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Detroit Pistons free throw shooting woes: What is the problem?

In the first of many reviews on the Detroit Pistons' 2014-2015 season, let's take a look at what ails the Detroit Pistons at the free throw line.

Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last few seasons, the Pistons have gradually built up an identity.  They've become known as a fearsome interior team, especially in terms of rebounding, and have led the league in O-boards the last two seasons, as well as being top 5 in total rebounds over both seasons.  However, another stereotype has arisen, and it is not good; Detroit is a bad free throw shooting team.

Season Team FT % League Rank
2014/15 .703 29
2013/14 .670 30
2012/13 .699 29
2011/12 .752 18
2010/11 .737 27
2009/10 .728 27

As we can see, Detroit has been bad at shooting free throws for the past half decade, with an aberration in 2011-2012.  The question is, why is Detroit so bad at shooting foul shots?  Is it distribution of foul shots?  Personnel?  A vengeful former usher continuously opening the door mid shot?  Let's examine what the cause may be for Detroit's troubles this season.

The Pistons have used 20 players this season, most of which are respectable free throw shooters.  Let's take a look at the following table and see the career free throw numbers of all 20 players Detroit has used this season (including this season).

Player Career FT %
Spencer Dinwiddie .912
Jodie Meeks .881
D.J. Augustin .873
Reggie Jackson .856
Caron Butler .847
Gigi Datome .818
Kyle Singler .811
Brandon Jennings .802
Anthony Tolliver .784
John Lucas III .768
Jonas Jerebko .764
Tayshaun Prince .757
Shawne Williams .755
Cartier Martin .729
KCP .717
Quincy Miller .706
Greg Monroe .693
Joel Anthony .661
Josh Smith .633
Andre Drummond .397

As we can see, there are plenty of historically good free throw shooters who have suited up for Detroit this season, but how do their career averages compare to their 2014/15 season with Detroit?

Player (games played) FT% (2014/15 w/Detroit) FT% (career) FTA (per game 2014/15 w/Detroit) FTA (per game career)
Anthony (49) .682 .661 0.4 0.9
Augustin (54) .870 .873 3.1 2.6
Butler (78) .902 .847 0.8 3.4
Caldwell-Pope (82) .696 .717 1.9 1.4
Datome (3) .000 .818 0 0.2
Dinwiddie (34) .912 .912 1.0 1.0
Drummond (82) .389 .397 4.5 3.8
Jackson (27) .796 .856 3.8 1.8
Jennings (41) .839 .802 3.5 3.6
Jerebko (46) .861 .764 0.8 1.5
Lucas III (21) 1.000 .768 0.2 0.4
Martin (23) .000 .729 0 0.9
Meeks (60) .906 .881 2.7 1.9
Miller (4) .000 .706 0 1.0
Monroe (69) .750 .693 4.9 4.2
Prince (23) .655 .757 1.3 2.1
Singler (54) .806 .811 0.7 1.5
Smith (28) .468 .633 4.0 4.4
Tolliver (52) .794 .784 1.2 1.3
Williams (19) 1.000 .755 0.4 0.8

And here is the free throw rates (number of FT attempts vs. FG attempts).

Player Free Throw Rate
Joel Anthony .355
D.J. Augustin .367
Caron Butler .154
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope .163
Gigi Datome .000
Spencer Dinwiddie .201
Andre Drummond .380
Reggie Jackson .245
Brandon Jennings .263
Jonas Jerebko .182
John Lucas III .048
Cartier Martin .000
Jodie Meeks .300
Quincy Miller .000
Greg Monroe .394
Tayshaun Prince .181
Kyle Singler .103
Josh Smith .284
Anthony Tolliver .197
Shawne Williams .117

But Ben, what does this data tell us?  Well, good denizens of DBB, this shows how frequently a player has gotten to the line this season in relation to their career.  What we've found, is that our high volume free throw shooters appear to be the weaker marksman from the line, such as Andre Drummond, Josh Smith, and Greg Monroe.  We can quantify this by showing how many free throws a player has taken in relation to the team.

