Fowl Shot: Ducking The Free Throw Debate

Wander the streets of the Premier League leaders, Leicester City FC and you’ll be in ear shot of a friendly, “ay up me duck”. More worldly fans of Dolly Parton and Angelina Jolie will all be familiar with the middle England saying which translates into “Hello, My Duke” from days gone by in the old country. A fine example of how, despite our best attempts, the passage of time changes everything. Even the words we use on a daily basis.

Trundle on further past the Leicestershire Country Cricket Club ground and you’ll hear cries of professional athletes being, “Out for a Duck”. While having nothing to do with waterfowl or royalty, this international cricket saying is reserved for those poor souls who failed to score while in bat. The “Duck” in this case resembling a zero or “Duck Egg”, once again from simpler times of yore. Some of the best batsmen in the world have suffered such a fate and those being dismissed on the first ball bowled, have a more embarrassing moniker: A Golden Duck.

Ducks are everywhere in sport. Of all the players I coached, Randy Duck remains a firm favorite. Savvy boxers duck to avoid sweeping hooks. Nimble baseball players duck to evade stray fast balls. MMA fighters duck to dodge flying kicks. Certain NBA players duck to avoid free throws. No wait. That doesn’t happen. As Sydney Youngblood once said, “If only I could”. Well, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is trying to make the world a better place, by instigating a new ruling on the Hack-a-Whoever phenomenon.

Much has been written about the analytics to back or dismiss the need to change the intentional foul rule at the top level. With that, many people wiser and more influential than this scribe have chimed in on the subject as well. So that’s not where this is headed. If a rule change is needed so that the “entertainment” value of the NBA is retained then let’s explore more effective ways of doing just that.

But before charging headlong towards the light at the end of the tunnel, here’s some base level measures of the situation as it stands. Of those qualified in the league’s free throw shooting measures, only one player is shooting in the 30’s and one in the 40’s in percentage terms. Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan have combined for 789 FTA (Free Throw Attempts) so far this season. Too high? Well, their usage rates straddle the league average (15) with Andre averaging 23 and DeAndre just 13. Neither justifies their time at the line matching their time with the ball. Just for the record, above that pitiful pair are only twice as many of the usual suspects shooting in the 50’s (Dwight Howard, Hassan Whiteside, Nerlens Noel and Kenneth Faried).

In comparison just three players are shooting in the 90th percentile, as Jamal Crawford (usage 22), Dirk Nowtizki (23) and Stephen Curry (31) have combined for 602 FTA this season. All of whom are above the league average in usage, while shooting fewer foul shots combined than the worst two FT% shooters. After those, 57 players are making around eight out of every ten shots from the line. So the top of those qualified is slightly more heavily populated than the bottom. Therefore statistically, you may wonder where the problem lies.

Mr. Silver tells us it’s in the aesthetic. His fan experience must be based on the presumption that basketball supporters don’t take any joy from seeing a millionaire athlete struggle to perform a simple middle school skill. Many disagree. In other sports, it’s a highlight to see an elite cricketing fast bowler at the bottom of the batting order facing some of his own medicine without the requisite batting skills to compete. Many a Golden Duck has been caught in this very manner.

But for now, let’s presume that isn’t the case. The NBA after all has taken the game of basketball and transformed it with a variety of rule changes to the highest height of sports. Again, another point of contention from College and International supporters alike which we won’t touch on here.

If the intentional foul issue is actually a problem, albeit one that hinders less than 1% of NBA players then it should be addressed. After all, some say, it's the American way to regulate in favour of the 1%. Likewise if the overarching issue is the pace of the game and the under riding issue of keeping within the time limits given by TV networks are key, then a solution must be found. Soccer still remains the number one world sport, in part because the clock never stops and the 90 minute game fits nicely into that key two hour time slot for broadcasters. Something the average NBA game or this year's four hour Super Bowl fails to do.

However, the NBA hasn’t been without its own ruling slip ups in the past. Remember the fiasco that was the shorter three point line for instance. Or even the current dire state of instant replay which seems to be robbing once competent and confident officials of their ability to make the simplest of calls. Clarification and the correct call is required at this level of sport with so much at stake. But the now seemingly incessant need to refer to Secaucus, NJ provides the fans in the arena or on the couch with a total disconnect. I mean really, the NBA doesn’t even try to sell it to us. JP Morgan has offices in New Jersey, but we are always told everything comes from Wall Street and downtown Manhattan baby! The NBA isn’t even trying to make the process appealing. Tell us it's coming live from Hollywood or something. But when done right, in the examples of Tennis and Rugby the crowd becomes a part of the process. The NBA seems to guard the decision as if it’s from a private email server.

So, the choice of adjustment isn’t a sure fire way to solve the problem right off the bat. The obvious would be to bring back a FIBA Intentional Foul rule which leads to a personal foul on the offender along with two foul shots and possession for the offensive team. However, this would only serve to slow the game further, but still maybe the best way to eradicate the issue. Just this consideration alone shows the problem the Commissioner faces. But if we are to lose a little more of the humanity of sport to the benefit of flow and appeal, here’s a hat-trick of ways to do that without impacting the Hack-a-Whoever philosophy.

