Death to free throws
A fix for basketball, plus my weekly shareables: A real-life Ted Lasso, turmoil at CNN, and the mystery of Meg White
Even though they lost, the Miami Heat set an NBA postseason record in last night’s NBA Finals opener: They took just two free throws all game.
That’s a sign of a blowout. The Denver Nuggets won 104-93 but the game was never really that close. Miami didn’t shoot any free throws because Denver didn’t need to foul.
Denver took 20 free throws, which is right in line with the statistical norm. For the last 15 years or so, NBA teams have consistently averaged between 17 and 20 free throws per game (numbers from the incredible resource Basketball Reference.)
Denver shot 79 times from the field along with those 20 free throws, and that’s also right on the average: In a typical NBA game, about 20 percent of the overall shots are from the free-throw line. Which means about 20 percent of every NBA game consists of the most boring part of basketball.
There is no sport more beautiful than basketball in its flow state—players running up and down the floor, making plays on the fly, pulling off breathtaking athletic moves. Free throws are the opposite of all that. The game grinds to a stop. The players aren’t allowed to defend the shot. And the outcome is mostly the same. This season, NBA players as a group made 78 percent of their free throws.
Teams trailing in a game often resort to fouling over and over in hopes the other team will miss. Sometimes it works! Usually it doesn’t. And either way the beautiful flow of basketball gets reduced to a slow parade to the foul line.
There are no highlight reels of free throws.
Jeff Van Gundy, the former NBA coach and current broadcaster on TNT, pitched an idea this week to eliminate free throws except for the last four minutes of the game. A team would be allowed a certain number of fouls per quarter with no penalty, just like the current rules. But after that, in the last four minutes, instead of the other team going to the free-throw line, they’d just get two points—or three, if they were fouled on a three-point shot.
Van Gundy knows a million kazillion times more about basketball than I ever will. And I think he’s on the right track. Except for one thing: He’s got the timing backwards.
The last four minutes of the game is exactly when you SHOULD get rid of free throws.
Those last four minutes are when the game should be at its most exciting. Instead it’s often the most tedious. For every game when a team makes a comeback because of missed free throws, there are 10 games where you’re watching a fleet of Ferraris stuck at a red light.
If you forced teams to defend without fouling in those last few minutes, you’d end up with more blowouts but you’d also end up with more legitimately stirring endings. Sort of like the Elam Ending but under the traditional clock. I’d eliminate free throws, at the very least, for the fourth quarter of every game. Maybe for the whole game.
You might wonder: What’s to keep players on the team in the lead from throwing themselves at defenders, hoping for cheap fouls? Well, offensive fouls would fall under the same rules. Commit a charge and the defensive team gets two points.
I’m sure there are holes in this idea. Come at me in the comments! For now, I’m just hoping the Finals play out with a natural flow. I love watching Nikola Jokic. I don’t love watching Nikola Jokic shoot free throws.
One note before we get to the links: Shedhead MM mentioned in the comments to last Friday’s post that it would be nice if I gave y’all a heads-up when I link to a paywalled site. Some of those sites, like Esquire or the Atlantic, allow one or two free articles before you have to pay. MM would like to know the source of a particular story before deciding whether to burn a click on it.
That’s reasonable. I’ve been in the same boat of trying to decide whether a story is worth one of those precious free links. And it’s not always clear to me if the stories I link to are free or not. So from here on out, at the end of each item, I’ll provide the source (unless it’s obvious from the text). Thanks for the insight, MM. As Casey Kasem would say, on with the countdown.
10 things I wanted to share this week:
My weekly for WFAE was about one of the forgotten origins of Memorial Day.
Now that TED LASSO is over*, read my friend Ethan Joyce’s story on a real-life Ted Lasso at Appalachian State in the ‘70s. (Salvation South)
*A confession: We have not watched ANY of the final season of TED LASSO yet. We devoured the first two seasons, but … well, many life things have gotten in the way. We have been waiting for the right moment. It’s killing me to avoid the recaps.
My favorite story of the week: The terrible golfers who saved a college golf team. (Golf Digest)
A radical thought for a media site: Think of it not as the start of a global franchise, but more like a neighborhood bar. Here’s how Defector thrives. (Columbia Journalism Review)
DOG NEWS: While I work on my book, I’m devoting this slot to dog stories. This week: The luxury market for pet accessories, or another exhibit in “some people have more money than sense.” (Robb Report)
A deep look at Chris Licht, the guy trying (and failing, so far) to turn around CNN. (The Atlantic)
Car dealers are some of the richest and most Republican people in America. They also hate electric cars. Here’s a trip to their annual convention. (Slate)
Good fodder for writers on climbing the ladder of abstraction. (The Open Notebook)
The enigma of Meg White. (Elle) I’m not sure any musician’s style has been more misunderstood. Just listen to those White Stripes records and answer a simple question: Do they rock, or do they not?
See y’all next week, everybody.
This newsletter is completely reader-supported. If you’re willing and able, please consider becoming a paid subscriber. You can also buy my memoir, THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM. Thank you so much for your time and investment!—TT