When the Lakers acquired Russell Westbrook to go along with Anthony Davis and LeBron James, the idea was for the team to be among the best in the league in getting to the rim. One of the benefits of getting to the rim, traditionally, is drawing more fouls and getting to the line at a higher rate.
However, while the Lakers have held up their end of the deal by getting to the rim this season, the free throws have not come. The Lakers have grown more and more frustrated with the lack of free, highlighted by the slew of technicals in the first half of Tuesday’s win over the Rockets.
Prior to that game, head coach Frank Vogel spoke about the desire for him team to get to the one more, but included an interesting nugget of a proactive measure the Lakers are taking.
“We want our whole group to get to the line more,” Vogel said. “We’re sending clips into the league, and I think league-wide there is more of a mindset for ‘play-ons.’ I don’t know what the numbers are, but I would say that free-throw attempts per game leaguewide are way down compared to the past, and that’s certainly true with our team, and to me the ball movement is the best way to get to the free-throw line. If we’re moving the ball better than we’re moving it, we’ll get there more, but I don’t have specific numbers in mind.”
First, it should be noted that sending clips into the league is wholly normal across the league. The Lakers themselves are no strangers to it, notably sending clips to the league during the playoffs in the bubble in the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets.
The Lakers aren’t the only team that do it, either. Last season, the Pelicans, for example, continually sent clips into the league regarding fouls they believed weren’t being called against Zion Williamson before his season was ultimately ended early due to injury. It’s a common practice around the NBA to send clips into the league office.
The question then, is, do the Lakers have a viable complaint? The team is getting to the rim at an incredibly high rate, ranking second in the league per Cleaning the Glass. However, the team ranks just 23rd in free throws per game in the league at 18.5 attempts per contest. Likewise, the Lakers are 24th in free throw rate per Basketball-Reference, which is a measure of free throws attempted per field goal attempted.
Does getting to the rim translate to more free throws, though? Here’s a look at the top ten teams in frequency of attempts at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass, and their respective ranks in free throws per game and free throw rates.
Rim Frequency vs. Free Throws
Generally speaking, getting to the rim does equate to getting to the line and the Lakers are a pretty clear outlier so far in that respect. The Pacers are the only side with the Lakers to rank in the top ten in frequency of shots at the rim while also ranking in the bottom ten in free throws per game and free throw rate.
Individually, multiple Lakers are down in free throws attempted per game. Anthony Davis is averaging six attempts per contest, down from his average of seven per contest for his career and the 7.4 per game he’s averaged with the Lakers.
Westbrook and James, though, are taking drastically fewer free throws per game. For his career, Westbrook averages 7.0 free throws per game but is shooting just 3.9 per contest this season. Similarly, James’ 3.8 attempts per game this season are less than half of his career average of 7.8 per contest.
In that sense, the Lakers should expect a positive regression to the mean in coming games. It could be a result of sending in clips to the league. It will also likely be a result of a law of averages over a larger sample size. But it’s hard to see the Lakers remaining in the bottom ten in free throw attempts for much longer this season, so long as they continue their current style of play.