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by Bryan Leonard - 04/03/2011
Freebies in basketball are foul shots. Uncontested shots at the line that count toward a team's score. I bring this up because I recall a sports bettor one time explaining the value of a team being able to make shots at the foul line, which can help against the spread. If you have a favorite that is right at the number in the final minute of a game, naturally you would prefer a strong free throw shooting team percentage-wise who will give you a better shot at covering that number. Conversely, if the opponent is likely to "Hack-a-Shaq" late in the game to put Shaq and his miserable free throw shooting at the line, for example, you certainly wouldn't prefer the Big Guy to be at the line 8 times in the final minute if your spread cover is in doubt -- unless your on the other side.
I thought of this when the Celtics lost at Atlanta last week, losing by 5 points while missing 9 of 20 free throws. They hit 6 of 12 three points, shot over 44% as a team and played great defense. But what did it matter, blowing everything from the charity stripe?
Naturally, there is a reasonable argument one can make when it comes to free throw shooting and its relevance to handicapping. However, how important is it really? Let's test a theory with some cold, hard numbers. One recent NBA season the top free throw shooting was the Minnesota T-Wolves at 80%. That wasn't surprising, as they were filled with veteran leaders who had reliable at the charity stripe for several years. However, Minnesota was 24-37 against the spread that season, and a poor 12-20 ATS at hom Being the best at the line didn't helped those guys cover the number often.
That same season teams No. 2 and No. 3 at the line were the Sonics (35-25 ATS) and Mavericks (32-27 ATS), who had very good spread marks. Seattle was 18-10 ATS on the road while Dallas was 17-12. The next two were the Kings (28-32 ATS) and 76ers (28-32). Philladelphia was 11-18 ATS at home, so late free throw shooting didn't helped this bunch cover often in front of the home nets.
The Clippers (34-28 ATS), Lakers (31-28 ATS), Rockets (29-28 ATS), Pacers (26-21 ATS) and Hornets (34-25 ATS) rounded out the Top 10. Clearly, free throw shooting alone didn't mean that much when analyzing point spreads. The Hornets, for example, were 20-10 ATS on the road, but that's more because they were so bad they're over-inflated against the spread too often, which meant they got many covers because oddsmakers knew the public, in general, wasn't likely to back them no matter how big the number.
So, overall, free throw shooting isn't a strong indicator of how teams will fare ATS. Rather, the proper way to approach handicapping is a combination of factors that give you the edge in predicting which team has a reasonable shot at covering. Free throw shooting can be one of them, especially if you're going against a bad team AND they happen to be lousy from the line. However, it shouldn't be the sole factor when deciding where to put your hard earned money, but it's much smarter if it's one of several factors that point to the side you choose, especially if you think the game might be close.