1. No Free Throw Pablo: While the early struggles of the Knicks have been thoroughly discussed, what caught my attention was the play of backup point guard Pablo Prigioni. Prigioni is a solid player (14.1 PER so far this year) and has actually significantly outplayed starter Raymond Felton (whose struggles are a big factor in the Knicks’ terrible start). The interesting thing about Prigioni is that, despite playing 16 minutes a game, he has attempted zero free throws this year. Last year, Prigioni wasn’t exactly a free throw machine, but he did ultimately get to the line 25 times (making 22 of the attempts).
How is this dearth of free throws possible? Now, it is clear that Prigioni’s role is to stay on the perimeter and give spacing to Carmelo in the post. All Pablo has to do is stay outside and move the ball around and hit an occasional three. Prigioni has done this well, shooting .487% from three. But free throws are important. The ability to get to the line for easy buckets helps a player’s scoring efficiency and keeps defenses honest. Prigioni is a very extreme player. He has taken 49 shots and only 10 of them are from two. When you watch Prigioni, he will drive to the lane occasionally only to usually turn around and kick the ball out unless he has a wide open layup. His sports VU shot chart indicates that nine of his ten two pointers were layups (the last was probably a three where he had his foot on the line).
Is this type of extreme player less valuable than a player who puts up similar stats but has a more well-rounded game? My sense is that Prigioni is less valuable because the defense can prepare for such an extreme player and doesn’t have to account for the possibility that Prigioni will do anything other than shoot a three or shoot a point blank layup. But Prigioni is endlessly fascinating. He is a worthwhile player despite his extremes and he was probably really good ten years ago when he was in his prime and his game was a little more diverse.
2. FT Futility: So, Prigioni is on a pace for zero free throw attempts this year. He will likely at least have a few by the end of the year but his lack of attempts got me wondering who the least line happy players ever were. Prigioni plays about 16 minutes per game, so we ran a search of players who played at similar minutes and found the following on the “winners board” (minimum of 40 games played):
-Andris Biedrins, 2011-12: 1-9, .111% (47 games, 739 minutes)
-Troy Murphy, 2011-12: 6-9, .667% (59 games, 956 minutes)
-Kevin Gamble, 1996-97: 7-10, .700% (62 games, 953 minutes)
-Mike Miller, 2012-13: 8-11, .727% (59 games, 900 minutes)
-Larry Smith, 1991-92: 4-11, .364% (45 games, 800 minutes)
-Anthony Carter, 2009-10: 11-13, .846% (54 games, 859 minutes)
-Chris Duhon, 2012-13: 6-13, .462% (46 games, 820 minutes)
-Wesley Person, 2004-05: 9-13, .692% (41 games, 667 minutes)
Five players tied with 14 free throws and several more are tied on each number thereafter. Of course, this doesn’t account for (lack of) productivity by minute, so here are fewest free throws on a per/36 minute rate basis under the same minimum playing criteria:
-Troy Murphy, 2011-12: 0.3
-Andis Biedrins, 2011-12: 0.4
-Keith Bogans, 2012-13: 0.4
-Matt Bonner, 2008-09: 0.4
-Kevin Gamble, 1996-97: 0.4
-Mike Miller, 2012-13: 0.4
Interestingly, a lot of these players never played again or were really close to the end when they posted these weak numbers, supporting the notion that free throw attempts and athletic ability correlate well. While Murphy spent his final season shooting jumpers, Biedrins lack of free throws is really weird. He is a banger and he can’t shoot (he was one for nine from the line in 2011-12!), so one would think he would get more attempts just on intentional fouls when he got a rebound/put back. The low number that season does appear to be a bit flukey though because Biedrins has averaged a free throw per game this seasons (albeit in a small sample size).
But all of the above players were part-timers. Turning to regular players (ie players who averaged over 30 minutes per game), the worst free throw creator was Bruce Bowen back in 2002-03 (0.5 FT/36M). Bowen also came in second (0.6 in 2006-07), third (0.7 in 2005-06 and 2007-08), and fifth (0.9 in 2003-04). While a few other players had as low a rate as 0.6 (Dennis Rodman 1993-94 and Nick Anderson 1996-97), no one else could touch Bowen’s low in 2002-03. In all, Bowen has seven of the 80 lowest free throw rates for regular players.
