Basketball is full of dumb statistics. FG% made perfect sense back when all field goals were worth two points. Then the 3-pointer was added, and statisticians were flustered - and rather than figuring out how to account for the new and exciting shot, they just said screw it, we’ll just stick with FG%. The football equivalent would be lumping field goals and extra points into one kicking% stat. Then when ice-water Aguayo stepped up to nail a 52-yard game winner, we could listen to the announcers yammering about how FSU fans must be confident because Aguayo is a 90% kicker.
Luckily, there was an ex-college basketball player with a PhD in Statistical Applications named Dean Oliver who was paying attention to the statistical nonsense, and decided to do something about it. Oliver - using such essays as “Should I Firebomb Billy Donovan’s House?” - started from scratch and re-calculated the statistical impact of what happens on the court. Two years after the publication of his results he was hired as a full-time consultant to NBA teams. Now, 13 years later, every NBA franchise has a team of statisticians diagnosing every movement on the court. And it’s trickling down into college, spearheaded by coaches like Brad Stevens, Bo Ryan, Jim Larranaga, and Buzz Williams.
Dean Oliver spent a lot of time on free throws. And the results of his analysis were a bit alarming.
The fourth factor is getting to the foul line. I phrase this intentionally as "getting to the foul line," not "making foul shots" or "free throw percentage" or "free throws." This is because the biggest aspect of "free throws" is actually attempting them, not making them.
Throughout the 2016-17 season, FSU fans constantly ripped the team for its inability to make free throws. For the year the team made just 68.9% of the freebies, compared to 70.4% for the rest of Division I teams (and I heard about every miss on Twitter).
FSU went to the line 824 times (hey, that sounds like a lot. Foreshadowing alert!). Had they been an average FT shooting team, that would have worked out to an extra 12 points for the year, spread across 35 games.
But looking at FTs through Dean Oliver’s filter, we see that Florida State’s space-and-drive attack was actually pretty good at getting to the line. An average team (based on FSU’s 2,146 FG attempts) would have gotten to the line 757 times. That’s 67 more attempts for Florida State. Couple that with FSU’s 68.9% conversation rate, and that’s an extra 46 points.
And it doesn’t just stop at the points. A key reason that free throw rate is more important than free throw % is the ancillary benefits caused by drawing fouls. It more quickly puts the opposing team in foul trouble, and foul trouble changes games.
So yes, it would be nicer if FSU shot a better % from the line. Had FSU shot free throws like Notre Dame (best in the nation!) then I would have received a lot fewer angry comments. In the NCAA Tournament versus West Virginia, Notre Dame never missed! They also lost, partially because WVU went to the line 26 times. In the previous game the Irish squeaked by Princeton, despite shooting free throws worse than FSU! They also went to the line 21 times compared to just 6 for Princeton.
Basketball is a funny game.