Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images
The 2012 Philadelphia 76ers do so many things well, it feels almost unfair to knock them for what they don't do well. Rebounding is an issue, interior depth is one as well, but the Granddaddy of them all is foul shooting. And until I took a look at the numbers, I didn't realize just how terrible things are in that department.
As far back as Basketball Reference can remember (1946), there have been only two teams with a winning percentage over .500 to average 20 or less free throw attempts per game and they've both been in the last decade. The San Antonio Spurs of 2008-09, who finished dead last in the league with 20.01 attempts on average, and the 2005-06 Phoenix Suns, led by Mike D'Antoni the year Amar'e Stoudemire missed the season, who also finished at the bottom of the NBA, with an average of just 17.99 free throws per game. Both teams, strangely enough, ended the season with a 54-28 record, a .659 winning percentage.
The Sixers this season have attempted 474 foul shots in 25 games for an average of 18.96 per outing. That only puts them 26th in the league. All of the other teams are under .500 except the Houston Rockets, who boast an even lower 18.64 FTs per game. The Rockets are 14-11, good for a .560 winning percentage thus far. What the Sixers are doing - shooting an abysmally low amount of foul shots, yet winning almost three-quarters of their games (.720) - is unprecedented in basketball history. Yes, they're a terrific defensive team, and yes, they're taking care of the basketball at an equally-historic rate, but if they don't get to the line more often, they will not get far into the postseason. In the more immediate sense, those numbers indicate that the rate at which the Sixers are winning is unsustainable.
While the Spurs lost in the first round to the Mavericks in the '09 playoffs, the Suns' unique offense under D'Antoni actually made it to the Western Conference Finals, where they also lost to the Dallas Mavericks (in a great series). The Sixers are equally unique of a team, but without the shooters the Suns have, it's extremely worrisome to think of what happens when shots stop falling for a few games. Getting to the foul line for free points (something only Louis Williams does reasonably well), is crucial to a team's long-term success because they will eventually go cold.
We'll see if the Sixers can find themselves at the stripe more as the season goes on or if they can keep defying the tremendous odds against them that this will not keep working.