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How Free Throws Pave Simmons’ Path To Stardom

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Why improving at the line can turn Simmons into a juggernaut.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Free Throws Are Amazing

  • Free throws are an extremely high possession value (1.50 PPP for Sixers last season)
  • Free throws stop the opponent’s momentum.
  • Free throws get the other team’s players in foul trouble.
  • Free throws make the fouler reticent to play aggressive defense
  • Free throws generally negate the opportunity for transition baskets
NBA: New York Knicks at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Remember, NBA teams think of 1.10 points per possession as the target threshold to beat.

Breaking it down numerically gives a new perspective on what teams would ideally achieve:

  • Two-point FG with a 55% chance of success or greater
  • Three-point FG with a 36.7% chance of success or greater
  • Two Free-Throws with a 55% FT-shooter or better
  • Three Free-Throws with a 36.7% FT-shooter or better (Refs caught on to James Harden Technique)

As you can see, the “Hack-a-Simmons” phenomena was a completely unjustifiable tactic. Anecdotally, it feels like the opponent who employs “Hack-A” strategies lose almost every time.

How would improving free-throw shooting impact Simmons overall efficiency?

True Shooting Percentage is a measure of a player’s scoring efficiency, adjusting for the value of three-pointers and free throws.

Here’s the 2017-18 leaders in TS%:

There appears to be a nice mixture of players who have the best combination of shot selection and effectiveness.

The equation is intuitive: Points Scored / (2* FGA + 0.44 * FTA.)

The .44 multiplier is because not all free throws take up a possession (Technicals, and-1s, etc).

TS% leaders maximize their team’s possession value, when they’re the ones shooting.

This is Ben Simmons rookie year:

Last season, 245 players played over 1200 minutes. Ben Simmons’ TS% ranked 119th.

Ben Simmons hit 191 of his 341 free throw attempts, or 56%.

So let’s assume Simmons reaches the level Brown fantasized about here:

Brown says the 75% level is their goal.

Last season, Simmons averaged 4.16 free throws per game. We’ll assume now that he knows he can hit 75%, he’s more aggressive attacking the rim and gets his free throws up to 6.0 per game (5.3 this season). That would take him from 341 to 486 total attempts.

Hitting 75% of his 486 free attempts would give him 365 total free throw points, or 174 more total.

This would raise his scoring average from 15.8 PPG to 17.9 PPG, which is not trivial gain.

But what would this do to his True-Shooting Percentage?

It would take him to 60.0% even or 43rd in the league, just behind Otto Porter, who I wrote recently wrote an article about.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Washington Wizards Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

With his new-found confidence from the line, he probably will also score additional points around the basket, with the opponent’s less-willing to challenge him on drives in fear of surrendering a possession with an expected value of 1.50 PPP or greater.

Surely Brett Brown knows that Simmons’ increase in attempts is Fool’s Gold:

His rookie season, his free throws took up 4.06% of the Sixers’ possessions at 1.12 PPP.

If Simmons averaged 6 free-throw attempts per game this season, that’d be ~2.8% of the Sixers’ possessions.

I often see people make a deductive error when looking at the statistic Free-Throw Rate (FTR).

If you look this season, Simmons’ “Free-Throw Rate” (FTR) has ballooned from .342 to .468. To many people this is something to celebrate, convincing them he’s being more aggressive getting to the line. Free-throw rate is simply of a measure of the ratio of field-goal attempts to free-throw attempts. Simmons is shooting fewer attempts from the field, which is probably not a positive trend.

Simmons is attempting 1.1 more free-throws per game this year, but that’s not even keeping up with the NBA’s inflated number of possessions thus far.

“But Eric, there’s less free-throw opportunities on a 14-second offensive rebound reset.”

Tell that to Joel Embiid, who had ~7.15% of possessions from the charity stripe last season, and has built up to 9.83% this year. Moreover, Embiid has improved his free-throw shooting the same amount as Simmons this season. The problem is that Simmons started at 56%.

If two people are having a weight-loss contest and the winner is chosen by who loses more raw pounds — the person who starts out much heavier has a gigantic advantage.

Ben Simmons should have been able to get up to 70% this season, then start to experience a plateau. An incremental improvement is not acceptable, especially when he refuses to shoot threes.

Brett Brown pandering to Liam Tribe and the Simmons’ camp is overdoing the “player coach” mentality.

Ben Simmons simply can’t continue refusing to shoot threes.

I’ve talked at length about how to improve his shot here.

Random Sixers Observations

  1. Brett Brown has to wait until the opponent puts weak guard on the floor before he calls Shamet’s number — it’s great to see his shooting carry over from Wichita St., but I’d put him on the “Eat Everything” diet immediately.
  2. The Sixers are hugely dependent on Wilson Chandler, given their utter lack of depth on the wing. The issue is he only knows about 60% of the playbook, and only cares about defense sometimes. Don’t get me wrong, his apathy probably makes him better in pressure situations, and he’s mediocre enough to fill a bunch of roles, but this is not a starter on a contender.
  3. Kudos to Brett Brown for finally putting Simmons in high-post, having simultaneous weak-side action and getting an easy layup — do this more!