Missed free throws: an empty obsession

January, 12, 2012
1/12/12
5:41
PM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
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LeBron James
Rob Carr/Getty Images
LeBron James and the Heat have missed a ton of free throws recently. Does it mean anything?

Of all the things that fans complain about, few things draw as much ire as a professional basketball player missing free throws.

You make millions of dollars!
My grandma can make free throws!
Have you no work ethic!?

Missing free throws is probably No. 2 on the list of fan complaints. No. 1 on the list? LeBron James.

So when LeBron James missed eight -- count 'em, eight -- free throws in Wednesday's loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, you can imagine the magnitude of digital rage on Twitter and every comment section that had anything remotely to do with LeBron James, the Miami Heat, the NBA and sports for that matter. This was a perfect storm.

People were angry.

Or maybe this was just a juicy opportunity to delve into some LeBron schadenfreude (LeBrodenfreude?). Ever since he left Cleveland, the protocol for the general NBA fan is to revel in LeBron's failures. Hey, it's fun sometimes to watch really successful people screw up. There's a reason why tabloids sell like mad when a celebrity gets arrested, goes to rehab or goes through a painful divorce. Watching famous people trip up tends to make us feel better about our human condition. They screw up, too. They're just like us!

How bad were the missed free throws? Well, LeBron went on his Twitter feed this afternoon to address the issue.

Had some great opportunities lastnight. Have to make them count. Unexceptable from the Line! Simple as that. Back at it on Friday nightThu Jan 12 18:59:38 via Echofon



Missing free throws is perceived as one of the most criminal things a basketball player can do so it's no surprise that LeBron made this comment to his followers. (Note: he corrected himself later on the misspelling of "acceptable").

So the question is:

Are the missed free throws really a big deal?

It seems that way on the surface. Judging by the fan reaction, this appears to be another piece of supporting evidence that LeBron crumbles under the big stage. If you're looking for ammo for the "LeBron isn't clutch" argument, then he handed the bullets on a silver platter. Missing a jump shot is reasonable, but free throws? Something's gotta be up.

Except when you look at LeBron's track record, it really doesn't signify anything. The eight missed free throws is tied for the most he's missed in a game over the past five seasons. He did it once in a loss against the Celtics in Apr. 2010. He did it another time in a loss against the Jazz in Nov. 2007. Both were on the road and both were highly scrutinized the next day.

And what did he do the next game? He went 9-for-10 after the Boston debacle and 6-for-8 after the Jazz one. Together, he shot 79 percent in the following game. LeBron is a 74 percent free throw shooter over his career. Expand the sample size to games when he shot 53 percent or worse on at least five free throw attempts, and LeBron still came out with 75 percent free throw percentage in the following game. Statistically speaking, what LeBron shot in his previous game tells us virtually nothing about what he'll shoot in the current one.

And the Heat? They've strung together two bad nights from the free throw line, missing 14 freebies in each game. Since the Big Three hit South Beach, the correlation between free throw percentage from what game to the next is statistically nonexistent. It's random. For example, Wednesday was the fourth time that they've shot under 60 percent from the charity stripe with the Big Three; they shot 78 percent in the next game. The Heat have shot 77 percent overall.

Sure, it might seem like missed free throws means something, the truth is that it's all just a silly exercise in randomness. As human beings, we don't deal with randomness very well. Fans hate it when random luck doesn't go their way on the playing field so naturally they invent a religion of "clutch" to cope with it.

You can blame a loss on missed free throws. But that's about all you can do.

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Dwyane Wade
PTS AST STL MIN
22.5 5.3 0.9 32.5
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsC. Bosh 8.2
AssistsD. Wade 5.3
StealsM. Chalmers 1.8
BlocksC. Bosh 0.8