Basketball practice has been going on for the Syracuse Orange for almost three weeks now, meaning something is looming around the corner – the return of #FreeThrowsMatter, a cherry-picking hashtag made to take advantage of the way the human brain works.
I understand why it gets used. Free throws stick out during a basketball game. Everything stops! A player gets to shoot the ball, aiming to score points while every player on the opposing team is helpless to do anything about it, save for some muttered trash talk. So, when the ball clangs off the rim or, heaven forbid, touches nothing until it hits the floor, it is a memorable event. The player failed to get points that were FREE! It’s in the name!
Since the free throws happen during these times when everything stops and the entire focus is on the shot and its result, they stick out in the viewers’ memories. So, free throws seem super important for that very reason – they stick out. And missed free throws stick out even more because those are (almost always) more rare events than their successful counterparts.
I also understand that the hashtag is somewhere between reductive, disingenuous, and insulting to your intelligence. You know why? The hashtag is rarely used, getting dropped only either when the team is having an off night at the line or the game is close in the waning minutes and free throws have just been attempted (the result of the free throw(s) in question does not matter). The hashtag ignores every other part of the game to that point.
In truth, the hashtag should be trashed because free throws, over a larger sample size, do not have a strong correlation with winning individual basketball games. In Syracuse’s case, when it comes to winning games, free throw results pale in importance in comparison to things like creating live-ball turnovers that can be turned into fast break points and three-point shooting on both ends of the floor.
Let’s just start with a simple cause-and-effect with the Orange. Here is the year-by-year free throw percentage and win percentage over the last eight seasons since they joined the ACC (overall, the team has shot 71.5% from the line and has a .625 win percentage in that time):
- 2013-14: .708 FT%, .824 win %
- 2014-15: .660 FT%, .581 win %
- 2015-16: .688 FT%, .622 win %
- 2016-17: .739 FT%, .559 win %
- 2017-18: .736 FT%, .622 win %
- 2018-19: .685 FT%, .588 win %
- 2019-20: .740 FT%, .563 win %
- 2020-21: .782 FT%, .643 win %
So, the best season in that span from a won-lost perspective (2013-14) features a slighty below average effort from the charity stripe. The best free throw shooting season (2020-21) generated a winning percentage pretty close to a season (2015-16) where they shot almost ten full percentage points worse from the line.
When you reduce a sample size, your results become less reliable. In this case, when you look at individual games, there is a lot of nonsensical data. Syracuse’s second-worst free throw shooting game by percentage in the last eight seasons came in January 2016 when they made just 3-of-8 (37.5 percent) from the line. In that game, they beat Duke, 64-62 (the Blue Devils shot 6-of-9 in the game).
Over the last eight years, when Syracuse has shot 90 percent or better from the free throw line in a game, they are 8-6 (.571), a mark that lowers their overall win percentage in that time. Three of those six losses were by 17 points or more. Pretty hard to imagine free throws mattered in many of those games.
As mentioned earlier, over the last eight seasons, the Orange have shot 71.5 percent from the free throw line (as a reference point, this is slightly better than the average Division One team shot from the line last season). If you waved a magic wand that made it so SU shot 80 percent from the free throw line in every game of those eight seasons, do you know how many more games they would have won?
Five or six, depending on what would have happened in overtime against Pitt back in the 2016 ACC Tournament. That is five, maybe six more wins out of 267 games, a changed outcome, at most, 2.2 percent of the time.
How good is shooting 80 percent from the line? In those last eight seasons, only 11 teams have shot 80 percent in a single season (no school doing it twice) and an 80 percent mark from the stripe would have led all of Division One four times in that span.
And when the Orange have shot 80 percent in a game over the past eight years, they are 55-20 (.733). Of course, among those 55 wins, SU won by more points than their number of free throws made on 19 occasions, meaning you could take away all the points from their free throws as the Orange still would have won those 19 games.
Also, in of those 20 losses, if Syracuse had made every free throw they attempted, they would have still lost 18 times. Just last season, the Orange were almost perfect at the line in two separate games – 9-of-10 at Virginia and 19-of-22 at Pitt – and got beat by 20 or more points in each.
It seems free throws did not matter in those games.
If you went the opposite direction from that magical improvement to 80 percent and made Syracuse a 63 percent shooting team at the stripe in every game over the last eight years, they would have lost 12 more games. How bad is 63 percent free throw shooting? If a team had shot that poorly from the line last season, they would have been 338th of the 347 teams who played last season.
If you’ve made it this far, I know you’re curious. Should that magic wand have gone bonkers and made the Orange perfect from the line for eight straight seasons, they would have 23 more wins and eight more games would have gone to overtime in the last eight seasons.
Well, what about the close games? Aren’t free throws much more important in those games due to the final margin being so close?
In the 14 games SU has lost by 1-to-3 points in the last eight seasons, they have shot 74.3 percent (179-of-241) from the line, a better mark than their average during that time. In the 27 games they have won by 1-to-3 points, they have shot 71.2 percent (389-of-546) at the stripe, one free throw under their overall mark in that span. Kind of weird how they shot better from the line in the games the lost, right?
If you would like to know where free throw shooting DOES matter, there is an old coaching maxim that success comes from making more free throws than your opponent attempts. While it seems on the surface that it has a lot to do with a team’s free throw shooting, it only does so in the context of the team’s ability to play good defense without fouling, specifically limiting the opponent’s number of free throw attempts.
Syracuse has made more foul shots than their opponent has attempted 99 times in the last eight seasons. Their record in those games? 82-17 (.828 win percentage). That seems to be an important statistical correlation, but again, it’s about free throw shooting combined with team defense, not foul shooting alone.
So, if you want to talk about free throws mattering, it is really about the number of free throws SU makes and the free throws their opponents do not even attempt.
Just to wrap this up, in the 100 games SU has lost over the last eight seasons, they have made a higher percentage of their free throws than their opponent 48 times. They have made more free throws than their opponents in 51 of those games. That evidence alone suggests free throw shooting is basically a coin flip when it comes to winning games, meaning you could go so far as to say that, over the long haul, free throws don’t matter.
Of course, the apostrophe would ruin your clout-chasing hashtag.