Lack of Free Throws From Guards Is Primary Reason for Offensive Inconsistency

Published: February 5, 2015

I have been screaming it for weeks – on Twitter, on the podcast, and in the comments section as well, but it is time I put together a coherent piece with numbers that back up my hypothesis. For those who do not know what I am talking about, I have been on my soap box for quite some time now saying that the inconsistency from the Pelicans on the offensive end isn’t that hard to figure out. They are a team that has three high variance offensive player in Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, and Ryan Anderson (and a medium variance guy in Holiday) who can get red-hot and carry a team or get ice cold and sink the Pelicans. They are not unique in that manner, but when other high usage elite offensive players are off on a given night, they offset that by getting to the line. The Pelicans high usage guards and Ryan Anderson simply don’t do that.

Let’s throw Ryan Anderson aside for the purpose of this piece because stretch four’s aren’t on the court to get people in foul trouble and get to the line. And even though Jrue isn’t a super high variance player, he can be a tad inconsistent and his free throw rate is abysmal. The Pelicans three main guards rank 231st (Tyreke), 343rd (Gordon), and 376th (Jrue) in free throw rate amongst all NBA players. Of all current starting guards in the NBA with a usage rate of 19 or higher, only Avery Bradley ranks lower than Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon. There are 11 more guards and wing players in between those guys and Tyreke, but he is still in the bottom 25 percentile. And when you factor in that Tyreke only makes 68% of his free throws, it drops him back down the list. For example, Klay Thompson has a lower free throw rate by a decent margin and has taken 20 fewer free throws, but has made 16 more than Tyreke.

The three main guards on our team have made 231 free throws in 3,830 minutes of action this year. There are 9 guys in the NBA who have made more free throws than that by themselves this season. Russell Westbrook has made 238 in 1,140 minutes this year. Jimmy Butler, a guy who has a lower usage rate than both Holiday and Evans, has 289 made free throws in 1,831 minutes of action. So, in less than half the minutes and with lower usage, Butler gets to the line and makes more free throws than all three of our guards combined. It’s why Jimmy Butler can go 4-10 from the field, including 0-1 from three, and still drop 17 points in a win against Miami. He has games where he can’t hit too (15 games where he shot 40% or worse from the field), but he still remains efficient almost every night because of his ability to get to the line.

Jrue Holiday, meanwhile, also has 15 games where he shot 40% or worse from the field, but in those games he averaged just 1.2 free throw attempts. Tyreke Evans has had 18 such games and is averaging 2.9 free throw attempts in those games (making 2.1 of them). And finally, Eric Gordon has had 12 such games and he is averaging 1.6 free throw attempts in those games. Now, take some time to really think about that. About 40% of the time, our guards have a poor shooting day from the field, and in those games they are destined to be inefficient because, at most, they are only going to get 1-2 free points from the line. And not only do they fail to get free points for themselves, but they fail to help the Pelicans get into the bonus and they fail to get players from other teams in foul trouble.

There are so many benefits to getting to the line that go beyond the two attempts a player gets in that possession, but the Pelicans guards are the worst in the league as a unit when it comes to getting to the stripe. Now, we can waste time blaming the officials, but unless you want to propose some league wide conspiracy theory against the Pels, the truth is that the problem probably lies more with our guards than the officiating. Eric Gordon’s free throw rate has dramatically declined every year since his first knee injury. Tyreke Evans has a career low rate this season, but is average for his career and Jrue Holiday has consistently been amongst the worst in the league since he was drafted in 2009.

Luckily, Anthony Davis has bailed this team out somewhat by getting to the line nearly 7 times a game, but if the Pelicans want a more consistent offense long term, they will either have to subtract a high variance player or two for some low variance, consistent guys or the guards on this team will have to find ways to get to the line more. Gordon has the most potential to solve this problem long-term, because he at least has a track record of getting to the line at a very high rate. Tyreke has some room for growth as well, but he has had a tendency to avoid contact more and more as his career has gone on. As for Jrue, there is absolutely nothing in his history to suggest that he can even get to average with regard to higher usage starting guards.

So next time the Pelicans go through a drought or they underperform and you can’t understand why given all their offensive talent, just look at that column in between 3-pointers and offensive rebounds. Subtract Anthony Davis and Omer Asik’s free throw attempts and see what you have left. In Wednesday’s game against OKC, you would have had the number two – and those were both taken by Ryan Anderson. To take the leap, not only this year but for the next few years and beyond, this team is going to increase the free throw rate of its perimeter players and ball handlers. If they don’t, you will find yourself befuddled by our spurts of offensive ineptitude and frustrated by a team that can beat anybody or lose to anybody on a given night.


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