Why can’t NBA players make free throws?

I watched an NBA game while I was eating lunch the other day, because for whatever reason, Moloch Day seemed like an appropriate time to have afternoon specials of NBA basketball. Either way, it was the fourth quarter of a fairly close game between the Pacers and the Grizzlies, where anywhere every single field goal seemed essential. That being said, there was about a four minute stretch where neither team scored.

It had nothing to do with guys getting any bad luck with open shots, or layups rimming out unluckily, it was just a bunch of overpaid primadonnas throwing up brick after brick, with teammates open, while being defended, or opting for ill-advised fadeaways. But the best part about this four minute stretch was that during this time, five free throws were attempted between the two team with the Pacers shooting two, and the Grizzlies shooting two, and one technical shot being taken by the Pacers. All five of the free throws were misses, including the completely uncontested technical.

This seemingly endless slope of degrading free throw shooting throughout the course of the NBA never fails to baffle me how something so easy is so difficult to do, for the supposed greatest basketball players on the planet. I mean, free throws are completely uncontested shots; no defender trying to bump you, reaching up to block the ball, or even put a hand in your face. It’s just the player, 15 feet away from the hoop, with ten seconds to concentrate and shoot a completely unopposed shot; the fact that it’s called a free throw indicates to just how easy it really should be.

If you look up “airball free throw” on YouTube, there are about 700 results, with pretty much like 90% of them being within the last few years. And these are guys in the NBA or at the collegiate level with NBA aspirations throwing up these air balls too. AIR BALLS. Shots that don’t even hit the rim, and completely miss outright. I’m baffled at how that’s even possible, at the level of basketball performance these guys are capable of playing at, at any other aspect of the game.

Recently there was somewhat of a big deal that LeBron James became the youngest player to ever pass the 20,000 point mark. It’s a record that for all intents and purposes will probably never be broken, due to the fact that LeBron was one of the last guys to be allowed to make the high-school-to-NBA jump and as long as the age restriction of 20-years old is in place, will nobody ever have the opportunity to get that extra year or two to play, not to mention are their often teams with such futility that they put their entire franchises in the hands of young players from the onset, but that’s all a different argument for another time.

The fact of the matter is that at a career 74% free throw shooting percentage, LeBron James isn’t necessarily terrible at free throws, but he’s a far cry from the greats people often compare him to. Michael Jordan sank 84% of his free throws throughout his career, as does Kobe Bryant today. 10% doesn’t sound like a gigantic difference at first blush, but it’s worth pointing out that if LeBron James were capable of making just 5% more of his free throws throughout his career, he would have passed the 20,000 plateau last season, making his fairly secure record nearly iron-clad, if accomplished then. Within the first nine seasons of his career, he had scored a way above-average 19,045 points, but by only making 74% of his free throws, he had left 1,542 points on the table with his mundane average free throw shooting.

There are NBA “all-stars” who don’t score 1,542 points in a single season. There are NBA players who won’t even score 1,542 points in their entire careers.

When Shaquille O’Neal retired last season, he finished his long, illustrious career with 28,596 points, which currently ranks sixth on the all-time NBA scoring records. Throughout his whole career, Shaq has been notorious for his poor free-throw shooting; to the tune of a career 53% free throw shooter, having made just 5,935 free throws out of an astounding 11,252 attempts. His inability to make free throws evolved the game a bit, because opposing teams would blatantly foul Shaq to send him to the free throw line. At 53%, there was a very high chance that Shaq would nail at least one of his free throws, but teams would rather guarantee that he gets one point, as opposed to just the possibility of forfeiting 2-3 points.

But beyond the percentages, Shaq missed 5,317 free throws. It doesn’t take a math genius to see that if he made just even a little over a fifth of those misses would have pushed him into the holy grounds of the 30,000 point plateau that only currently five guys have ever done; that’s just if he could have improved by just 7% to become an even less abysmal 60% free throw shooter. Had Shaq been an average free throw shooter (at least 73%), he would have without question passed even the indomitable Wilt Chamberlain on the all-time scoring list. That’s the importance of free throws.

Often times, it’s said that free throws are a mental thing, which I feel that those who say it are digging their own graves, because they’re essentially admitting to the fact that they’re weak-minded and dumb. They succumb to pressure, and are incapable of blocking out outside factors that should have no bearing to the game at-hand. Ironically, today’s players would rather admit to this excuse over the other excuse, because they oddly would rather be dumb than lazy.

And that other excuse used by today’s basketball players that don’t really want to admit is the fact that they simply don’t practice. That they’re lazy. Yes, practicing things is boring, practicing things is mundane, and practicing things might seem like a waste of time and energy. But only since the dawn of time, has practice been the one thing necessary to really refine a craft, motion, or action. It’s not fucking algebra let alone rocket science, it’s a simple fact. If you put even an average amount of dedication into practicing something, you will get better at it, which is fact.

But in the end, it’s really both; today’s basketball players are dumb and lazy. They cave into pressure while at the line, and don’t really put any genuine effort into trying to get better at shooting free throws in non-game times.

I don’t know who won that game between the Pacers and Grizzlies, because I didn’t stick around. As soon as I was done with my plate of lasagna, I turned off the television and walked away, because the NBA today is an embarrassment to watch, and I felt absolutely no desire or obligation to stick around and watch such a mediocre product.

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