The Stats Say: Dwight Howard’s woeful free-throw shooting might actually be benefiting the Rockets

Popular wisdom says that if Dwight Howard improves his free-throw shooting, then the Rockets will win more games. The reasonable-sounding argument goes like this: If Dwight could only make 75% of his free throws – the League average – then he would make 8.7 (rather than 6.1) of his 11.6 attempts per game, so the Rockets would score 2.6 more points per game, which would increase their expected number of wins by 6 or 7 games (according to the Pythagorean expectation), which could be the difference between a sixth seed and a third seed in the playoffs, which would be huge.

But that assumes that Dwight would continue to have the same number of free-throw attempts.  In reality, if Dwight managed to consistently shoot 75% from the line, Hack-a-Dwight would no longer be a viable strategy for opponents and they would no longer find it so attractive to tackle Dwight during every post move, so his FT attempts would probably drop by more than half. And that makes all the difference because free throw attempts are more valuable than they at first seem.

With the exception of wide open lay ups and wide open corner threes, free throws are the most efficient play in basketball. Even though he’s one of the worst free-throw shooters in NBA history, a Dwight Howard trip to the line tends to be more efficient than an average Rocket offensive possession. So far this season, the Rockets are scoring 1.05 points per possession, and 1.06 points when Dwight goes to the line, and that’s not even considering And-1 opportunities and the potential for offensive rebounds. Plus, the more Dwight gets sent to the line, the more effective the Rockets will be on defense since there will be fewer transition opportunities for the other team. And the more Dwight gets fouled, the more likely the opponent’s best players are to get themselves in foul trouble.

Here’s the simplest way of putting it. Improving Dwight’s free-throw percentage would have two conflicting effects: (1) on the positive side, it would make Dwight’s trips to the line more efficient, (2) on the negative side, it would reduce his total number of trips to the line (and thereby reduce overall efficiency and reduce the likelihood of getting the other team in foul trouble). To estimate which effect outweighs the other, we have to make some assumptions. Here are the main assumptions I made:

  • Dwight’s FT attempts would gradually decline as his FT% increased, with the steepest decline happening at a FT% around 60-65% (because that’s roughly when teams would not longer find Hack-A-Dwight worthwhile). If his FT% improved all the way to 75%, his free-throw attempts would drop from 11.6 to 4.6 per game.
  • On an ordinary possession, the Rockets are expected to score 1.05 points and give up 1.013 points to their opponent. (source)
  • After a Dwight free throw, the Rockets’ opponents will score at a rate 10% worse than normal since the Rockets have time to set up their defense.
  • If a player misses the back end of a free throw, his team has a 14% chance of grabbing the offensive rebound. (source)
  • 11% of Dwight’s free throw attempts are And-1 opportunities. (source)
  • If Dwight improved his FT% to 75%, Rockets’ opponents would be in foul trouble less often, which means that in about 25% of all possessions, the Rockets would be 5% worse on offense and 5% worse on defense.

Using those assumptions, I made some convoluted calculations to arrive at these estimates:

Dwight hypothetical FT percentage

These estimates should be treated with at least several grains of salt since they rely on so many assumptions, some of which have no basis in the data at all. The important and interesting point is not the precise estimates but rather the idea that improving Dwight’s FT% may paradoxically hurt the team.

I’ll preempt one criticism: No, this does not mean that James Harden should work on missing more free throws. Harden draws fouls without his opponents wanting to or trying to, so he would probably make a fairly constant number of trips to the line regardless of his FT%. Dwight Howard is a different story.

The gist of this quick and dirty analysis is that, all things considered, sending Dwight to the line is more likely to help rather than hurt the Rockets, so improving his FT% could hurt the team if it meant that he would be sent to the line much less often.

(By the way, there’s another, more indirect way that improving his FT% could hurt the Rockets. The time Dwight spends trying to improve his FT% is not being spent improving other aspects of his game which could help the team more.)

——

Somewhat related: Contrary to what has been said, Dwight Howard’s FT% is not and has never been significantly better on the road than at home. But there have been two statistically significant and fairly dramatic drops in his total FT%: the first after his rookie year (presumably when he gained more strength), and the second around the time of his back surgery. The charts below show his FT% by age with 90% confidence intervals.

Dwight home vs road FT percentage

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Total comments: 18
  • 2016Champions says 7 months ago

    Dwight's form on his free throws is definitely looking better and better, I think he can get back to that 57% mark eventually.

  • rocketrick says 7 months ago

    Good comment, SadLakerFan. You raise a couple of points:

    First, is it possible/likely that Dwight will improve his FT%? It's certainly possible. Other players have done it. You mentioned Chris Webber and Dale Davis. Some other examples are Karl Malone, Ron Seikaly, and Bernard King. But is it likely? Probably not. There are plenty more examples of players who were bad FT shooters who never significantly improved. I think the best comparisons to Dwight (in terms of career FT% and FTA) are Shaq, Wilt, and Bill Russell, and none of those players significantly improved their FT%.

