Getting to the line was a major weakness for the Wizards last year, but the pieces are in place to improve significantly.
Given their weapons, the Wizards' half-court offense underwhelming through much of last season. While often exceptional on the fast break, the Wizards were stagnant when the game slowed down, particularly during the final minutes of close games.
We covered the Wizards' shot distribution issues, which are unquestionably a significant part of the team's struggles. Aside from (and not unconnected to) this is another characteristic of recent Washington teams: they don't take many trips to the free throw line.
The 2014 Wizards ranked 25th in the NBA in free-throw attempts and 26th in free-throw rate (free throw attempts divided by field goal attempts, times 100). When they did manage to earn foul line trips, their conversion rate made you wish they hadn't. Washington ranked 25th in FT percent and 29th in overall free throws made. (This is all the more painful at the Verizon Center because there's no free chicken when the home team misses). For some historical perspective: this franchise has never had a team that made less free throws per game than they did in 2013-2014.
This doesn't have to be a fatal flaw. The San Antonio Spurs had among the lowest in free throw rate in 2014, but overcame the lack of free throw attempts with superlative ball movement and outside shooting. Golden State also managed to have a slightly above average offensive efficiency by shooting (and making) a plethora of three pointers.
But in general, teams that get to the foul line tend to be more efficient that those that don't.
This leads to an obvious question; is it Randy Wittman's schemes or the players that are the primary cause. The system does seem to matter, because an offense that includes so many mid-range shots is unlikely to rely on forcing contact. Three of the four least-frequent free-throw attempt seasons have come with Wittman in charge.
But personnel is important as well. While John Wall got to the line less frequently than he had in previous seasons, his 394 attempts still led the team by a healthy margin. Nene came in second on the team in foul shots with 266, which doesn't seem problematic until you consider he missed 29 games last year and was on a minute restriction for many others.
After that, the Wizards lacked players who could manufacture points by attacking the basket and getting to the free throw line. Wall and Nene were the only rotation players on the team to average over five free throw attempts per 100 possessions. Three of the Wizards key rotation players -- Trevor Booker, Bradley Beal and Martell Webster -- all posted a free-throw rate under 20 percent, well below the league average of 28.4 percent.
Beal's regression in this category was particularly damaging to his offensive efficiency. His free throw attempts per 100 possessions dropped from 4.7 in his rookie year to 3.8 during his sophomore campaign. As Truth About It's John Townsend noted here, Beal showed a reluctance to attack the basket early in the season right after his leg injury.
Free Throw Rate
That Beal's free throw rate picked up as the season went on is a promising sign for the coming season. Beal's playmaking ability reached its apex towards the end of the season and in the playoffs. For the first two months of the season, 30 percent of Beal's was scoring was unassisted, per NBA.com. That increased to 39 percent after all-star break, 45 percent in April and eventually peaking in the playoffs at 54 percent.
The Bulls series in particular showed off some of his increased confidence as a playmaker. On this key sequence in Game 2, he takes the smaller D.J. Augustin in the post and forces Taj Gibson to help, drawing a foul.
Here, Beal uses a slight hesitation on his dribble to get past Evan Turner and draw the foul against the Pacers.
Getting to the free throw line isn't all about aggressiveness. Sometimes a little artistry is involved. On this play, Beal draws Joakim Noah's fifth foul by selling the contact in a manner that would make James Harden proud. Beal drew four fouls from Noah in this game.
If Beal can turn his increased confidence as a playmaker into more trips to the line, it will go a long way to improving his offensive effectiveness. SInce he's also the Wizards most prolific shooter, it'll also go a long way to improving the team's efficiency as well.
The arrival of Paul Pierce, Kris Humphries and Dejuan Blair should have a strong effect as well. Only 11 players in NBA history have gone to the free throw line more than Pierce. Even last year, he averaged 7.8 free throws per 100 possessions despite having the lowest usage rate in his NBA career. His versatility on offense should provide the Wizards with a wing that can score effectively off the dribble and manufacture trips to the foul line.
Humphries and Blair also attempted foul shots at a more frequent rate than most of Washington's players, especially the ones they replaced.
Per 100 Possession rates
These additions should make the Wizards more effective at drawing fouls. This will hopefully include better shot selection as well, as foul trips aren't generally created through hoisting long jumpers from just inside the arc.
If Beal can get better at creating contact and Pierce can do what Pierce has generally done, this year's team should be far more effective at garnering free throw trips than any of Washington's recent squads. Since they won't have the three point marksmanship of Webster (for a few months) and Ariza (for the whole year), generating more foul shots will be essential to maintaining and improving Washington's offensive efficiency level in 2015.
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