Impact
While these free-throw struggles of last year may have scared some weaker-willed GMs to steer away from relying on the line, it appears Daryl Morey is doing the exact opposite. Reuniting with James Harden, who is one of the most artful masters of getting to the line of all time, it is clear the 76ers intend to capitalize on free throws production. The 10-time all-star has led the NBA in free-throws made in 6 of the last 9 seasons and currently is 4th in the NBA in free-throw attempts per game.
Over the course of his career, James Harden has never shot lower than 80% at the free-throw line during any season or playoff series. Harden is a master of drawing fouls and is one of the guys most responsible for the rule change that’s focus was to take “non-basketball moves” out of the game. While there were certainly people objecting to these fouls drawn, it should be noted that these fouls were very high IQ maneuvers from Harden and ones that benefitted the team overall.
The 76ers May Have Solved Their Problem
There is no doubt that the addition of James Harden has changed the landscape of the 76ers’ playstyle, but it should be noted just how important the free-throw line will be tied to Philly’s trajectory. Pairing the number one and number four best players at getting to the free-throw line is a unique strategy but one that could absolutely work out. The analytical importance of the free-throw line is one that has clearly made its impact on Daryl Morey and is a strategy that will be put to the test this postseason.
It has been sugarcoated in different ways for many months, but the fact of the matter is the 76ers shot themselves out of the playoffs last year. The inability to knock down free throws at a successful rate is a roadblock that is impossible to overcome in the playoffs, and this has been addressed by Morey. There will be many exciting plays coming from the new duo of Joel Embiid and James Harden but prepare for some serious time to be spent from the free-throw line as well.