    Second, would Dwight's FTA actually decrease if he shot at higher percentage? You're arguing that maybe it would free him to be more aggressive and that he would thus get to the line more often and be a better overall offensive player. There's probably some truth to that, but my guess is that the disapperance of Hack-a-Dwight would overwhlem whatever positive effect his added aggression would have. (I don't think Chris Webber is a fair comparison because he was never hacked at nearly the rate of Dwight.)


    Reminds me in my youth watching Wilt shoot his free throws "granny style" . That was some ugly free throw shooting! Rick Barry shot that way, too, and much more successfully. I tried shooting some free throws that way a few times and always ended up cracking up laughing and missed.
  • SadLakerFan says 8 months ago

    I wonder, how in the world did Webber manage that kind of improvement over one summer? Has he ever explained it?

  • j_wehr says 8 months ago
    Good comment, SadLakerFan. You raise a couple of points:
    First, is it possible/likely that Dwight will improve his FT%? It's certainly possible. Other players have done it. You mentioned Chris Webber and Dale Davis. Some other examples are Karl Malone, Ron Seikaly, and Bernard King. But is it likely? Probably not. There are plenty more examples of players who were bad FT shooters who never significantly improved. I think the best comparisons to Dwight (in terms of career FT% and FTA) are Shaq, Wilt, and Bill Russell, and none of those players significantly improved their FT%.
    Second, would Dwight's FTA actually decrease if he shot at higher percentage? You're arguing that maybe it would free him to be more aggressive and that he would thus get to the line more often and be a better overall offensive player. There's probably some truth to that, but my guess is that the disapperance of Hack-a-Dwight would overwhlem whatever positive effect his added aggression would have. (I don't think Chris Webber is a fair comparison because he was never hacked at nearly the rate of Dwight.)
  • SadLakerFan says 8 months ago

    I think the biggest flaw in the article is the assumed decrease in free throws attempted. This is all probably moot, since very few NBA players actually make such a huge mid-career jump in free throw percentage. But, there are a few - Tyson Chandler, Dale Davis and Chris Webber all made the leap from the 50's to the 70%+ in FT%. In all cases, I believe their free throw attemps went UP, not down. Webber was already a 20-10 guy when he improved from 45% to 75% inhis seventh year, the biggest one year improvement in history (I think).. Hebecame more aggressive on offense and he went from a very good playter to one that merits Hall of Fame consideration.

  • thejohnnygold says 8 months ago

    For those who are confused by charts, graphs, and numbers here is everything one needs to take away from the article as quoted from said article:

    "The gist of this quick and dirty analysis is that, all things considered, sending Dwight to the line is more likely to help rather than hurt the Rockets, so improving his FT% could hurt the team if it meant that he would be sent to the line much less often."

    Seems simple enough to me. He's not saying it's a fact--just that from one perspective it could actually be the case. The critics view Dwight's ft% in a vacuum. Wehr is accounting for the fact that other things happen on the court which is a realistic way to look at it.

  • BenQueens says 8 months ago

    Here's another way of thinking about it. Imagine Omer Asik was a 90% free-throw shooter. Would you choose to play him over Dwight in the final 2 minutes of close games?

    If we were up, yes- presumably the other team would also be trying to stop the clock, and I'd want my best FT shooters on the floor. If we were down, no: Games are refereed differently in their waning moments, and I'd want someone more likely to score through contact than someone who could hit FTs that won't be awarded.

    I'm intrigued by the premise, but it seems most accurate to me describing mid-game play (if Hack-a-Who is a defensive strategy to minimize points) than at the end of games (where a team that is fouling intentionally is gravitating to the worst FT shooter on the floor).

  • j_wehr says 8 months ago

    Good comment, Drew. I see what you're saying and think it's a reasonable theory. It's something we could test by looking at how Dwight's, Shaq's, and Wilt's teams have done in the final 2 minutes of close games vs. teams led by a center with a decent FT%. My guess would be that there wouldn't be much of a difference. I think bad end-of-game offense is the result of a lot of things, with maybe the primary ones being hero ball and nerves.

    Here's another way of thinking about it. Imagine Omer Asik was a 90% free-throw shooter. Would you choose to play him over Dwight in the final 2 minutes of close games?

  • timetodienow1234567 says 8 months ago

    Quote:



    I think j_wehr did a good job of not saying that missing the free throws is a great thing for the team, but instead trying to examine a topic that is almost always viewed negatively in a different light. He used stats that were available to him and made some assumptions, but clearly delineated between the two. If I understand the article, I think he meant for readers to reexamine how badly Howard's free throws are affecting the Rockets, and consider that maybe that the problem isn't as dire as pundits might have us believe.[/quote

    He came to the conclusion that Dwight hitting free throws hurts the team. Maybe it's just me, but that's not a sound conclusion. Is it as bad as pundits are saying? Of course not. Is saying it is a positive going too far? Yes. That's where I'm coming from. I apologize if my sarcasm offended anyone.
  • Drew in Abilene says 8 months ago

    I think j_wehr did a good job of not saying that missing the free throws is a great thing for the team, but instead trying to examine a topic that is almost always viewed negatively in a different light. He used stats that were available to him and made some assumptions, but clearly delineated between the two. If I understand the article, I think he meant for readers to reexamine how badly Howard's free throws are affecting the Rockets, and consider that maybe that the problem isn't as dire as pundits might have us believe.

