Time Out: March 31, 2010

“It’s a well researched fact that the team that takes the most foul shots wins 90 percent of the games in the NBA.” That tidbit was passed along by one of basketball’s legendary coaches, a man respected as one of the game’s greatest teachers, in a Championship Production instructional video titled, “How To Win With Less Talent.”
Coach Hubie Brown, a product of Little Falls, New York, has coached at every level of basketball from high school to college and pro, spending 10 years in the NBA with the Atlanta Hawks and the Knicks. As I watched the tape preparing for last year’s basketball season, I found myself wondering if getting more foul shots would be as critical a factor in boys’ varsity basketball games here in the Catskills. I decided to find out.
It made sense to me that NBA games would be decided by the number of foul shots each team was awarded. NBA players shoot foul shots at a torrid pace. In the 2007-2008 season, Steve Nash, the foul shooting leader of the NBA who plays for Phoenix, made 257 of 279 attempts, a success rate of 92.1 percent. Four NBA players shot over 90 percent that year, including Dirk Nowitzki from Dallas who made 539 of 598 free throws. Fifty-two NBA stars had percentages that surpassed 80 percent before Vince Carter who finished at 79.9 percent. It was no wonder the number of charity shots each team took was a clear path toward NBA victory. Would a similar phenomenon take place in the high school games where the outcome of shooting foul shots can sometimes be a far less predictable adventure?
To find the answer, each day I used the Oneonta Daily Star’s box scores to log the outcome of each boy’s varsity high school game simply recording the teams that played and a ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’ No matter what the shooting percentages, a ‘yes’ meant the winning team had taken more foul shots than the team they had defeated. A ‘no’ indicated the losing team had recorded more charity attempts.
My experiment was not scientific. I would be the first to admit that I missed some games. Occasionally, I would forget to write down the results before my wife delivered the newspapers to the dump. During the long, dark days of winter when my Andes guys were struggling on the court, I sometimes simply refused to open the sports section of the newspaper to take a look. Even so, I did record the fouls shooting results of 215 games, a large enough sample for consideration.
Of the 215 games I charted, the winning team took more foul shots than their opponent 134 times or 64 percent of the time. That total is not nearly as impressive as that found in the pros, but pretty significant in and of itself. Interestingly, often at the high school level here in the Catskills, teams that blow out an opponent often shoot fewer foul shots than the team they dominated. Perhaps that is a demonstration of empathy shown by the officials. Yet, by and large, it seems as if teams that take more foul shots than their opponents stand a far greater chance of winning high school basketball games than teams that don’t.
The foul shooting results of my study are food for thought for coaches and players. In a day and age when more and more players are obsessed with shooting the three-point attempt, it’s that tried and true charity shot that more often than not makes a difference. Shooting the three is not a very good way to draw foul shots. Once or twice a season a team will be called for fouling a shooter who is taking a three-point attempt. Offensive players driving to the basket are continually rewarded for their efforts by going to the foul line.
The importance of driving to the glass, offensive rebounding, and taking foul shots becomes more and more clear as teams move deeper and deeper into the Sectionals. When I cover a basketball game for the Catskill Mountain News, I keep a running account of every basket scored in the game, then use that offensive sketch to discover patterns to use when shaping my story. It never fails, the teams that reach the final games in Sectional play do a ton of blue collar work attacking the basket and pounding the boards. That was never clearer than last year during SK’s incredible state title run. In the second half of the Section IV finals and almost every state level contest, the Rams scored almost every point taking the ball to the hole, putting back a teammate’s missed scoring attempt, or hitting a foul shot.
It may not be flashy. It will hardly register on a style scale. It’s probably as old-fashioned as the dinosaur coaches like yours truly, but getting to that free throw line’s no small potatoes. Like a Get Out of Jail Free ticket in a game of Monopoly, a foul shot is a ticket that keeps you moving forward whatever level of the game you play. Young players should be spending time now learning the ball attack moves that will take them to the line next year and pay big dividends for their scoring average and their teams’ win/loss percentages. Just ask Duke.