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Free Throw Shooting

   by Bryan Leonard - 04/02/2012

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 Ohio State covered against Syracuse in the tournament, 77-70. The Buckeyes made 74% of their free throws, 31 of 42. Roughly 4 or 5 less and they don’t cover. The worst free throw shooting team in the NBA is the Orlando Magic, mainly because of Dwight Howard, a liability at the line his whole career.
Just think if the point spread is four and Orlando is leading by three with 20 seconds left. Would you feel good about your chances, especially if Hack-A-Howard was used in that final minutes? A few weeks ago Orlando was a +9 dog to the rival Miami Heat…and lost by 10 points. A close look at the box score finds that Orlando shot 57% from the line, missing 9 freebies, while Miami shot 78%. That was the ball game – and the cover.
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 home. Being the best at the line didn't help 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). Philadelphia was 11-18 ATS at home, so late free throw shooting didn't help 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.

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