The Importance of Free Throws

When a team loses a close game, many times one of the primary reasons is missed free throws. The Dallas Mavericks Analytics Department* elected to subjectively define a close game as every game where the two competing teams were within 3 points of each other with one minute or less to play in the fourth quarter. In all NBA regular season and playoff games from 2012 to 2017, those close games occurred the following number of times:

Regular seasons

Games

Percentage

2012-13

393 of 1,229

32%

2013-14

391 of 1,230

31.8%

2014-15

390 of 1,230

31.7%

2015-16

389 of 1,230

31.6%

2016-17

370 of 1,230

30.1%

Average

1,933 of 6,149

31.4%

   

Playoffs

Games

Percentage

2012-13

26 of 85

30.7%

2013-14

35 of 89

39.3%

2014-15

26 of 81

32.1%

2015-16

26 of 86

29.1%

2016-17

19 of 79

24.0%

Average

132 of 420

31.4%

An unusually high percentage of close games occurred in the 2010-11 season, the year the Mavericks won the NBA Championship. In the playoffs that year, 34 of the 81 playoff games were close (42%). Also, free throws became more important as the teams progressed, with 24% in round two, 40% in round three and 50% in the NBA finals. In that Championship year, the Dallas Mavericks shot 77.7% in the regular season and 80.9% in the playoffs.

The 2015-2017 NCAA Division I college games were also analyzed. There was an even higher percentage of close games at the college level, and those calculations don’t take into account the fact that many of the missed free throws were the first on a 1 and 1 scoring opportunity.

Regular seasons

Games

Percentage

2015-16

1,682 of 5,149

32.7%

2016-17

1,725 of 5,338

32.3%

Average

3,407 of 10,487

32.5%

   

NCAA 64 team playoffs

Games

Percentage

2015-16

54 of 143

37.8%

2016-17

42 of 138

30.4%

Average

96 of 281

34.2%

*NBA and NCAA free throw statistics by James Brocato, Dallas Mavericks

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