FTA’s and the Rise of Giannis


Happy New Year! Or soon to be New Year!

As noted last summer, this website will occasionally put out a piece or two when your SOB Editor finds the time and motivation to pen some thoughts to add to the fine Bucks blogosphere. The past two weeks have been a celebration of all things Giannis, highlighted by Bill Simmon’s piece last week where he proclaimed Giannis as the NBA’s next great superstar.

The superstardom of Giannis prompted some thoughts as to perhaps the key statistic relating to his rise to prominence. Namely free throw attempts per game (FTA or FTA’s). Many NBA players have produced very impressive seasons with high scoring, rebounding or assist totals. But few of those players become the superstars capable of carrying their teams to an NBA championship. The ability to get to the line seems to be one of those correlating factors. Are FTA’s a byproduct of a great NBA player? Why yes, yes they are.

This is why it is important to take stock of where Giannis ranks compared to historical Bucks and recent NBA superstars in the category of free throws attempted per game. As most veteran NBA watchers know, getting to the free throw line can be a major strategic advantage for a player and their team. Not only do you get two free shots but you also rack up the fouls against your opponent, potentially neutralizing their ability to tighten up the defense down the stretch and/or depleting their lineup via foul trouble.

There is a fairly significant correlation between how often a player gets to the free throw line and their impact on the court as evidenced by the current top 20 in the NBA in this category. Note Giannis is ranked ninth overall this season. He’s rising up that list quickly. How quickly you may ask?

For his career, Giannis is averaging 4.4 FTA per game.

For this current season that rises to 7.7 FTA per game

For the month of December that rises to 9.0 FTA per game

For the last five games that rises to 12.8 FTA per game (shooting 86%!)

This means that Giannis is not only getting the respect of the refs when he makes his move on offense, it also implies that other teams are finding it imperative to deploy double and triple teams in order to stop him, thus increasing the number of times he is fouled.

Giannis being blanketed by the other team’s defense also opens things up for his teammates by attracting defenders away from them. Add in his fantastic passing ability to feed teammates out of the double-teams and it all explains why the Bucks are 15-15 without Khris Middleton while winning some games by large margins.

How does Giannis compare with former Bucks?

Below is a chart with notable former Bucks and the best season they achieved in their NBA careers as it relates to FTA’s. It also lists their career average in that category.

Bucks Player Best Season FTA per game Career FTA per game
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 9.1 6.0
Sidney Moncrief 7.9 5.6
Michael Redd 7.8 4.8
Sam Cassell 6.8 4.2
Terry Cummings 6.5 4.0
Glenn Robinson 6.2 4.4
Marques Johnson 5.7 4.7
Ray Allen 5.6 3.8
Average for Bucks Notables 7.0 4.7

One of the weaknesses of the 2001 era Big 3 team was the fact none of the big three were true superstars. Yes, they were All-Stars and Ray Allen later went on to win titles and set records partly due to his longevity, but none of the Big 3 were on quite the same level as their contemporaries of the time, namely Shaq, Kobe, Iverson, Duncan, Robinson, etc., all of whom could basically show up on the court with four other guys from the D-league and have a shot at 45-50 wins in a given season.

The Big 3 had their issues with team defense and supporting cast but they also lived and died by the jumpshot. None of them were able to impose their will offensively on nights when their shot wasn’t falling or the defense was taking away their favorite spots on the floor. That fact is somewhat validated by their low FTA’s per game. Even during the 2000-01 season, Ray had only 4.8 FTA per game, Glenn with 4.0 FTA per game and Sam with 4.3 FTA per game. Interestingly Ray’s career average of 3.8 FTA per game does provide debate fodder for the comments from his former coach George Karl, who when here whispered to others about Ray’s aversion to contact preventing him from taking his game to the next level.

How about Stars who won a Title?

In their prime, these players got to the line. Quite a bit. And they won NBA titles.

Notable Title Winning Impact Players Best Season FTA per game Career FTA per game
Shaquille O’Neal 13.1 9.3
Michael Jordan 11.9 8.2
David Robinson 11.6 8.3
Dwayne Wade 10.7 7.8
Paul Pierce 10.3 6.5
LeBron James 10.3 8.3
Kobe Bryant 10.2 7.4
Dirk Nowitzki 9.1 5.9
Tim Duncan 8.5 6.1
Hakeem Olajuwon 8.0 6.2
Kevin Garnett 6.7 4.2
Stephen Curry 5.2 3.8
Average for Title Winner Notables 9.6 6.8

The primary superstar from every NBA title winner since 1991 is listed above except for those pesky 2004 Pistons who defied the super-duper star system for one brief season. Their leader in FTA per game for the 2003-04 season was Chauncey Billups at 5.9 FTA per game (and he made 88% of them).

Of the players listed above, Steph Curry is well below the others in terms of FTA per game due to the fact he’s perhaps the NBA’s greatest outside shooter ever. He doesn’t need to drive when he can score three points at will from 25 feet out. But the next lowest ranked player in that grouping is Kevin Garnett at 6.7 FTA’s per game during the 2004-05 season when Minnesota finished with a 44-38 record. In the course of numerous online fan debates over the years, Garnett is frequently cited as an example of a superstar that couldn’t win a title in Minnesota because his surrounding cast was so poor. Interestingly, he also is the player with the lowest FTA’s for a season high and lowest career FTA per game of the players listed above other than Curry. Did KG mix it up enough on offense or did he settle for jumpers making less of an impact on his team’s success?  We’ll just roll that one out there and leave it at that.

As always, there are outliers to everything. Without doing a scientific search of every player in NBA history, a brief memory jog turns up one player who was fabulous at getting the free throw line but was never an impact player for successful team, namely former Milwaukee Buck Corey Maggette (aka “Bad Porn” as he was known in the NBA).  Maggette had a career average of 6.8 FTA and a career best season of 10.0 FTA per game in the 2004-05 season when he played for the Clippers.

What Does This Mean For the Bucks?

We’ll know more at the end of the current 2016-17 season but it isn’t out of the question that Giannis reaches or exceeds the career single-season best 9.1 FTA’s per game that Kareem achieved during his rookie year with the Bucks. What these free throw attempt numbers for Giannis really mean is that the Bucks finally have their true superstar we’ve all been waiting for. Now it is up to team ownership and management to surround him with the best supporting cast they can. In the meantime we’ll be enjoying the Giannis show. He is in rare air right now and it is only going to get better from here.

Go Bucks!

Your SOB Editor aka PaulPressey25 on Twitter

**Remember to vote for Giannis and Jabari as starters for the upcoming All Star Game. Link to vote is here.

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