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The Cavs and Free Throws in the NBA: While We’re Waiting…

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Hello, readers. Kyle Welch is on duty for #TeamThursday this week. The Cleveland Indians are chugging along at a respectable but uninspiring 16-13, the Browns picked some new players with the goal of winning game(s) next season, and the Cavaliers play Thursday evening/afternoon/night/morning/day in the past or future (depending on which time zone or galaxy you live in) with a weird 6 p.m. ET tipoff. The Cavs are in the playoffs, which seems discussion-worthy. So let’s talk about that and some other stuff while we’re waiting…

The Cavs completely stole Game 1 of the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs against the Toronto Raptors. They shoplifted it. The pettiest of petty theft. The Cavaliers did not hold a lead in the game until overtime, which is almost statistically impossible. I’d like to think it was an elaborate heist-like theft, something along the lines of Ocean’s 11 that took great skill, planning, style, guile, and cunning. But in reality it was more like this monkey running away with a hubcap.

The Cavs had no right winning Game 1. They clearly outplayed the Raptors at the end of the third quarter and in the entirety of the fourth quarter. They would have even “deserved” to win the game with a sustained offensive push in the fourth quarter — but they couldn’t get there. Even LeBron James didn’t play that well in the decisive moments, shooting only 3-of-15 (20.0 percent) in the fourth quarter and overtime. The Raptors missed approximately 4000 layups and tip-in opportunities after the third quarter, and the two teams combined to shoot 31.3 percent (Cleveland) and 25.0 percent (Toronto) over the same stretch — both of which are figures worthy of your scorn. Neither team Usain Bolt-ed their way to victory, but rather limped to the finish line, lighting themselves on fire and dousing themselves with gasoline along the way, with the Cavaliers only emerging as the slightly less charred corpse.

But hey, a win’s a win, right? But by losing Game 1, I feel like Toronto forfeit their chance at winning this series. Let me follow that with a disclaimer: I don’t think the Cavaliers are any good as a basketball team. When a team figures them out sufficiently to render futile the superhuman efforts of LeBron James, then their season will end — and it will end badly. It may be against the Boston Celtics or Philadelphia 76ers, or — miraculously — against the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets, and it very nearly happened against the Indiana Pacers (for “ugly,” see Game 6, Indiana).

But it will not be against the Raptors. The reasons are: 1. Toronto is not as good or consistent enough defensively to stop the Cavaliers’ offense; 2. The Raptors need stellar, complete games from both DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry to keep up with the 110+ point pace the Cavaliers will play against Toronto, which, if history is any indication, they will not be able to provide four times; and 3. They are so deep in the Raptors’ head that the Cavaliers can scratch Toronto’s brain. The last three games the Raptors dropped to the Cavs were a Freddy Krueger movie and two sequels. The Raptors have real demons with the Cavs — and being a Cleveland sports fan qualifies me as a Ph.D.-level Sports Demonologist. Game 1 was the Raptors’ chance to seize the series. And they blew it.

An Update on Free Throw Attempts in the NBA or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Hate James Harden. The past few years, one of my recurring projects has been looking at how free throw attempts in the NBA compare to both perception and what should be expected. This is clearly indisputably selfishly motivated by my desire to demonstrate objectively that my team’s best basketball player should probably receive more free throw attempts. Read the preceding links for all of the caveats and explanation of methodology on how I derived my model, but here’s a summary.

  1. The model is based on the idea that the more attempted field goals near the basket and drives by a player, the more likely he is going to be fouled and — assuming fair and just officiating — to shoot free throws. The only inputs are field goal attempts within five feet of the hoop, field goal attempts within five-to-nine feet of the hoop, and drives. All data is from NBA.com.1
  2. No, the model is not perfect. I chose some parameters that I thought had the strongest correlation between anticipated and resulting free throw attempts. It’s not bad, though. It may also be preferable to an overfit mathematical model or unknowable machine-created algorithm that relies on no intuition whatsoever. The results predicted by this season’s linear regression are within three percent of last season’s, which is basically the margin of error. Make a better model if you want.
  3. Many of the results are explainable — as they should be. For instance, Dwight Howard is intentionally fouled all the time because he’s a dreadful free throw shooter. Also, J.J. Redick draws more free throws than most jump shooters because he’s an excellent jump shooter who players grab to prevent him running all over the court and earns contact from people contesting his jumper.

Here’s a chart showing the results.

My initial observations.

