Decoding Free Throws

Why can’t some NBA players shoot free throws?

It seems simple. But when you dive in, you realize that it’s a much more intricate problem. We know that countless teams have had infinite time and money to solve this problem, but you still have superstars that can’t shoot any better than someone chosen at random in your neighborhood gym. 

Let’s rule out some arguments. 

It’s not because they are tall. The NBA is filled with tall people that can shoot. Look at Kevin Durant or Dirk Nowitzki. 

It’s not genetics. We’ve already dug into genetics. Gene’s change over time, anyways. There may be some portion that is inherited, but it shouldn’t prevent anyone with twenty years of experience from shooting 70% from the line. 

It’s not the amount of practice they put in. These athletes have dedicated their lives to the sport, so it’s not fair to say that practice is the difference. I think it’s safe to say that Shaq spent at least as much time shooting free throws in practice as Steve Nash. 

Your best athlete is never your best free throw shooter. Unless, you just don’t have any above average shooters. The mindset of an athlete is fast. And the faster the mind, the better the athlete. But at the solitude of the stripe, accuracy and reproduction of the stroke are key, and just like pitchers are endurance athletes, your best shooters will be endurance athletes as well.

Think about it: LeBron, Kyrie, Iverson. Not to mention Russell Westbrook and John Wall, who are shooting under 70% from the line.  They certainly shoot at a higher clip than you or me, but they will never touch Steve Nash or Steph Curry.

Why couldn’t Shaq make free throws?

It’s because these strong guys typically have much more energy than the shorter guys. When they run the court, it takes them longer to settle in. Basically, he uses more energy to do the same amount of work, in part, because he’s big, but also because he’s quick. The faster his mind cycles during his dash down the court, the longer it will take it to slow down enough to shoot. And they don’t give him any more time to shoot just because he’s bigger or pushing himself harder than anyone else. So he has to shoot before he’s ready. Before he’s comfortably at rest. So he flips a coin. 

Shaq, Deandre Jordan, and countless others know only one speed on the court, and that’s full speed. Maximum exertion. The problem is the free throw line rewards those who play in the opposing mindset. We’ve explored how pitchers are endurance athletes. The best shooters are endurance athletes as well. Not because shooting free throws takes any kind of aerobic capacity, but the higher the capacity, the lower the energy of the player when he starts shooting. And that means a shot that’s easier to replicate, and more accurate. 

What is your typical rate of play? How much do you exert yourself to play at that speed? The more efficient and effortless your movement is, the less added strain you’ll have when you go to the line after getting fouled. And the less time you’ll need to settle in to a state of mind that can sink free throws with more precision. 

Sources:

  1. https://www.noahbasketball.com/blog/the-best-free-throw-shooters-in-nba-history
  2. https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.usatoday.com/amp/79174958
  3. https://www.mensjournal.com/sports/top-10-most-athletic-nba-players-millennium/2-blake-griffin-clippers/
  4. https://www.usab.com/youth/news/2010/01/the-science-behind-your-free-throws.aspx
  5. https://www.82games.com/random23.htm
  6. https://ftw.usatoday.com/2018/10/lebron-james-shocking-free-throw-stat
  7. https://stats.nba.com/player/2544/traditional/?Season=2018-19&SeasonType=Regular%20Season&Split=clutch

Rethinking Home Field Advantage

Everyone seems to have a theory about home field advantage. Here’s one you haven’t heard before. 

Freakonomics says it’s the referees. There is probably some truth to this, but what about sports that do not have referees? Since 1983, the host team has won the Ryder Cup 70% of the time. So there is something else at play here.

There are more fouls in important games. But why? If we say that the referees are so crucial to the game outcomes, it’s probably because there is more pressure on them. FiveThirtyEight’s blog did a piece about the home advantage playoff “boost.” Strangely enough, hockey does not get a boost at all.

In baseball, playing at home is only gives you a 2.6% edge.  That’s really low if you’re thinking that crowd, umpires, and atmosphere play a major role here. Not to mention the added advantage of the home team batting last.

Soccer has the best home field advantage of any mainstream sport. The home team wins 49% of the time, and the away team only wins 29% of the time. Draws make up the other 22%.

Also worth noting, Denver athletics have the top home field advantage in every sport [Except hockey. Calgary has the highest advantage in hockey, and has an altitude of 3500 feet]. So altitude definitely plays a role here. 

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It’s clear that it’s the sports. Not the franchises.

So why the huge difference between home field advantage in soccer and basketball?

Being similar endurance sports, you’d expect similar results. The home team in soccer wins 49% of the time, the away team wins 29% of the time, and they draw 22% of the time. If we say that half of the draws are wins, and half are losses you get a home field advantage right on par with that of basketball [8%-10%].

Why doesn’t home field advantage in baseball matter much at all? 

Home advantage in baseball is under 3%. That’s almost a fair game. Take a look at the endurance athletes, that make decisions that impact the play of the game. It’s the pitchers, and they have much less control over a game than a quarterback does on a football field.  Not to mention, they may be pulled before they complete the game for match ups , poor performance, or if they just didn’t have good “stuff” that day. So even if pitchers had a decent control over the action, they may only throw for a couple innings.

