A fresh New York Times article considers the incredibly constant overall rate of free throw percentages, over a time period that essentially covers all of modern basketball.
“It’s unbelievable,” Larry Wright, an adjunct professor of statistics at Columbia, said as he studied the year-by-year averages. “There’s almost no difference. Fifty years. This is mind-boggling.”
Two questions: is it possible for the league, at some point, for some yet unknown reason, to systematically improve overall free throw shooting? And if a team could do this thing, would they gain an honest-to-goodness competitive advantage?
We know, of course, there is variation among teams' free throw percentages. I suppose, though I don't really know, that teams who are motivated will shoot higher percentages. We also know that an improvement by someone like Joel Pryzbilla matters, because it can reduce the incentive to hack him. But is overall free throw performance an offset to other advantages that matter more? If we could invent a performance pill that improved free throw percentages from 75% to 80%, how much would it matter?
Given these statistics, you would have to think: not very much. I remember the University of Memphis coach saying that if there were 25 things he could do to improve his team, free throw shooting would be 26th.
So what is the state of the art on this topic?