Free Throw Update & No Doubt: While We’re Waiting


Happy Thursday everyone — or as I call it, Friday Lite. The weekend’s right around the corner, and with any luck you’re able to mentally conceive of the idea of springtime, even if the weather forecast does not reflect as much. Opening Day and playoff basketball are in the not-too-distant future. Anyway, While We’re Waiting…

Browns fans became quite fussy over the Terrelle Pryor situation this week, myself included. There is a realistic possibility that Pryor could yet resign with the Browns, but it’s still distressing. I’m not going to go full rant, but I’ll just say that the Browns had the inside track and a competitive advantage to wrap this up long before this week.

Should the Browns massively overpay Pryor? No. But the worst-run franchise in the league is going to need to “overpay” free agents to come play for the worst-run franchise in the league. And when the Browns have this much cap room, their opportunity cost to overpay one or two free agents is lower than other teams.

Here’s an inverse example: My time is less valuable when it’s infinite for all intents and purposes. I’m willing to accept a base rate to work 40 hours a week because those first 40 hours aren’t that valuable. But to get me to work to 60 or 80 hours an employer is going to need to up my salary substantially, maybe as much as 50 to 100 percent. When time is an unlimited resource, it isn’t worth much (comparatively); when it’s limited, it becomes much more valuable. Hence why people on hourly wages normally receive time-and-a-half or double time for “overtime.”

Right now the Browns are talent-broke, and can’t afford to be stingy with everyone. The Browns are living in a metaphorical dumpster, but unwilling to take a minimum-wage job making french fries. I think Terrelle Pryor’s the deep frier in this analogy. And besides, if the Browns aren’t going to retain any of the young talent they actually shockingly almost accidentally develop, then what are we really doing here?

I’ve written quite a bit in the past about LeBron James’ free throw disparity compared with comparable players. It’s become a crusade of sorts for me, because as someone who watches a lot of basketball, I think he is held to a double standard compared to some other players in the league. So it’s a topic I like to revisit once in a while.

My free throw projections involve a formula that, while imperfect, has produced similar results over two seasons and the playoffs, lending some credibility to it. It takes into account drives and field goal attempts near the basket, with the idea being that these high-probability scoring opportunities produce contests that lead to contact that lead lead to free throws. There are plenty of reasons why a player would shoot more or less free throws than expected, and I looked at some of those rationalizations when I first touched on the topic. But my primary hypothesis remains, excuses aside, that LeBron James is officiated differently than other players of his ilk.

Here’s the most recent chart:1


Players above the line shoot more free throws than expected, and players below the line shoot fewer free throws than expected. As you can see, James shoots about what you would expect, all things being equal. But the linear trend line is very much generated by the average NBA player, which ranges from “Well at least he’s better than Kyle Singler” to “Oh god no it’s Kyle Singler.” But LeBron James is basically the only superstar in the league who doesn’t receive a massive bump from the officials, and the first aggrieved among the players who shoot the most free throws.2

The counter is, “James still has it way better than other guys.” Which is true. I’d like to draw attention them, too. John Wall, Kemba Walker, and even James’ teammate Kyrie Irving (73.0 fewer free throws than expected) have a legitimate gripe. And Jesus I have no idea what Dennis Schröder did to deserve such a raw deal from the officials — maybe he insulted each of their mothers individually and to their faces. But I focus on James (even over Irving) because: 1. Most of the other players with a giant free throw deficit are small guards, which isn’t necessarily “fair” but makes sense; 2. James plays very physically; 3. Physical slashers who play like James have elevated free throw numbers; 4. I watch basketball games, and James withstands more contact than other elite talents.

For example, let’s look at other physical forwards and guards who are stylistically comparable to James and All-Star caliber. That list includes Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Kevin Durant, DeMar DeRozan, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Kawhi Leonard plays almost identical to a less assist-oriented James,3 and shoots nearly twice as many free throws as expected. If we average the surplus percentage of these physical wing players and apply it to James, James would have 193 more free throw attempts — that’s over three additional free throw attempts per game.


The other player among that peer group who shoots fewer free throws than the rest? Giannis Antetokounmpo aka “The Greek Freak,” who (in my opinion) is the player most capable of replicating James’ playing style and career . They both pose officiating dilemmas.

Will officiating and free throw attempts ever be “fair”? No. Furthermore, should it be fair? Maybe not. Is this model perfect? No. But I do have a serious problem with James Harden shooting nearly 300 more free throws than LeBron James while James is basically subject to wrestling referees willing to let James get smacked over the head with a folding chair. I simply don’t believe that James Harden merits 699 free throw attempts to James’ 401. I watch them both play basketball. There are some definite inequities in free throw shooting, and it would be nice to see the NBA do something to mitigate them.

The Calvin and Hobbes strip of the day. While it’s easy to lose sight of it because of Calvin’s own precociousness, mischief, and cogent worldview, his parents’ own biting wit and perspective have a profound influence on Calvin’s character. I’m not sure if the sports business is or more or less cynical than music business. Let’s go with “even.”


And now for the random 90s song of the day. Because it was International Women’s Day or whatever on Wednesday, it seems like a good opportunity to make one of my favorite 90s jams the R90sSotD: No Doubt’s “I’m Just a Girl.” It’s depressing to think that most people under the age of 20 only know Gwen Stefani as one of the judges on The Voice, when pre-“Hollaback Girl” Stefani was the cool girl with loud fashion tastes with whom every guy wanted to be friends with and who was also the lead singer of an awesome ska band, insomuch as ska can ever be “awesome.”

In doing my scholarly research for the R90sSotD, I’ve become something of an expert on 90s music videos. Ninety percent of them are the same: the band lip-syncing the song and jumping up and down with rapid cuts and weird lenses interspersed with bizarre non-sequiturs with no narrative whatsoever. There’s often a raucous crowd or party scene. I presume this uniformity is because all 90s music directors were taking the same drugs. Anyway, “Just a Girl” is also one of my favorite karaoke songs, which I think is supposed to be ironic but I can’t even tell any more.

Oh, I’ve had it up to here
Oh, am I making myself clear?

  1. Data current through March 7. []
  2. Shoots less than 10 free throws of what is expected. []
  3. And plays much better defense. But I’m talking exclusively about offense. []