Your batters and fielders in baseball are your speed and strength guys. They are less effected by the environment, and translate better to road games.

What conclusions can we make here? 

The main decision makers in the game, what type of athletes are they? If they are endurance athletes, home field advantage is much greater. For example, take the quarterbacks of the NFL. They are going to be the individuals most effected by the change in environment, and since they basically run the show, it’s a much more dramatic home field advantage.

In soccer and basketball, most of the athletes are endurance athletes and decision makers. The new environment has a small but measurable impact in the athletes, changing their timing, essentially. This is why the warm up is essential, even to players who have been at it their whole lives. Conditions are never exactly the same.

Your speed/strength athletes will be effected much less by the conditions. If you’re strong at sea level, you’re strong at 5000 feet. But timing is much more complicated than that. A basketball shot isn’t about how far you can shoot or how high you can jump. It’s a very precise, fluid motion. There’s a lot more room for error around the rim, so your “bigs” in basketball should be less effected by the environment. 

Translating this to football, the majority of the athletes are speed and strength guys. So naturally, the sport is much less effected by home field advantage. The quarterbacks are the athletes most affected by the new environment, and because in most NFL games they play a major role in the outcome, it comes to reason that home field advantage should be close behind soccer and basketball. Obviously, this line of thought has its limitations. Alabama has the biggest, fastest, and strongest players in college football, so the quarterback really doesn’t matter.

The sport is the most important factor in determining the strength of your home field advantage. The nature of the athletes controlling play is more important than altitude or the referees in determining how many wins you have at home. 

Sources:

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Home_advantage
  2. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/in-126-years-english-football-has-seen-13475-nil-nil-draws/
  3. https://deadspin.com/which-teams-in-each-sport-have-the-biggest-home-field-a-1828880402
  4. https://statsbylopez.netlify.com/post/playing-at-home/
  5. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/a-home-playoff-game-is-a-big-advantage-unless-you-play-hockey/
  6. https://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/12/sports/soccer/12score.html
  7. https://www.forbes.com/sites/sap/2012/07/25/home-field-advantage/#6598fad73fdc
  8. https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.sbnation.com/platform/amp/tennis/2013/8/9/4599096/tennis-home-court-advantage-us-open
  9. https://www.sbnation.com/2011/1/19/1940438/home-field-advantage-sports-stats-data
  10. https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.cbssports.com/fantasy/baseball/news/home-away-splits-factor-into-making-fantasy-pitching-decisions—but-theres-a-twist/amp/
  11. https://www.google.com/amp/s/gizmodo.com/the-surprising-way-jet-lag-impacts-major-league-basebal-1791521616/amp
  12. https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.isportsweb.com/2016/06/29/mlb-analytics-statistical-discrepancies-home-away-games/amp/
  13. http://review.chicagobooth.edu/magazine/spring-2014/home-field-advantage-the-facts-and-the-fiction
  14. https://bleacherreport.com/articles/1604854-how-much-does-home-field-advantage-matter-in-soccer
  15. https://bleacherreport.com/articles/1520496-how-important-is-home-court-advantage-in-the-nba
  16. https://www.numberfire.com/nfl/news/7490/the-best-home-and-road-quarterbacks-of-2015

Clutch is a mindset

Steph Curry is a good golfer…a really good golfer. He essentially competed on the professional level, and didn’t embarrass himself.

So how does that connect to being clutch? Bear with me.

Here’s why his golf ability shouldn’t surprise you: he’s the best shooter in the NBA. You could probably argue he’s the best shooter in NBA history. How does that translate to golf? Well in fundamentals, it doesn’t. But the mindset is the same. The state of mind it takes to replicate shots from beyond the arc is similar to that of a professional golfer.

What you’re going to say is that Steph’s dad was in the NBA, so he’s just got good genes. Believe that if you want. Tell your kids they can never shoot like that. They can.

The fundamentals are easy, the mindset is what takes practice. You can teach a kid how to shoot a basketball in an hour. But to have him be able to pull a three with confidence at the buzzer in the NBA finals, there are only a couple people on the planet even qualified to have that conversation.

Think about all the guys you knew growing up that were “naturally athletic.” Maybe you knew that guy that was good at everything. This is not a coincidence. The mind and body work best together at a certain state, and they have just found it. Malcom Gladwell wrote about it taking 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything. That may be true, but some people get head starts, and this is how.

Steve Kerr [Steph’s coach] uses the Inner Game of Tennis for psychology in pressure situations. [article] This book is about the psychology of an athlete, and how to separate your thinking self from your playing self, and how to perform your best.

It’s all the same. When you find the infamous zone you’ve found your ground state. When you’ve removed yourself from the equation and let your body do what it already knows how to do.

Don’t let your mind get in the way of your performance. It has no place on the court, whether it be basketball, tennis, or golf. When you start thinking, you start losing.