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Random Stat: How often does Free Throw Shooting cost a team a win?

Q: How often would a team have won a game that it lost if it had managed to make 78% of its free throws?
-- Craig Bolerjack, Utah Jazz announcer

A: This was recently pondered during a Jazz game broadcast, and indeed it seems like a common subject that gets raised by announcers in close games where one team seems to be throwing up an inordinate number of bricks from the free throw line.

There are many ways to examine the issue, including a straight misses > margin of defeat, but we like Craig's concept since it's unreasonable to expect a team to make every free throw. On the other hand shooting below a number like say 78% could be considered below average performance (Shaq's team obviously might be an exception...)

How often a team would have won instead of lost
had it shot at least 78%

Extra Wins
Actual Lost
Extra Win%
 Away Team 26  613  4.2% 
 Home Team 31  403  7.7% 
 Losing Team 57  1016  5.6% 

So the quick answer is that in over 5% of games the losing team would have won had it merely hit 78% of its free throws. That's basically saying on average a team could pick up two wins a season! It is however a bit of an exaggeration since the actual winning team might have been shooting poorly too from the line, so let's reframe it using data for both teams:

How often would the outcome have changed
if both teams had shot 78% from the line

Extra Wins
Actual Lost
Extra Win%
 Away Team 31  613  5.0% 
 Home Team 23  403  5.7% 
 Losing Team 54  1016  5.3% 

This look tends to diminish the home/away differences we saw on the first run, but again hones in on a 5% number for how often the outcome would have been different. Another alternative look is to see how often good free throw shooting gains a team a win instead of a loss!

How often would the Winning Team have Lost
had it shot only 78% from the line

Extra Losses
Actual Wins
Extra Loss%
 Away Team 403  2.0% 
 Home Team 12  613  2.0% 
 Winning Team 20  1016  2.0% 

It's rare that a team's excellent free throw shooting in a game makes the difference, but it does happen in one of every fifty games, or roughly once a week.

All right, but a number of people have written in on this subject with a particular team in mind, for instance:

Being a Milwaukee Bucks fan, I've seen many games be unnecessarily closer than they have to be because of poor free-throw shooting. I was wondering for your random stat thing if you could say how many times the margin of victory in a game is smaller than the amount of missed free-throws by the losing team. For example, Team A beats Team B by 7 but Team B missed 10 free-throws. -- Sam Kirchner

Again, we don't think the misses > margin is the best way to look at it -- for the 05-06 season to March 23rd it turns out that 38% of losing teams in a game would in theory have tied or won had they sunk all their free throws -- but we will wrap up with a look at team specific numbers:

 Team Loser Shot
Winner Shot
Outcome Change
if both=78%
 Team W-L W-L W-L
 Atlanta 2-3 2-1 2-1
 Boston 3-3 2-1 1-2
 Charlotte 0-4 0-2 0-4
 Chicago 2-4 0-2 0-3
 Cleveland 0-2 0-1 0-2
 Dallas 0-1 1-2 3-1
 Denver 3-2 0-0 3-0
 Detroit 1-1 1-1 2-1
 Golden State 2-4 1-1 1-4
 Houston 4-1 2-0 4-1
 Indiana 2-2 1-0 4-4
 L.A. Clippers 2-0 1-0 4-0
 L.A. Lakers 3-6 2-0 2-2
 Memphis 1-4 0-2 0-5
 Miami 4-2 0-0 1-2
 Milwaukee 3-2 1-1 2-2
 Minnesota 0-3 0-0 1-2
 New Jersey 3-2 1-0 3-1
 New Orleans 2-0 0-2 1-2
 New York 1-2 2-0 3-1
 Orlando 1-3 0-0 1-4
 Philadelphia 3-2 0-1 2-1
 Phoenix 0-0 0-0 0-0
 Portland 2-0 0-1 1-3
 Sacramento 1-1 0-0 1-1
 San Antonio 5-0 0-0 2-0
 Seattle 0-0 0-0 3-1
 Toronto 1-1 2-1 2-2
 Utah 2-1 0-0 2-1
 Washington 4-1 1-1 3-1

In terms of the original idea from the Jazz announcer, the Lakers have lost six games this season where if they had hit 78% of their free throws they would have, in theory, won. They have however also won three games where that applies to their opponent.

The Spurs on the other hand have never "lost because of free throw shooting" and indeed have won five times where had their opponent hit 78% things might well have been different!

On the other hand if you set both teams FT% to 78% and see how often the outcome changes, then there's no more hard luck team/poor free throw shooters than the Grizzlies who have an 0-5 record when a 'normalized' night would have seen them cart off five extra wins...

They bring it on themselves though with 12-26 and 10-20 efforts in one point defeats!

So, the next time the coach is yelling that you better take your free throw shooting seriously, listen up -- he's right!

Do you have an idea for a cool "random stat" you would like to see? If so, drop us a line

Random Stat Archive
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Technical Free Throws (3/10)
Two Way Players (3/08)
Jump Ball winning % (3/07)
"At the Rim" Shots (3/05)
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Free Throw shooting home versus away (2/04)
Who gets their shot blocked the most? (2/03)
Plus/Minus stats over the last 30 days (2/02)
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