I’ve been doing this for some time. I’ve lived many fake basketball lives. But when I first began playing this great imaginary sport of ours, there was a central question that dominated all fantasy hoops draft talk.
Was Shaq worth it?
Was rostering Shaquille O’Neal worth the nightly adventure in free throw performance? Was there a viable Shaq strategy?
I’m dating myself here, but I’m talking 29.7-point, 13.6-rebound, 3.0-blocks per game Shaq-Fu Shaq. The Shaq that guaranteed you an overwhelming win in field goal percentage at the expense of a crushing loss in free throw percentage.
People punted. Years passed. Peak Shaq gave way to peak Dwight Howard, who then gave way to a dash of mid-career Tim Duncan, and finally to the present case of DeAndre Jordan. The conundrum persists. Are hyper-productive players worth the trouble if they kneecap you at the charity stripe?
Regardless of if you’re into points, roto, DFS, head-to-head or whatever, one fact remains constant. Subpar free throw performance was, is and remains fantasy’s silent killer. It’s the category that fantasy managers are most likely to give short shrift to because measuring free throw impact in fantasy requires a studied eye. Field goal percentage is somewhat neglected, but it gets a little more consideration due to a simple fact: Most leagues account for 3-point production. The folding in of 3-point performance subliminally programs fantasy players to pay attention to the types of shots that players are taking. We’re more willing to absorb a 45 percent field goal percentage when said player makes a lot of 3-pointers. We’re less willing to absorb a non-3-pointer-generating big man who shoots below 50 percent.
Another reason free throws get short shrift: Big men tend to be bad at it. The league average free throw percentage tends to be around 77 percent, and there aren’t a lot of power forwards and centers providing that. Most bigs drag free throw percentage, but because we need bigs for their blocks and boards, we become more willing to absorb the hit at the line, even when it’s really hurting our bottom line.
I mentioned earlier that true fantasy free throw impact requires careful consideration. It’s a bit of an art because so many fantasy formats fold in free throw percentage and managers tend to discount the volume of free throws a player takes.
It’s not enough to say a 92 percent free throw shooter like, say, Tyler Johnson is a boon to your team’s chances. Johnson’s only averaging 2.1 free throw attempts per game. Yes, he’s making 1.9 of them, which is great, but he isn’t really helping much due to low volume. At 85 percent, Eric Gordon gives you more of a boost, thanks to his robust 5.6 attempts per game.
The same principle works in inverse when figuring out which players to avoid. On the surface, John Henson is terrifying those in deep leagues with a 50 percent free throw percentage — but he’s only taking 1.5 free throws a night. He’s less scary than Lonzo Ball, who’s also shooting 50 percent, but averages 1.8 attempts per night. Given low volume, Ball and Henson look like Rick Barry and Bill Sharman compared to Ben Simmons. Simmons only shoots 61 percent, but does so across a healthier 5.4 attempts per game.
The 60 percent represents a real problem for Simmons’ overall fantasy growth. A majority of Simmons’ field goal attempts come from within three feet. Because Simmons’ outside shot is, as they say, “a work in progress,” Simmons is going to get fouled. Repeatedly. That is to be expected when he is taking almost all of his shots in the paint. If he can’t shoot free throws, it won’t be long until we see Hack-A-Ben Simmons get trademarked by some churlish Philadelphian.
Which brings us to the rule changes affected over the past couple of seasons. By cracking down on away-from-the-ball fouls, the NBA has made it harder to play Andre Drummond, Jordan, Simmons or any other stultifying, depressing free throw shooter. But at the same time, the “Harden Rule” has made it harder for players to bait defenders into a shooting foul. The result? Bad free throw shooters have gotten some protection via lower volume, while crafty contract-drawers like James Harden have been slightly penalized via lower volume.
In the end, the rule changes made the “foul that big immediately” category of player a little harder to foul…and a little less scary for fantasy purposes. Still, if a player is known for bad free throw shooting, he’s going to get sent to line as often as our great game allows. Since free throw shooting is basketball’s equivalent to golf’s putting in that it is largely mental, the drawing down on intentional fouling has led to bigs upping their percentage. Sans the pressure of being forced to the line, several players have improved.
DeAndre Jordan’s attempts have plummeted from 5.2 to 2.8 per game, while his percentage has climbed nearly ten percentage points to 60 percent. So, while Jordan’s still hurting your bottom line, he’s not doing it nearly as much as he did in 2016-17, when he scored a -6.49 in free throws on the Player Rater.
That Player Rater provides an easy way of sorting out which players are pulverizing or boosting you at the line, folding volume in with efficiency by way measuring true free throw impact.
I’ve spent too much time over the years talking about Howard and free throws. I’ll leave it as this: He’s given up. But what’s interesting here is that on a list historically dominated by bigs, a number of wing players have jumped up into the top ten.
But there is no Jordan, one season removed from notching the second-worst free throw impact in 2016-17. Another name that’s missing? Andre Drummond.
Two seasons ago, Drummond set a single-game record for free throw incompetence by shooting 13-of-36. During that season, Drummond shot 36 percent across 7.2 attempts per game. Last season, Drummond again logged one of the worst free throw campaigns ever. He shot 39 percent across 4.4 attempts per game. That was good for -7.62 Player Rater points.
This season? How about 63 percent across 4.4 attempts. As in, Drummond is currently shooting 63.2 percent at the line, the same guy who has a career average of 38.9 percent. Two weeks ago, he went 14-of-16 on his way to 24 total points. If I were asked to compile a list of fantasy basketball players who suffered the most from lackluster free throw performance, Drummond would have ranked number one on that list last year. This year? He’s barely top-15.
Drummond is bending his knees, controlling his breath and displaying a steep improvement in technique this season. It’s Tim Duncan-esque, when you consider the jump that Duncan took from 70 percent to 82 percent in 2012-13.
What do you see when you look at the top ten? Guards who excel at driving to the hoop and drawing contact, of course. Oh, and Kevin Love.
For all of the attention paid to Ricky Rubio‘s field goal percentage woes, many forget that Rubio is elite in not two, but three fantasy categories: Assists, steals and free throw percentage.
High free throw impact is also a good way of anticipating fantasy consistency. Steady performers from the line always have a dependable base beneath their production. I admit, free throws aren’t the most scintillating topic, but paying a little extra attention and occasionally sorting the Player Rater by free throw percentage is a good little way to calibrate your fantasy perspective.