NBA: How Crucial are Free Throws to Championship Success?

Apr 20, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (12) attempts a free throw during the fourth quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers in game one during the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 20, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (12) attempts a free throw during the fourth quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers in game one during the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports /

It’s 2014, in case that hasn’t set in yet.  No longer are we in the era of the Detroit Bad Boys, or the Showtime Lakers.

The 1980’s and early 1990’s were comprised of hardcore defensive contact.  Offenses couldn’t be as prolific and up-tempo as today, and halfcourt battles were more common … especially in the Eastern Conference.  Due to those nasty Pistons (and many others), league-wide rules have been altered since those years.

Hand-checking is illegal, and will get you whistled for a foul.  Collisions near the rim are heavily enforced, and you can barely touch a player in the middle anymore.  If you’re a big man, you better have mastered the rule of verticality, which claims that you can jump with your arms extended straight up, with no leaning forward or extending outward, and you’ll get the benefit of a non-call.

Apr 30, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Portland Trail Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) attempts a free throw during the second quarter against the Houston Rockets in game five of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports /

Changes in the rulebook have favored offenses, which is exactly why teams are escalating in scoring average, and even transitioning out to the 3-point line more often.

What is the effect of more defensive fouls, and more caution for the contact in games?

Free throws.

More trips to the line, which equals more easier points, and a twist to games that come down to the wire.  Too many times do we see fouls ruin terrific finishes to a game, but the team benefiting from the hack is never complaining.  In this world of knockdown shooters, putting guys on the line — all by themselves, for a shot they practice every day — is like child’s play for some guys.

Last season, the average team (of 30) attempted 22.8 free throws per game, and connected on 17.3 of them.  It equated a 75.9 percent efficiency level, with 10 teams shooting above the 77 percent mark.

A burning question within the NBA has always been upon us:  Does an incredibly high free throw percentage typically mean a championship is near?  Even more so than percentage, does a high amount of free throws attempted indicate you’ll be playing for a title?  How much is getting to the line valued on the professional level?

Looking only at the 2013-14 season, eight of the top 10 squads in free throw percentage were playoff teams.  In fact, three members of the top 10 were conference finalists, either fighting in the East Finals or West Finals:  Oklahoma City (80.6 percent), San Antonio (78.5 percent), and Indiana (77.9 percent).  The only team missing, Miami, ranked 14th in the league at 76 percent, but all tendencies go out the window when LeBron James is on a roster.

In terms of average free throw attempts per game, only half of the top 10 were playoff teams last season.  Phoenix (24.4), Detroit (25.7), Denver (26.3), Sacramento (27.3), and Minnesota (28.1) all failed to reach the postseason, but were all members of the top 10 in free throws attempted.  Your 2014 champions, San Antonio, finished the season at a laughable 30th overall in free throw attempts per game, taking only 20 on average.

It doesn’t necessarily matter how many times you get to the line.  The NBA is a product based on 48 grueling minutes of basketball, with 82 games in a season.  Games, and championships, are won by everything in between, and the word “defense” is becoming one of the most significant keys.  It’s nice to have old-fashioned values creeping back into the league.

All it really takes is to examine past NBA title winners, and see where the Larry O’Brien trophy is going.  For the most part, it wasn’t awarded to formidable free throw shooting teams.  In efficiency from the line, the last 21 champions have been roughly average:


Since 1994, only


teams have finished in the top 10 of free throw percentage in the regular season and went on to capture a championship.  The 1995 Rockets, 2008 Celtics, 2011 Mavericks, 2012 Heat, and 2014 Spurs make up that entire list.  In the last 21 champions, the average ranking (of 30) has been 16.8.  It doesn’t take a math professor to see that’s below average (15).

33 percent of the last 21 champions have finished in the bottom six of free throw percentage for the regular season, none more than those early 21st century Lakers.

Keeping opponents off the line

Immediately when you think about it, you would automatically have a first impression to this question:  What is more valuable … getting to the line yourself (as a team), or keeping your opponents off the charity stripe?

Your first answer should probably be “getting to the line yourself.”  After all, that’s an offensive skill, not a defensive one, and more guards these days are determined to use their bodies to get easy foul calls.  In addition, the natural instinct of an NBA player (or basketball in general), is that they’ll be able to make up for their mistakes on the defensive end … by pouring more points down your throat.  There’s no worries if we bail this team out a few times, we’ll come right down the court and make them suffer. 