  • James Harden. Just … why? He’ll likely win the MVP this year, but as someone who watches a lot of NBA basketball, I don’t see any evidence on tape or otherwise to suggest that he draws as much contact as Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. It’s pure fiction. Harden attempted 265 more free throws than expected based on the rest of the league.
  • Clearly, stars benefit from calls more than the average player, as evidenced by the upper left quadrant and entire right side. This makes sense — a good player is going to attract more physical contact than a bad player. If a player’s shot is not worth contesting, he would never be fouled.
  • After shooting far more free throws than predicted in 2016-17, Westbrook shot fewer than anticipated this season. Did Westbrook get worse? Was he officiated differently following his MVP season? Do officials just really want James Harden to win the MVP? Was Westbrook even more reckless, if that’s possible? Is it merely statistical regression?
  • LeBron James may not be the target of an elaborate conspiracy or some arbitrary enforcement of the rules, but he clearly doesn’t benefit from some magnanimous referee charity. James and Westbrook were the only two players in the top 20 in free throw attempts to be anywhere near the expected amount, and basically, the only two superstars to shoot fewer free throws than one would expect based on their behavior. Bradley Beal is the only other player near the top who is close.

  • The best two rookies in the league, Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell, attempted far fewer free throws than anticipated. Is there a bias against rookies until they “prove themselves,” or do they just need to learn the game or go to acting workshops on how to exaggerate contact?
  • If there’s any consistently disenfranchised category, it’s small-to-midsize guards: Ish Smith, Kyrie Irving, Goran Dragic, Dennis Schroder, Jrue Holiday, Goran Dragic, and Ben Simmons all fit this category to varying degrees.2 Perhaps they’re good at avoiding contact, or it’s much easier to contest their shots than bigger forwards. Damian Lillard seems to be the only player in that category who has a healthy free throw surplus.
  • After having a 73.0 free throw deficit in February of last season, Kyrie Irving had only a deficit of 15.3 this season. Maybe this is an ancillary benefit to no longer playing alongside James, or to play for the Boston Celtics instead of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Maybe Irving improved — after all, I was told he was an MVP candidate before his injury despite having virtually identical statistics to last season.
  • Carmelo Anthony has what is known as the “old man deficit,” just another sign that is career is over.
  • Ish Smith and Dennis Schroder have consistently been the most aggrieved parties since I started tracking this. What do NBA officials have against Smith and Scroder? It could be as simple as no one wanting to watch Detroit Pistons or Atlanta Hawks games, least of all referees.

Now, more on James. In the past, I’ve speculated on the variety of valid reasons James would shoot fewer free throws than his compatriots, especially players of comparable talent, skill, and physique. (Well, inferior talent, skill, and physique, but nonetheless as close as possible.)3 In my eyes, it simply doesn’t add up. That James attempted fewer free throws than Damian Lillard this season and nearly 200 fewer than Harden just feels wrong.

Below is a table showing how different it would be if James had a free throw surplus comparable to other athletic wings — the closest comps in the league he has. I couldn’t even give Kevin Durant the dignity of being on this list, as he was a glorified jump shooter most of the season who attempted to get to the hoop as much all season as he did by February of last season.

If James were officiated similarly to other athletic wings, he would have attempted over 200 more free throws — a few more than Harden. That’s nearly 2.5 free throws per game — which at James free throw percentage on the season would have given him 29.3 points per game instead of 27.5. Meanwhile, 28.6 percent of Harden’s points this season came at the line, as opposed to only 17.1 percent for James. I don’t think it’s much to ask that James is officiated closer to what DeMar DeRozan benefits from.

Or maybe James actually receives less contact than Harden, Antetokounmpo, DeRozan, Butler, and other great players in the league. I don’t buy it, but believe what you’d like.

The Calvin and Hobbes Strip of the Day. This movie is rated “R” for “routine adult stuff.”

And now for the random 90s song of the day. The Shape of Water won best picture, as if no one had ever come up with the idea of a loving protagonist having sex with a fish-person. Had the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ever seen The Little Mermaid, or even this music video for Filter’s “Take a Picture.” Come on, Guillermo del Toro. Also, if “Take a Picture” was rewritten for 2018, it would go, “Could you please not take my picture / Because we’re already documenting all of this for eternity.” Anyway, it’s a good song.

Could everyone agree that
No one should be left alone
Could everyone agree that
They should not be left alone, yeah

  1. This season, Aaron Jackson had the honor of being the only player to play a single minute in an NBA game this season to be excluded from the dataset. This was because there was no tracking data from NBA.com on Jackson. It’s possible he didn’t drive once, and did nothing trackable in his 35 minutes this season. Nevertheless, the dataset survives without his contribution. []
  2. Not all those guards are “small.” []
  3. Other than Giannis. []