Free Throws Aren’t Free

How to fix the NBA by eliminating (some) shots from the charity stripe.

James Harden of the Houston Rockets shoots a free throw against the Golden State Warriors during Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena on May 19, 2015, in Oakland, California.
James Harden of the Houston Rockets shoots a free throw against the Golden State Warriors during Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena on May 19, 2015, in Oakland, California.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

On this week’s episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen, Josh Levin spoke with Stefan Fatsis and Kevin Arnovitz about an idea that would make the great game of basketball even better: getting rid of a whole lot of free throws. A transcript of that discussion is below. The conversation has been condensed and edited.

Josh Levin: As I’ve taken to watching most sporting events on DVR, my viewing habits have changed. When I watch golf, I just fast-forward through everyone who isn’t Tiger Woods. It’s only sensible. In baseball, I fast-forward through the whole season—no worries, I’ll just read about the good stuff later. And in basketball, the one thing I will always fast-forward through is the first free throw in a two-free-throw sequence.

Imagine it’s a shooting foul, and James Harden is going to the line for two, because there’s always a shooting foul with James Harden going to the line for two. I’m not going to sit there and twiddle my thumbs while he gets the ball from the ref and spins the ball and shoots the ball. It’s almost certainly going in, and if it doesn’t go in, it’s not going to miss in an interesting way. Since there’s no rebound, the only interesting thing that could happen on the first of two free throws is an air ball, and that’s maybe a three-times-a-year occurrence.

It’s clear that the first of two free throws is an extremely skippable sports moment. So how can we fix this? Eliminating free throws from basketball is not the worst idea in the world. I’ve thought about it a lot, though, and it’s hard to come up with a workable plan for how you’d eliminate free throws entirely.

But I’m a huge fan of a half measure that Kevin Arnovitz wrote about in 2014, in a piece on ESPN headlined, “Is One Trip to the Free-Throw Line Enough?” My answer is an emphatic “Yes.”

Here’s the explanation from Kevin’s article:

The concept was this: A player fouled in the act of shooting or in a penalty situation would attempt only a single free throw. If that player was shooting a 2-point shot or in a penalty situation at the time of the foul, the free throw attempt would be worth two points. If that player was fouled in the act of launching a 3-point shot, he’d go to the line for a single shot worth three points.

As of 2014, such a move would’ve reduced 47 free-throw attempts per game in the NBA to about 26.

Stefan Fatsis: It’s too bad baseball doesn’t have free throws, because that would be an easy way to shorten the game.

Levin: Kevin, the peg for this story was that this was allegedly being considered in what was then known as the NBA D-League, the minor league. How seriously was it being considered?

Kevin Arnovitz: There was a point about four or five years ago where the D-League—now the G League—was truly, “Hey, let’s try anything.” My sense is they’ve gotten a little more conservative, where they actually see the G League as a product in and of itself, not merely an incubator for zany NBA-reform ideas. So they’ve backed off it, is my understanding.

I just think it’s so patently obvious that it would be a better sport if you could eliminate these extra free throws—that is a substantial amount of dead time in an NBA game. I proposed this at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference a few weeks ago, and a representative from the league suggested that in the final two minutes of a game we’d have to go back to the more conventional rule. They have run the numbers and feel like this free-throw reform might eliminate more comeback attempts.

Fatsis: Well, and also the incentive to hack a bad shooter would only go up, right? I mean, it’s one shot, the guy makes 50 percent …

Levin: I don’t know. Would it go up? What it does is increase variance. The most common outcome when you hack a 50-percent free-throw shooter is he makes one of two, for 1 point. In this scenario, it would average out to being 1 point, but you would only ever score 0 or 2. You noted in your piece, Kevin, we would still preserve the “and-1,” meaning there would still be certain free throws that would be worth 1 point. And so you could be a 75-percent free-throw shooter but not score 75 percent of the possible points on your free throws, if you happen to make more of your 1-point free throws than your 2-point free throws.

There are certain ideas in sports—like this thing they’re trying in the Basketball Tournament, the Elam Ending, which caps the score—that are really cool ideas that are just not going to happen. But this is an idea that’s both innovative and I think could theoretically happen, and would be really good for fans and for the league.

Arnovitz: I don’t think it’s all that radical. It doesn’t change anything about the scoring system. The fundamental shot is the same. With the attention span of Generation Z, or whatever the next thing is, I think we’re going to get to a point where productions of any kind that are two hours and 20 minutes—be they motion pictures, be they sporting events—have to adapt. We might get to a point where the NBA, down the road another decade or so, starts experiencing the same paranoia baseball does. We just have to shorten these games. And it is just an easy 10 minutes—it is the easiest 10 minutes.

Levin: You’re cutting out the right 10 minutes.

Arnovitz: It’s your initial point, right Josh? Which is, if I look away now, I’m not going to miss anything. The idea is to create entertainment where if I look away for a moment, I might miss something. That becomes an easy reform to ensure that you don’t have that dead time.

Fatsis: Could players argue, though, that foul shots actually give them a rest to make them better players down the road, for the rest of the game?

Arnovitz: To me, that’s the best case against it. These guys should be at peak performance in the fourth quarter of important games, and these moments serve as the rest in their interval workout.