In averages, previous NBA champions have actually been more focused on defending without fouling.  In fact, there’s only been one champion in the last 21 years to allow more free throws attempted against them, than their own foul shots per game.  It’s those peculiar 2014 Spurs, who still won 62 games and went 16-7 in the postseason.  Other than them, each NBA champion has been stingy with how many times they send their opponent to get free points.

As you can see, the difference in average free throw attempted is exactly 2.0:


It should be noted that the average opponent free throw percentage is out of a team’s control.  It’s called a free throw for a reason, as you can literally do nothing to contest them.  It just so happens that opponents have shot a better percentage from the line than champions, on average of course.

To throw this into comparison with the rest of the league, it’s salient to understand where these title-winners have ranked in these categories.  There was 29 NBA franchises for a certain period of the data, but it’s been a 30-team league since 2004-05.  Out of 30, how have these teams stacked up against the rest?


It’s extremely revealing, as the past champions have ranked near league-average in free throws made AND free throws attempted.  But, notice where they stood in terms of keeping their opponents off the line, and forcing them into tougher shots.

With an average ranking of 8.3 in opponent free throws attempted, the title winners have used the regular season to dominate defensively, and win more games.  That creates better seeding (home-court advantage), and ultimately an easier rainbow to the pot of gold.

Out of these 21 previous champions, only five have finished in the top 10 of average free throws made.  Only 10 have finished in the top 10 of average free throws attempted.

Put that against their defensive efforts, which have been substantially better.  16 of the 21 champions have ranked in the top 10 of “opponent free throws made per game.”  That’s 76.2 percent of the title winners since 1994 — pretty astounding that it’s a common trend for two decades.

14 of the previous champions finished in the top 10 of “opponent free throws attempted per game,” which is the most important of the entire situation.  Once again, you can’t control how your opponent shoots from the line … but you CAN dictate how often they get chances there.  Limit them to 23 or less on average, and you’re in terrific shape.

Playoff twist

In the postseason, everything is launched out the door.  Defensive schemes are buckled down — unless you’re the Houston Rockets — and points are harder to come by.  You see more games in the lower 90’s, and refs love to let guys play for the most part.

Staying in the 21st century, looking at the past 15 NBA champions will give you a weird conclusion:  There isn’t a strong correlation between advancing to the Finals and being a dominant free throw shooting team.

By all means, it’s much less difficult if you rank near the top, but it’s not entirely everything:

Playoff FT
Playoff FT /

At a first observation, the same concept still holds true.  Getting to the foul line as a team is still not as monumental as keeping your opponent from the free points.

In the playoffs, it’s a bit absurd how poorly teams have shot from the free throw line, and still managed to win a championship.  Now, on the surface, 72.6 percent from the line doesn’t seem horrible.  Actually, it’s still quite amazing to the average human being.  Out of 10 free throws, that’s over seven that a whole roster is making, on average.  But, yeah, they’re professional stars.

Nonetheless, there are only 16 teams that reach the playoffs.  With the last 15 champions having an average ranking of just 10.4, it’s beyond surprising.  Teams are supposed to be more prolific from the free throw line if they’re expected to win a title.  In the last 15 years, only one team has shot over 79 percent from the line during the postseason, and went on to win the gold.  It was the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, led by the 50-40-90 German, and they shot 80.9 percent through their playoff games.

What causes the poor percentage, and the low rankings?

It’s undoubtedly the incompetence of big men at the foul line, especially Shaquille O’Neal during the Lakers and Heat Finals runs.  The five worst champions from the foul line in the last 15 postseasons were the 2003 Spurs (71.2 percent), 2002 Lakers (72.1 percent), 2001 Lakers (67.6 percent), 2006 Heat (65.5 percent), and 2000 Lakers (62.3 percent).  O’Neal was a part of four of those teams, and they all still managed to come away victorious.

The Rest of the Pack

Certainly, it doesn’t always mean a championship is the only “success” for a franchise.  Reaching a conference finals is a mountain to climb of it’s own, and only a select group of franchises can say they’ve accomplished that recently.  Yes, it means the NBA is sort of predictable with it’s playoffs.  But, we always want the best teams competing, regardless if it’s a repeat of the year before.

