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How to utilize free throw rate (FTR) to win more games

One of the most publicly divisive aspects of basketball today revolves around the way games are officiated, specifically related to drawing fouls, flopping, and other so-called "tricks of the trade". James Harden has become the poster child for this issue due to his ability to draw fouls and get to the line. Unsurprisingly, getting to the line is a very valuable part of winning basketball games, as it is included in Dean Oliver's Four Factors.

This factor is Free Throw Rate or FTR, and it refers to a team's or player's ability to draw fouls, get to the line, and ultimately make those free throw attempts.

Free Throw Rate = Free Throws Made/Field Goals Attempted

This metric is important for two primary reasons:

1. Free throws are very valuable. The NBA League Average FT% is 76%, which means .76 points are expected per free throw (on average in the league). So a shooting foul results in 1.52 expected points. A player would need to shoot 50% from 3 or 76% from 2 to equal these expected points. In other words, a possession that ends in a shooting foul has a very expected points value.

2. Getting the other team in foul trouble is very valuable. This aspect is important for two reasons. First, players in foul trouble play differently, play fewer minutes, and can foul out. Second, more fouls generate more free throws, as a team can enter the bonus and then depending on the rules shoot one-and-ones or two free throws for non-shooting fouls.

Western Con Semi-Finals (POR 4 - DEN 3)

In the 2019 Western Conference Semi-Finals, the Blazers were able to beat the Nuggets in 7. This was obviously a close and hard fought series and one of the reasons for that was the Nuggets ability to get to the line. Four players in the series were able to get to the line more than 5 times a game and 3 of them played for Denver.

POR FTR | 21.5% = 140 / 650
DEN FTR | 25.6% = 168 / 655

Denver's FTR advantage enabled them to make up the ground lost to Portland's effective field goal percentage advantage. But at the end of the day, it was not quite enough as Portland prevailed to move on to the Western Conference Finals.

At Pivot, we are incorporating the FTR as well as several other tried-and-true basketball metrics, such as offensive and defensive rating, into each of our applications. You can read more about each of them here:


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