Every Lakers fan had a similar feeling of dread at the end of last Thursday’s game against Sacramento when Brandon Ingram went to the free-throw line with Los Angeles up one. There was a palpable lack of confidence that Ingram would make both free throws and guarantee that the Lakers would head to overtime as a worst-case scenario.
Inevitably, Ingram missed one of two. The Kings got the ball back with a chance to win, and well, you know the rest.
Free-throw struggles are hardly new in Los Angeles at this point. The Sacramento loss was simply the tip of the iceberg when it comes to defeats the Lakers could have avoided with a little more accuracy at the foul line.
For the season, the team is shooting 68.8 percent on free throws, which ranks dead last in the league. The NBA average is 76.2 percent, and San Antonio leads all teams at 82.3 percent. The Spurs are an unavoidable part of this discussion because of an Oct. 22 contest when LeBron James missed two free throws near the end of overtime, allowing Patty Mills to hit the game-winning jumper and send L.A. to its third consecutive defeat.
It would be unreasonable for the Lakers to become an above-average free-throw shooting team. As has been repeated ad nauseam, this team didn’t prioritize finding shooters in the offseason. Consequently, some shortcomings are to be expected when it comes to accuracy from the foul line, or any other part of the floor.
Still, this team has been worse than expected at scoring the ball. Los Angeles’ current offensive rating of 108.1 (19th in the league) would be the worst of any James-led offense since the lockout-shortened season of 2011-12. Even in that year, the Miami Heat’s offensive rating of 105.6 was sixth in the league. Not since 2007-08 has one of James’s teams not finished with an above-average offense (the Cavaliers were 20th that year).
This isn’t to say that free throws are the only thing holding the Lakers back, but merely that it would be the simplest fix for a less-than-ideal offense. Let’s assume that Los Angeles could improve to a league-average free-throw shooting team. I went back through some of the team’s close losses to see how shooting 76.2 percent from the foul line would affect the margin of defeat. For example, the Lakers lost the first game by one, but would have had an additional 1.812 points from free throws if they had shot like an average team.
That’s six games where being an average free-throw shooting team would have meaningfully affected the scoring margin at the end of the game. Only two contests would have flipped outright from wins to losses, but L.A. would have been in much better position in the other four and wouldn’t have had to foul to extend the game.
Then again, perhaps it’s too much to expect from the Lakers to even be average at free-throw shooting. James and Ingram, who combine to take more than half of the team’s foul shots, shoot 73.8 percent and 64.8 percent, respectively, for their careers. In the team’s regular rotation, only Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma shoot above average, but they only take 5.4 free throws per game.
This is year three of Luke Walton’s tenure in Los Angeles, and the Lakers have been uniformly bad on free throws no matter who has donned the purple and gold. In 2016-17, the team shot 75.4 percent from the foul line, good for 21st in the league. The NBA average that year was 77.2 percent. Last season, L.A. was once again the worst team from the foul line, hitting only 71.4 percent of its foul shots compared to the league average of 76.7 percent.
After Wednesday’s loss to Oklahoma City, when the Lakers shot 19-of-32 from the line, Walton was asked if the team needs to change its approach to free-throw shooting, and he said “no” before expanding on why he doesn’t think so.
“Guys are professionals. They know that you come in, you get free throws in before, you get free throws in after. Last year, we were struggling at free throws as well, we started keeping track of them and making guys sign them every day. Maybe we go back to something like that, but as a team we’ve got to step up and knock ‘em down.”
As silly as it might sound to make the players log their own free throws, there may have been some magic to that method last year. Los Angeles had its worst shooting month in December 2017, plummeting to 66.4 percent from the foul line. Walton didn’t mention when the Lakers started their tracking, but their free-throw shooting percentage increased every month from then on, ending at 76.8 percent in April.
Whatever the solution, something needs to change, if only to address the stress induced by watching the Lakers head to the line in close games. Los Angeles has played 24 clutch games (second only to Brooklyn) this season, meaning that the score has been within five points in the last five minutes.
The team’s free-throw rate is at its highest in the fourth quarter, which can mean one of two things: either the Lakers are doing a good job of attacking the basket, or opponents are targeting L.A.’s weaknesses. Either way, those opportunities aren’t being converted into points often enough.
The Lakers are in an extremely tight race for playoff positioning in the Western Conference where seeding changes on a daily basis. And once they’re in the crucible of the postseason, their shooting from the line might matter even more.
“We’ve got to fix it, especially if we want to win in the playoffs,” said Lakers guard Lonzo Ball.
In order to make sure they are even in the postseason, the Lakers need to gain any advantage they can. The foul line seems like as good a place as any to start.
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