    If you disagree with his premise, that's perfectly fine, but please post your disagreement respectfully.

  • timetodienow1234567 says 8 months ago It was sarcasm, but this premise is as bad as an article I read on ESPN praising Kobe for his misses since it gave Pau and Bynum opportunities for putbacks. While these are mitigating circumstances, I don't think it's a positive for Howard to miss so many free throws.
  • Drew in Abilene says 8 months ago

    I think you brought up some interesting issues that could relieve at least a little of the pressure on Dwight. I would argue that Dwight's poor free throw shooting is a reason why our late-game offense has been stagnating so often.

    In the last two minutes, teams can't intentionally foul him like they can in other situations, but the Rockets also can't afford to drop the ball in to him in the post for fear of an immediate foul. This ruins the inside-out game that has resulted in so many open looks for our perimeter shooters. Without the threat of passing to Howard, defenders around the three point line are more likely to stick close to their man, since they know they won't have to double team Howard.

    I don't have any stats to back up the theory, but the eye test makes me believe that Howard's free throw shooting limits Houston's play-makers significantly during those last two minutes. Their options are fewer than typical, especially since it's legal to foul Howard when if they attempt a pick and roll. Since the Rockets have fewer options available, that means the defense has fewer variables to account for, which I think would make their job defending easier. All of this creates pressure and strain for the offense as they are bottled up against a team that is surging in the final minutes. This tightness could factor in to why shots toward the end of the game aren't falling and why a typically fluid offense often ends up as Harden isos.

    With all that said, your research is interesting and makes me reconsider some of what I've thought about Howard from the charity stripe.

  • j_wehr says 8 months ago

    timetodienow1234567, as one of Red94's most frequent commenters, I think many of us would be grateful if you exercised a bit more attention to what people are saying and a bit less sarcasm and sardonicism.

  • timetodienow1234567 says 8 months ago I agree. I think players should stop working on free throw shooting altogether. It's much better to miss free throws than make them.
  • 2016Champions says 8 months ago

    Nice. I would prefer Dwight free throws over Harden isos, hands down. Morey actually tweeted after the Celtics game that it's a horrible strategy if Dwight makes half.

  • j_wehr says 8 months ago

    Good comment, Chichos. I agree that the point of this post should be to deflate the criticism of his FT% rather than make definitive statements. It's far too complicated of a problem to make definitive statements, and I hope it didn't sound like I was making any. This post merely illustrates that it's not unreasonable to think that Dwight's FT% might be beneficial (just like it's not unreasonable to think that it might be harmful).

    Regarding your specific points...

    1a. Would a better FT% mean that he would draw more or less double teams? I would assume he would draw slightly more since defenders couldn't as easily resort to tackling him. (But he seems to draw quite a lot as is, so I doubt it would be a really dramatic difference.)

    1b. Would drawing more double teams be a better thing for the Rockets (i.e., is Dwight a good enough passer for the Rockets to capitalize on double teams)? When he gets doubled now, it seems like he turns it over about as often as (if not more often than when) he makes a good pass. I'd lean toward saying it would be a slightly bad thing.

    2. Would a better FT% mean that Dwight gets more And-1 opportunities? I can see arguments on both sides. My guess is that it would lead to a slightly higher _rate_ of And-1 opportunities but fewer And-1 opportunites overall (since his total FTA would drop quite a bit).

  • Chichos says 8 months ago

    I think you glossed over what is admitedly the toughest part of the analysis which was what happens to his TS% and FGA once teams can no longer foul him constantly. Theoreticaly he gets better looks for himself once people have to play him one on one. I would assume he draws more good "Harden" fouls where the opponent is doing his best to play defense instead of tackling. Plus you would expect the percentage of open looks from the perimeter to increase as more traditional doubles come from perimeter players.

    I know we have to make some static assumptions to perform the analysis but saying Howard's poor free throw shooting is beneficial is pretty strong. I think this analysis does more toshow Howard's free throw woes aren't hurting the Rockets as much as many pundits claim than say shootinga higher efficiency would not necessarily make the Rockets better.

  • SDrake says 8 months ago

    Great analysis. You confirm what I've always thought... As long as he can make a little better than 50%, he's a more efficient offense than trying to score on 2s and 3s.

    Another analysis I'd like to see you do is examine Harden's shooting percentage during the last minute of games. Perhaps it's just selective memory on my part, but he can't seem to ever make anything he throws up during the last minute of games. But the strategy seems to be that only Harden is allowed to shoot during the last minute of games.