Is it possible to make so few throws and be a good offensive player? Yes, but it is not easy. Of the bottom free throw shooters I found a few good(ish) offensive players. Notably, Pooh Richardson in 1990-91 was the whole offense for a terrible T-Wolf team and had: 1.0 FT/36M (17.1 ppg, 9.0 apg, 18.1 PER) but somehow, with all the touches, didn’t get to the line much. Even Nick Anderson in his abysmal shooting 1996-97 was close to average with a 13.8 PER.
3. Who Said It?: Charles Barkley is famous for many things, including tons of funny quotes. Early this year, when considering how early is too early to deem a good start for a team reflective of real improvement versus small sample size, an old Barkley quote I remembered popped into my head. To paraphrase, I recalled Barkley stating that he hated playing bad teams early in the year because they didn’t know how bad they actually were.
The quote seemed typical Barkley, silly and possibly profound at the same time. On the one hand, it is somewhat ridiculous to think a bad team would play better than its ability solely because they hadn’t logged enough losses to give up. On the other hand, there is something to the idea that, like the coyote chasing the road runner off the cliff in the old cartoons, gravity won’t kick in until you look down and take in reality that your team sucks. The concepts aside, I got curious and decided to look back and figure out the exact context of Barkley’s statement.
A quick search came up with an article the Tuscon Citizen back in late November 1994. The writer was putting together a bullet point column and the quote is referenced to describe why Arizona Wildcat fans should not be too distressed about an early loss:
“This may not be a college basketball note or quote, but it may offer some insight into why Arizona lost its first-round game to Minnesota in the Great Alaska Shootout. The start of the season is a tough time because the bad teams don’t know they are bad yet,’ said Phoenix forward Charles Barkley after the Suns lost their season opener to Sacramento.”
Here’s the problem: the quote doesn’t appear to be properly attributed to Barkley. The article offers the quote when Barkley was a member of the Suns and talks about a season opener loss to the Kings. At the time of the article, Barkley had played only one full season (1992-93) and about one more month (the first month of the 1993-94 season). Being a dutiful dork, I checked Barkley’s game logs from 1992-93 and 1993-94 and found no evidence of this game. In fact, in 1992-93, the Suns opened against the Clippers and won. They also started pretty strong going 5-1, including a drubbing of the Kings (whom Phoenix went 5-0 against that season). In 1993-94, the Suns did lose their opener but it was against a decent Lakers team (in the second game of the season they drubbed the Kings by 22). Incidentally, the Suns did not lose to any other bad teams in November 1993.
This leaves likely two possibilities: (1) the semi-famous quote is not accurately attributed or (2) Barkley made it after losing to the Lakers in the 1993-94 season opener or after some other random early season game. It seems more likely that the former is true. While the Lakers weren’t great in 1993-94, in the 1992-93 playoffs, they took Barkley’s Suns to the brink and it wouldn’t seem likely that he would dismiss them so quickly after a tough series. Nor could I find any other terrible early losses for the Suns in 1992-93 or November 1993 (as of the date of the article listed above).
In support of the idea of incorrect attribution, my searching yielded an article from only a few weeks earlier than the Tuscon article, this time by Jim Shea of The Courtant. Shea interviewed Hubie Brown for an NBA preview (Brown was promoting that night’s TNT doubleheader which, ironically enough, included the Phoenix-Lakers game discussed above). In addition to discussing the possible teams/stories to watch, Brown told Shea the following: “In early November and December you fear road trips because the bad teams don’t know they are bad yet and they play with great enthusiasm at home. Later in the season those teams know they are bad.”
So there you have it…it seems that the Barkley quote is definitively not Barkley’s (at least in the sense that he could’ve said it as a Suns player). Like many other famous(ish) sayings, this old maxim probably originated long ago and has taken on a life of its own. Perhaps someone with more research capability and time to waste can one day trace this one to its actual origin.