AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack
When asked if the Orlando Magic were title contenders, LeBron James answered, “Absolutely.”
It happened on Sunday after Orlando suffered a 91-81 loss to Miami. Maybe LeBron was being cordial. Maybe he did not want to kick a marginal team while they were down. Maybe he was blinded by the fact that Orlando got the better of Miami twice already this season. Regardless, you can’t help but think that maybe LeBron had a point.
Now let me throw another angle at you. Recently on Twitter, Myles Brown and Eddy Rivera had a brief, albeit telling, discussion that involved Dwight Howard, free-throws, and the definition of “elite players.”
Note: Myles Brown is great. He has a very entertaining Twitter account (@mdotbrown) and knows a ton about the game. So I’m not picking on him. I’m just picking up on one of the things he said and running with it.
I’ll spare you the details and get to the point. Myles basically argued that Dwight is not a closer and go-to guy in part because he can’t hit free-throws. At first, it made sense. You don’t want to put the ball in a guy’s hands that is a liability at the free-throw line. It’s not safe!
But does this really mean he’s not a top five player? We know in our heart of hearts that Dwight is most definitely a top five player in the league, but when Myles Brown called that into question partly on account of his ability to hit free-throws? I started pacing (at least in my head).
Second note: here’s the connection. If Dwight shot a ridiculously poor free-throw percentage but the Magic had a championship or two in the bag, folks would have zero hesitation hailing him as a top five player in the league. But he hasn’t, so you have to find a reason to take him out of that top five. Thus, people pick at his free-throw shooting (among other things).
To get to the bottom of this, I decided to take a look at the last five teams to win a title in the NBA since 2007, examine their free-throw shooting, see how well their big men shot free-throws, and throw the whole thing together in some convoluted equation that will determine a conclusion I reached, which I’ll explain shortly.
I’m not John Hollinger, but here’s a stab at it.
Dallas won in 2011. They shot the ball tremendously well from the free-throw line as a team (77.7 percent). Dirk is an anomaly as far as “big men” go from the free-throw line, so I looked at Tyson Chandler from the charity stripe. Chandler shot 73.2 percent for the season and took a mere 16 percent of the team’s total freebies.
The Lakers won in 2010 by shooting 76.5 percent for the season (12th in the league compared to Dallas who was 8th last season). Andrew Bynum shot 73.9 percent for the season and only accounted for 13 percent of Los Angeles’ free throws.
2009 had similar results for the Lakers. The team shot better (77 percent) and Bynum shot worse (70.7 percent). But Bynum shot fewer free-throws than in 2010 and made up less of a percentage of the team’s freebies.
We seem to have a trend here.
Boston was the eight-best free-throw shooting team in the league in 2008, posting a team average at 77.1 percent. Kevin Garnett shot the ball extremely well (80.1 percent that season) so I looked at Kendrick Perkins. Perk was lower than other recent championship centers (62.3 percent), but that hardly mattered as he shot less than 10 percent of the team’s total free-throws.
The 2007 Spurs were an interesting case because Tim Duncan was no star from the charity stripe (63.7 percent that season). The team, however, shot 75.1 percent at the line for the season. What makes this team different than those other title winners is that the “Big Fundamental” shot 28 percent of his team’s free-throws, which means he quite negatively affected what could have been a scorching team average. Nonetheless, the Spurs won the championship.
By now, perhaps, you can see where this is going.
This year Orlando boasts the worst free-throw percentage in the league, anchored by Dwight Howard who is shooting 48.3 percent from the line. This would not be a huge problem except for the fact that Dwight has shot roughly 44 percent of Orlando’s free-throws so far this season, dragging the team average down to an abysmal 64.4 percent. Close to half of the team’s free-throws are coming from one of the worst free-throw shooters in the league.
My final comparison is one that is particularly relevant. The 2002 Lakers featured Shaquille O’Neil, one of the NBA’s worst free-throw shooters in recent memory. Shaq shot 55.5 percent in 2002 for the Lakers, dragging the team down to 69.9 percent for the season. That’s right, the 2002 Lakers had the second-worst team free-throw percentage in the league. So how’d they win a championship?
The difference between the 2002 Lakers and the 2012 Orlando Magic is that, aside from the fact that Jason Richardson is hardly Kobe Bryant, Shaq’s terrible free-throw shooting had a far smaller effect on the team than Dwight in 2012. Shaq only shot 33 percent of the team’s free-throws in 2002. Dwight has already shot 503 free-throws this season and is on pace to end the season representing half, that’s right, half of the Magic’s free-throw attempts.
Going back to Myles Brown’s statement about Dwight, that he’s not a top five player partially because he can’t hit free-throws, I’m just not convinced of that argument. Here’s some context: Ryan Anderson is the second-most frequent free-throw shooter for Orlando and he shoots 85.9 percent. The problem is that he’s only shot a quarter of the free-throws that Dwight has.
In 2002, Kobe Bryant attempted almost 600 free-throws and shot 82.9 percent that season.
Alas, my conclusion.
Orlando’s problem is not that Dwight can’t hit free-throws. It’s that they have no one else who gets to the line and demands as much attention as him. If a player, even 60 percent as good as Kobe Bryant in 2002, was with Orlando right now, there would be no talk of Dwight’s poor free-throw shooting being the demise of the Magic’s chances at winning a title. Which meshes with the idea that Orlando is lacking a consistent shot creator on the perimeter.
Instead, we’re left with guys undervaluing Dwight based on one statistic, a statistic that stands out like a sore thumb for one reason — that Dwight Howard is the only star on this Orlando team.
Hopefully the Magic’s front office is taking a good look at the fact that Dwight stands alone in a Big Two and Big Three league. It’s time for Orlando to bring in another star and not a geriatric wash-up. Maybe the type of player who can get to the free-throw line 400-600 times a season.
Seriously, that should be a criteria.