Make a technical foul a personal foul. Just like the international game, where players foul out after five infractions, slowing down the game with outbursts and subsequent foul shots gets you one step closer to the bench. Delay of game warnings could go the same way. A traditional tactic to slow the game, stop a break or get an advanced look at an out of bounds play following a time out. Slap the guilty player with a T that gets them closer to fouling out. Either way. Less foul shots by the 90% or the 30% must be better for the flow of the game. People get no more joy from seeing Steph make a FT, than they do DeAndre miss. Detractors will cry that it dehumanizes the game by removing emotion. Correct. But enforcing a Hack-a-Whoever rule does the same, by levelling the playing field on skill. The NBA has flirted with behavioural technical foul policy in the past and this is a simple extension.

Next, look to the collegiate ranks and bring back 1 and 1 foul shooting, but now for all teams in the bonus. Inevitably it will amount to less dead time with the ball at the foul line just by shooting percentages alone. Although, that will cut into the ability of the network to pan away to a wide shot and advise me that were it not for certain movies and cars, this broadcast would not be possible. See. No one at the networks even cares about good foul shooters, let alone the bad ones. Our attention is always subconsciously elsewhere by their direction.

Another all together backward approach would be to move the three point arc further back. There is some implied logic that the need to foul poor FT shooters is based on the new power of the three pointer and it's more efficient use, especially from the corners. Moving the line back and in the case of the corner three, widening the court would give really elite shooters with genuine range a premium value. Reducing the impact of the long ball would put a great importance on the lesser valued two pointer and with it dragging up the importance of the foul shot.

Lastly, reduce the number of time outs available to coaches either throughout the game or in the last two minutes. Again, looking to the collegiate ranks for attraction rather than ruling, the NCAA brand is based on a slightly wilder, unpredictable nature of their student athletes. In part due to their relative inexperience and youth. But in contrast, watching a recent Knicks game where the final seconds ticked down without a time out, showed Carmelo Anthony almost lost in the decision making process. Paralysis by analysis is a fascinasting human reaction. Without a set play or time out to compose himself, the humanity of the game was apparent along with a shorter duration and a nerve racking ending for all.  After all, decision making is a key part of sport and one the fan needs to see. That is the essence of this entire debate.

The NBA game has returned to a skills based endeavor. Rule changes and coaching developments have led to its leading light being one Wardell Stephen Curry II. A relatively short 6’3” and comparatively light 180lbs by NBA comparisons to MJ (6’6” 210lbs), LeBron (6’8” 250lbs) and Shaq (7’1” 325lbs). His unnatural commitment to shot repetition and ball handling development have paved the way to his stardom. All while allowing his creativity to redefine the game. Granted the rule changes have helped. The hand checking of MJ’s days would have reduced him to this generation’s Dana Barros. Keeping the shorter three point line would also have hindered his elite value.

Those changes promoted skill. Any Hack-a-Whoever rule will reduce a skill requirement. If flow and aesthetic are the concerns then coaches, coach your players. Hall of Famer Karl Malone holds the record for most FTA and FTM and has scored the second most points in NBA history. None of those would have happened if the notorious gym rat hadn’t worked on the eventual 31% increase in FT% from 48% in 1985 to his peak of just under 80% in 1999. He’s just one example of countless players who mastered the skill late in life and they’re not all bangers like Dale Davis (28% increase). Doc Rivers (25% increase) and new NBA D League Comeback Kid Baron Davis (24%) also made great strides from the guard spot during his formative years.

One wonders where America itself would be if it simply created rules to duck a problem easily solved through persistence and time. If the way we speak and utilize words can change over time, it’s proven that athletic skills can also. One of the greatest joys of any cricket fan is seeing a tail ender or night watchman standing gingerly in front of the stumps, woefully under skilled with the bat despite being a master with the ball. Many are out for a Golden Duck but some persevere. Kiwi Geoff Allott dodged, ducked, dived and dodged for 101 minutes and 77 balls against South Africa in 1999 before still being out for, you guessed it… a duck.

But that’s OK. The contrast of sport is such that his fellow bowler, Englishman Stuart Broad who started his career for Leicestershire once batted for 103 minutes before scoring his first run. Broad is currently the world’s number one bowler, yet still in 2007 set a record for conceding the highest score to a batsman in a single over. He was hit for a maximum six runs on all six of his deliveries to Yuvraj Singh who cleared the boundary on every attempt.

The highs and lows of sport are what keep us coming back. Toy with that at your peril Mr. Silver. Stuart Broad is the best cricketer in the world with a ball in his hand and one of the worst with a bat. Andre Drummond is the best rebounder in the league and the worst foul shooter. They can’t duck their responsibility to improve. Neither can you. As midland lad Stuart Broad would say “good luck me duck”.