The free throw rates tell us who is being aggressive in their time on the court.  It's probably best to ignore small sample size players like Joel Anthony, but the rest is still pretty damning.  Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe both have high free throw rates, but for different reasons.  Drummond's rate is likely due to Hack-a-Dre while Monroe is simply good at drawing contact.  This is also what made D.J. Augustin valuable, as his high free throw rate led to lots of easy points, likewise with Jodie Meeks.  Brandon Jennings and Reggie Jackson could have higher rates, but the big problem is KCP.  His rate indicates that he spends a lot of time outside hoisting jumpers as opposed to taking it inside.  Although, to be fair, he did get a lot of non-calls this season.

For the 2014-15 season, the Pistons attempted 1,838 free throws, good for 17th in the league, so they were roughly an average team at getting to the stripe.  However, they only converted 1,292 free throws, which is 26th in the league, which shows that while Detroit is decent at getting to the line, they can't convert, and as such are leaving free points at the line.

On average, Detroit missed 6.6 free throws per game, while only allowing an average of one point more than their opponents per game, perhaps explaining why Detroit lost so many close games this season.

Let's see who took the most free throws this past season:

Player FTA % of team's FTA
Joel Anthony 22 1.2%
D.J. Augustin 169 9.2%
Caron Butler 61 3.3%
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope 158 8.6%
Gigi Datome 0 0%
Spencer Dinwiddie 34 1.8%
Andre Drummond 365 19.9%
Reggie Jackson 103 5.6%
Brandon Jennings 143 7.8%
Jonas Jerebko 36 2.0%
John Lucas III 5 0.3%
Cartier Martin 0 0%
Jodie Meeks 160 8.7%
Quincy Miller 0 0%
Greg Monroe 336 18.3%
Tayshaun Prince 29 1.6%
Kyle Singler 36 2.0%
Josh Smith 111 6.0%
Anthony Tolliver 63 3.4%
Shawne Williams 7 0.4%
TOTAL 1838 -

There is the incriminating evidence.  The failed big three of Drummond, Monroe and Smith combined for a whopping 44.2 percent of the team's free throws for the season, and converted at a rate of 54.9 percent (446-812).

In fairness to Monroe, he shot his free throws at a career best rate of 75%, which really highlights how tragically bad the other two were.  Jodie Meeks and D.J. Augustin were the next two most frequent foul shooters, but that doesn't mean much because Meeks only played 60 games and Augustin 54.  In fact, the only two Pistons to play all 82 games, Drummond and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, were bad free throw shooters who dragged down the team.  You cannot have a player take 20 percent of your free throws and only convert them at a 39 percent clip.  In fairness, KCP isn't a bad free throw shooter historically, but when your starting lineup consists of Drummond and Greg Monroe, you can't have your starting 2-guard shoot under 70 percent from the line, too.

Just one last quick point, to highlight how poor KCP was from the foul line, here are the other guards with a sub 70 free throw percentage, who qualify for league leaders in minutes per game.

Player Percentage
Kirk Hinrich .700
C.J. McCollum .699
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope .696
Michael Carter-Williams .694
Tyreke Evans .694
Dion Waiters .680
Ray McCallum .679
Austin Rivers .675
Iman Shumpert .672
Jameer Nelson .667
Marcus Smart .646
Tony Allen .627
Lance Stephenson .627
Dante Exum .625
Kent Bazemore .600
Andre Iguodala .596
Elfrid Payton .551
Nick Calathes .533
Rajon Rondo .397

Importantly, this list is guards with a sub-70 free throw percentage who qualify for minutes per game league leaders, as the only ones on this list who qualify for FT% are Carter-Williams and Evans.  What offers a shimmer of hope, though, is that KCP has a decent long ball % (tied for 4th behind McCollum, Bazemore and Iguodala), and a decent TS% (one of only 7 on this list above .500).  The point is, I think it's reasonable to expect KCP to revert back to a decent percentage next season, as, based on eye-tests, he appears to be a better shooter than most on this list.

What we can garner from this analysis is that generally our worst free throw shooters are the players getting the most attempts, and hence the team percentage is more likely to gravitate towards those players' percentages as opposed to a more balanced outcome.  It appears our better shooters need to do a better job of attacking and drawing free throws.  Two players good at this were D.J. Augustin and Brandon Jennings, but one was traded and the other missed half the season, so the likes of Reggie Jackson and KCP need to be more aggressive in drawing contact.

Now your thoughts, DBB.