It looks like I’m going to miss on at least three first-round picks this year. The closest call was taking the Nuggets over the Thunder. The Nuggets have lost a couple of close games and missed a lot of free throws (36 in the first three games), which might make you think that was what cost them a chance in the series. But it isn’t true.Through the first three games against the Thunder, the Nuggets shot 68.7% at the free throw line. During the regular season they shot 76.5%. The Thunder are a good defensive team, but I don’t think it extends to the free throw line. That means that it appears the Thunder benefited from some dumb luck; Denver happened to shoot poorly at the worst time. What would have happened if the Nuggets had shot like they had all season long? We’ll play the expected value game.
Game 1: Kenyon Martin was 2 of 4 at the line. He was a 58.3% shooter during the regular season, so he ‘should’ have made 2.3 free throws. Obviously he can’t make partial free throws, but we’re going to add them up for the whole team and see how it shakes out. Similarly, Gallinari was 4 of 6; he should have made 4.6. If we add it all up, the Nuggets actually shot 21 of 33 but should have made 22.76. That’s one or two points lost in a four-point loss; combined with a correct call on Perkins’ goaltend and it might have given the Nuggets the win. But we’re only looking at one or two points lost at the line.
Game 2: The Nuggets were 28 of 37 and should have been 26 of 37, or two points worse. They lost this game on the boards; the Thunder got 17 offensive rebounds and ended up taking 13 more shots. More importantly here, they actually did better than expected at the line.
Game 3: The Nuggets were 30 of 45 in a game they lost by 3. They should have made 31. So again, Denver only left a point or two off the board from the free throw line.
So across three games, the Nuggets missed 36 free throws, which is… pretty much exactly what you would have expected if you had known how many they would take and who was going to shoot them. Nene has underperformed, shooting 58.3% instead of his regular season 71.1%, but other players happened to shoot better than expected to even things out. Why did the TNT broadcasters make it seem like the Nuggets were doing so badly? Well, in one sense they are; shooting 68.7% isn’t great. But I think the real issue is that their expected ability was based on the 76.5% from the entire regular season.
Unfortunately, the Nuggets traded Carmelo (82%) and Billups (92%) and got back Chandler (81%), Felton (62%), and Gallinari (77%). So the Nuggets’ regular season percentage was something of a mirage; they were not as good a free throw shooting team as it appeared because they traded two of their three best shooters. Going by per-game averages, the Nuggets actually lost three points a game just at the line: Carmelo and Billups combined for 12.1 makes per game while Chandler, Felton, and Gallinari only add up to 9. I think it makes how well the Nuggets did after the trade even more impressive.
As I post this, the Nuggets are about to avoid the sweep. But they’ll lose at some point; teams don’t come back from 0-3 in the NBA. They could have easily done better, having lost two games by only 3 and 4 points (to be fair, they’re only going to get this win by a similar amount). But the free throw line isn’t to blame.