Three games into March, the San Antonio Spurs have been involved in some wild finishes, as it took a game winning shot from Kawhi Leonard last week for the Spurs to defeat the Indiana Pacers, then overtime was needed in back-to-back nights against the New Orleans Pelicans and Minnesota Timberwolves over the weekend for San Antonio to win their first three March games.
For the most part, the Spurs’ issues have mainly come on the offensive end, where shots simply aren’t going in. The Spurs are shooting 43.0% from the floor and just 26.3% from 3-point range during the three-game stretch. However, one area where the Spurs are struggling is from the free throw line. In three March games, San Antonio is shooting 69.9% from the free throw line on 24.3 attempts. When it comes to the quarter that matters the most in a game – the fourth, the Spurs are struggling there too, as they’ve shot 66.7% in the March fourth quarters on 8.0 attempts.
So, I was interested in looking at two questions: 1) Are the Spurs just in a shooting slump, or are there any specific concerns with some of their free throw shooters? 2) Are there any signs that specific players might struggle from the free throw line in crunch time?
Are the Spurs just in a free throw shooting slump, or are there any specific concerns with some of their shooters?
First, the table below shows the Spurs’ nine shooters who get to the free throw line over 1.0 times per game.
|Player||Free Throw Attempts Per Game|
Next, the chart below shows the Spurs’ nine players’ free throw percentages, from their career percentage (gray), percentage for this season (green), percentage in fourth quarters this season (red), and their percentage over the team’s last 30 games (blue).
As the data shows above, eight of the Spurs’ free throw shooters this season (green bar) are shooting either slightly above or below their career mark (gray bar). The one notable player who isn’t shooting up to his career expectation from the free throw line this season is Gasol, who shoots a career 75.3%, but his average is currently only at 66.4%.
Digging a bit deeper, it’s unknown why Gasol’s percentage has dropped this season, but part of why might be because he’s visiting the free throw line much less this season compared to last. With the Chicago Bulls, Gasol attempted 4.0 free throws per game and he shot 79.2%, which likely allowed him to develop his rhythm during a game. With San Antonio, Gasol’s attempts have declined to 2.8 free throw attempts, because he’s the team’s third scoring option from the free throw line most nights. Also, if you go back to the summer with Spain, Gasol struggled at the free throw line in the Olympics too, as he made just 60% of his free throw attempts in eight games.
For now, Gasol is on pace to finish with his lowest free throw shooting percentage of his career, as his lowest to this point was 68.9% from the free throw line with the Memphis Grizzlies back in the 2006 season. Looking at the bright side, though, Gasol has increased his percentage up to 70.2% over the last 15 games he’s played in, and one also should consider he suffered a broken finger injury recently, where he missed over a month of basketball.
Some other players to watch in the Spurs’ last 21 games of the season are Parker, Lee and Mills, who have all been shooting less than 70% from the free throw line in the Spurs’ last 30 games, though Lee and Mills don’t visit the line as frequently as Parker does on the average night.
Are there any signs specific players might struggle from the free throw line in crunch time?
Looking at the Spurs’ Top-3 free throw shooters per game (Leonard, Aldridge, Gasol), only Leonard, based on this season’s data, is a player who you’d want taking clutch free throws in crunch time. While Aldridge is ok shooting in the fourth quarter of games (80%), it’s the last five minutes of a game that could get worrisome for he and Gasol. The data below was collected from NBA.com and it displays the free throw makes/attempts, free throw percentage and team record for Leonard, Aldridge, and Gasol in the last five minutes of a game when ahead or behind by five points.
As the data shows, in crunch time, Leonard can step up to the plate and knock down his free throws near his career free throw percentage mark. For Aldridge and Gasol this season, that’s been a struggle for both. In the Spurs’ last two overtime games, all three of Leonard (vs NOP), Aldridge (vs MIN) and Gasol (vs NOP) missed a crucial free throw that could have added to their team’s lead to possibly avoid overtime. But, basketball can be like football in that you want to do everything in your power as a team to try not to leave the fate of the game up to your kicker (free throw shooter or game winning shot).
For the Spurs against the Pelicans Friday, they held a 7-point lead with 8:53 left in the fourth quarter. Down the stretch, though, with missed free throws part of the problem, but also missed shots, turnovers, and defense, they were outscored 20-13 to allow New Orleans to take them to overtime. Saturday against the Wolves, the Spurs held an 80-78 lead with 2:45 to go, but they were then outscored 5-3 to allow the Wolves to take them to overtime. The lesson, once a team builds a lead, they should try to do as much as possible to maintain or build upon that lead so that the outcome of the game doesn’t rest on a free throw, whistle, or missed shot.
Overall, the Spurs are the fourth most accurate free throw shooting team in the league at 80.4%. March currently looks like an outlier, but then again, San Antonio has only played in three of their 17 games for the month. If by the end of March the Spurs are still shooting in the 60% range from the free throw line, then San Antonio has a real problem on their hands at the foul line. Until then, the percentages should start to reach near their season average with each passing game.