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 over the past four years, 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%
Average 113 of 341 33.1%

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 last two years of NCAA Division I college games were also analyzed. There was an even higher percentage of close games at the college level, and these 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 free throw statistics by James Brocato