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Free-throw woes could limit the Lakers’ potential

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The Lakers could be in for a rough season if they don’t address their problems at the free-throw line.

Grant Goldberg, Christian Rivas/Silver Screen and Roll

When the Los Angeles Lakers signed LeBron James, the biggest criticism of the front office was the failure to put shooters around him, and justifiably so. Historically speaking, James is at his best when he’s surrounded by players that can space the floor.

However, it’s not just 3-point shooting the Lakers will be lacking next season, it’s shooting in general, including free throw shooting. It’s a problem even James might not be able to fix.

James, a career 73.9 percent free throw shooter, is well aware of his struggles from the charity stripe.

“Free-throw shooting is all mental,” James told the Akron Beacon Journal in 2015. “Obviously there is some technique, of course. But it’s mental.”

“I’ve always had ambitions to shoot in the high 80s. I’ve been shooting them extremely well the last couple weeks, so I have to continue my routine, continue to put in the work as I’ve been and live with the results.”

The results, since then, have been discouraging. The following season, James had his worst year shooting from the line, making only 67.4 percent of his free throws.

Last season, James’ efficiency improved, but his free throw shooting in late-game situations was still a problem for the Cavaliers. According to ESPN Stats & Info, James made just 47 percent (8-of-17) of his free throws in the final 10 seconds of a one-possession game in the regular season.

Despite this, Cleveland still finished tenth overall in the league in free throw percentage while attempting the ninth-most free throws per game thanks to more than half of James’ teammates shooting above 80 percent from the line. That won’t be the case with the Lakers.

Last season, the Lakers finished dead last in free throw percentage (71.4 percent) while averaging the eighth most free throws per game (23.3 FTA). With the additions they made this offseason in the draft and free agency, they’re expected to be slightly better at the line, but when I say slightly, I mean slightly.

The chart below shows how well the Lakers would have shot from the charity stripe last season with their projected 15-man roster this season.

2017-18 Free Throw Stats

Player Free throws made Free throws attempted Free throw percentage
Player Free throws made Free throws attempted Free throw percentage
LeBron James 388 531 0.731
Brandon Ingram 192 282 0.681
Kyle Kuzma 147 208 0.707
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope 153 194 0.789
Michael Beasley 124 159 0.780
Lance Stephenson 84 127 0.661
Isaac Bonga 99 110 0.900
Moritz Wagner 72 108 0.694
Josh Hart 66 94 0.702
Lonzo Ball 32 71 0.451
Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk 45 56 0.804
JaVale McGee 38 52 0.731
Ivica Zubac 39 51 0.765
Rajon Rondo 25 46 0.543
Luol Deng 0 0 0.000
Totals 1504 2089 0.720
Stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com. Stats also include NCAA and international play for relevant players.

At 72 percent, the Lakers would have been the second-worst free throw shooting team in the NBA last season, only better than the Oklahoma City Thunder (71.6 percent). While that obviously means that free throw struggles on their own won’t keep a team from the postseason, it certainly doesn’t help their chances.

Since the 2007-08 season, six teams with the worst free throw percentage in the league have made the playoffs. Four of those teams were Dwight Howard teams, including the 2012-13 Lakers. The other two teams featured two other historically bad free throw shooting big men in Shaquille O’Neal (‘09-’10 Cavs) and Andre Drummond (‘13-’14 Pistons).

Of those six teams, only one made the NBA Finals, and it was the Orlando Magic in 2009. The Lakers took care of them in five games. So yeah.

Although the new-look Lakers technically wouldn’t have been the worst free throw shooting team in the NBA last season, that 72 percent figure is a little misleading.

Rookie Isaac Bonga made 90 percent of his free throws in all international competitions with Skyliners Frankfurt of the Bundesliga last season, which would have been a team-high free throw percentage with this roster. However, Bonga isn’t expected to see a ton of playing time with the Lakers next season and if he does, he won’t be attempting anywhere near the amount of free throws he shot last season.

Take Bonga out of the equation, and the Lakers are back to being dead last in the league in free throw percentage at a league-low 70.9 percent.

Maybe the Lakers’ abysmal shooting from the free throw line doesn’t mean they can’t end their five-season long playoff “drought,” but it undeniably puts a ceiling on what they can be. For a team with championship aspirations this season, that’s not ideal. Luckily, there’s reason to be optimistic that the team is capable of improving in that regard.

While veterans like Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson aren’t likely to become reliable free throw shooters at this stage of their careers, there’s still hope for the young players like Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, who shot the second-lowest free throw percentage (41.5) among players that attempted at least 70 free throws last season. Ingram, especially, would help the Lakers tremendously if he became a respectable free throw shooter.

The 20-year-old forward lived in the painted area in his sophomore season, attempting nearly half of his shot attempts (45 percent) at the rim. As a result, Ingram drew significantly more shooting fouls last season.

How much more is significantly more? Silver Screen and Roll’s own Alex Regla broke down the numbers in April:

According to Cleaning the Glass, Brandon Ingram had a solid 12.6 shooting-foul percentage (76th percentile) as a rookie. This season he has raised that number nearly by three percent and ended the year with a ridiculous 15.2 shooting-foul percentage, which ranked in the 95th percentile among all NBA wings. To put into context the level of foul calls the former Duke standout received this season, these are the names of other notable players which he recorded higher percentages than this year: LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, DeMar DeRozan, Paul George, and Anthony Davis.

If that trend continues, Ingram and James will account for a majority of the Lakers’ free throw attempts next season. Even if they don’t make all of their free throws every time down the floor, the sheer volume of their attempts will result in more points per possession.

Still, an uptick in efficiency from both of them would go a long way for the Lakers.

It might seem like a small, insignificant issue, but free throws can be the difference between a 41-win season and a 50-win season, especially in the loaded Western Conference. Hopefully the Lakers can find a way to avoid repeating their struggles from the charity stripe next season.

All stats are courtesy of stats.nba.com unless otherwise noted. You can follow this author on Twitter at @RadRivas.