In the last five seasons, the East and West conference finalists have been mixed in terms of their free throw efficiency, and frequencies.  Obviously, one of the conference finalists went on to win the chip, so we’ll only include the three losers:


  • Thunder — 20.2 FT’s made, 25.0 FT’s attempted, 80.6 percent
  • Pacers — 18.1 FT’s made, 23.3 FT’s attempted, 77.9 percent
  • Heat — 17.5 FT’s made, 23.0 FT’s attempted, 76 percent


  • Thunder — 22.2 FT’s made, 26.8 FT’s attempted, 82.8 percent
  • Spurs — 16.6 FT’s made, 21.0 FT’s attempted, 79.1 percent
  • Pacers — 17.6 FT’s made, 23.6 FT’s attempted, 74.6 percent


  • Thunder — 21.3 FT’s made, 26.4 FT’s attempted, 80.6 percent
  • Celtics — 15.5 FT’s made, 19.8 FT’s attempted, 77.8 percent
  • Spurs — 16.2 FT’s made, 21.6 FT’s attempted, 74.8 percent


  • Thunder — 24.1 FT’s made, 29.3 FT’s attempted, 82.3 percent
  • Heat — 21.5 FT’s made, 27.9 FT’s attempted, 76.9 percent
  • Bulls — 18.2 FT’s made, 24.5 FT’s attempted, 74.3 percent


  • Suns — 19.9 FT’s made, 25.8 FT’s attempted, 77 percent
  • Celtics — 19.0 FT’s made, 25.5 FT’s attempted, 74.6 percent
  • Magic — 19.2 FT’s made, 26.5 FT’s attempted, 72.4 percent

Oklahoma City has mauled it’s opponents from the free throw line throughout each regular season since Durant and Westbrook started becoming NBA stars.  Yet, they’ve only reached one NBA Finals, one where they were ousted in five games.  Oh, and they were defeated by a Miami team that shot just 74.4 percent from the line in the playoffs.


From an early age, we’re always taught the same moral thoughts about the game of basketball.

If you make your free throws, you win games.

Work on your fouls shots, or you’ll never be able to win anything on the next level. 

You’re being a detriment to a team if you shoot poorly from the line.

Nevertheless, the history has shown that it’s not largely tied to coming home to a championship parade.  Listen, free throws are the simplest form of offense a team can generate points from.  If you can grab 22.1 points per game just off free throws like the Houston Rockets did last season, it’s only helping you.  But, we witnessed just how far Houston advanced in the postseason, didn’t we?

Oklahoma City takes pride in using their stars to drive to the rim and get whistles, and they have an MVP named Kevin Durant that will go down as the greatest scorer in the NBA’s history.  Free throw scoring is a huge factor for Durant reaching that peak in the next 12 or 13 years.

However, winning at the professional level is different than winning at the high school, or even college level.

This league is built on stars, coaching, and defense.

If you want to be on the cusp of winning a championship and getting over the hump, you better be limiting your opponents.  They can’t be getting too the charity stripe often, and you better have a top 10 defense in that category.  When it comes to the last 21 teams that have raised banners, it’s less about how many free throws they shoot, and more about how many fewer free throws their opponents shoot.

If you give me, or anyone else the opportunity to choose between a team focused on dynamic offensive sets, cohesive passing, and 3-point barrages (Spurs, LeBron-led Heat) or a team that has little-to-no offensive variety and gets to the line a ton (Thunder), I know who I’m taking.

There’s a reason the Spurs, Lakers, and Heat have mastered 13 of the last 16 NBA titles.

The NBA is more predicated on superstars, and being a well-coached defense, than it is the old-fashioned values of “being great from the line.”

So, don’t worry Clippers supporters, DeAndre Jordan’s foul shooting isn’t the reason you’re stuck in the second round.  A banner will come for you all eventually, especially if the bigs learn to defend without fouling.

**All statistical support credited to & Basketball-Reference**

Shane Young is an NBA credentialed writer for 8 Points, 9 Seconds and For all Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Lakers, or general NBA coverage, follow @YoungNBA and @HoopsHabit on Twitter.