Ban the Free Throw

This will be short. Time is of the essence.

Last night’s game between the Magic and Warriors prompted much debate about Mark Jackson’s “Hack-a-Dwight” strategy (I might mean “criticism” instead of “debate” but I have yet to canvass everyone on the topic). Related to the conversation regarding whether Jackson should have allowed Howard 39 FTs is another I want to at least broach: Should the NBA even have free throws in the first place?

I love basketball, love attending Dubs games, but this contest was a slog. Perhaps someone enjoyed the strategic element, but I’m guessing that person owns a DVR and more free time than a dungeon-ridden ghost. The free throw is a frustrating game stoppage that isn’t entirely a stoppage. There is not enough time for the broadcaster to sell an ad spot, and not enough time for the viewer to make himself a sandwich. Unless the dude airballs his try, we’re unlikely to remember a single free throw in quarters one-through-three. I have been watching basketball for two decades and despite all the time spent on free throws, there are no made regular season free throws in memory for me.

I know what you’re thinking: Yes, this game had too many free throws, but this was an extreme example. My counter: It was an extreme example that brought a dreary element of basketball to the fore. Honestly, do you like free throws? Do you enjoy watching free throws in quarters one-through-three?

My proposal is simple: Take every situation that would require a free throw and grant one point. Two points for two shots, three points for three. With freebies counting as roughly .75 points per shot, this is nearly what happens anyway. Yes, scoring would go up, but scoring went up when the shotclock was introduced. Improved game flow outweighed other concerns.

Big men with bad strokes would be wholly incorporated into the contests, and no longer would the beauty of hoops be derailed for a hack-a-whomever.

I have heard it asserted that the fouled man should “earn it” from the line. No freebies, dude (Wait, isn’t it a “free throw”? Isn’t the idea to punish the opposition?). I would be sympathetic to this argument were free throw shooting not so damned hard to improve. Some players have managed to make strides–Webber, Malone–but the skill level is roughly immutable for most. From Kevin Pelton:

“The experience of Webber and Malone should serve to inspire players working tirelessly in the gym. At the same time, a handful of examples do not set reasonable expectations. In general, history tells us that players are who they are at the free throw line, which is worth remembering the next time you complain about missed free throws.”

So if we’re demanding that people “earn” something by improving a (largely) immutable skill, then what are we demanding? According to Hollinger, we’re demanding that players be good at something that is at odds with qualities that made them great basketball players in the first place:

“Besides height, the physical trait that marks most NBA basketball players is that they have unusually long arms and, in many cases, enormous hands. This is tremendously useful on a basketball court in general, but at the free throw line it’s an active impediment.”

People are reluctant to change anything about a sport, unless the reform has been accepted in other sports. I personally hate instant replay, but I am in the minority here. Fans got used to reviewed calls in football, and now can accept its application in other athletic fields. I think replay review to be a drastic measure in hoops–we’re going back in time to change what fans just reacted to. But instead of harping on how it’s so unfair for replay to be socially accepted while free throws are regarded as sacred, I will frame this as a compromise: If we are to slow the game down with replays, let us excise free throws.

If you like the drama of free throws, like the hoary concept of “earning it at the line,” then here is another compromise: Free throws shall only exist in the fourth quarter. That way, you can get your Nick Anderson  moment if you are so sickly inclined.

But either way, fewer free throws will speed the game up to its benefit. All we have to lose is the time we’ll gain.


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  1. [...] Ethan Sherwood Strauss of HoopSpeak says to get rid of free throws:  “My proposal is simple: Take every situation that would require a free throw and grant one point. Two points for two shots, three points for three. With freebies counting as roughly .75 points per shot, this is nearly what happens anyway. Yes, scoring would go up, but scoring went up when the shotclock was introduced. Improved game flow outweighed other concerns. Big men with bad strokes would be wholly incorporated into the contests, and no longer would the beauty of hoops be derailed for a hack-a-whomever.” [...]

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