Damn you Chris Paul! Was missing those two free throws at the end of the Portland game just before the All Star break some sort of karmic payment showing gratitude for DJ's epic makes only moments before? The subtle saga of Clipper free throw shooting, which has been a compelling study for me for some time now, was in full display in the critical Portland game, minus NBA leader J.J. Redick. Everything was set up for a stirring ASB review story -- and then CP3 went and missed his only two free throws of the night at the end of the game. It's not like it ruined everything, but it took away some of the punch.
The heart of the story here is that the free throw shooting of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan is epic drama in itself, and it's something that is absolutely crucial to team success. On Griffin's side, his jump to excellence at the line is a big part of his larger leap towards All-NBA status and improbably joining the conversation about top dog with LeBron and KD.
Griffin moved beyond fearlessness to a desire and even hunger to get to the free throw line, one of many switches that were flipped in short order that made him a 30-10-5 guy seemingly overnight, despite the fact that "the leap" was years in the making. Nowhere was the hard work, slow build and steady progress more evident than in Griffin's struggles at the free throw line. Last year it became clear that he was going to get it eventually, but it was still a painstaking process full of setbacks and delays. The story even has its own zero-to-hero narrative this season, as Griffin got off to a woeful start in the very first game, going 3-8 in the headscratching opener against the Lakers.
I was hoping to see Griffin start off the season at 70-75%, on his way to 80, but he dug a deep hole for himself. He missed 38 of his first 100 free throws (62%), and he was 69-111 through 17 games in November. But then things picked up, and he only missed 20 free throws out of his 2nd hundred--80%, obviously. That was in December, the deep hole was gone and his climb had begun. He leveled out at just over 70% over the next 200 free throws, and he was 287-406 after game 50.
The big jump after the December improvement/correction was in frequency, even as the percentage quality tailed off a bit. After December Griffin became eager to get to the line. His 10-11 effort in game 29 against Minnesota on December 22 was his 8th game with 10 or more attempts, and only the second time he recorded 10 makes. Now 36 games later, Griffin has 27 games with 10 or more attempts, and he has made 10 or more free throws a dozen times. He shot 355 free throws in those 36 games (just under 10 pg), making 250 of them. Griffin's attempts in his Player of the Month February were even higher: 123 attempts in 11 games, over 11 per. These are big numbers, as Griffin's total of 556 attempts is third in the league behind Kevin Durant (a crazy 532-611, just awesome and both tops in the league) and Dwight Howard (326-592, not awesome). Griffin is fourth in the league with 388 makes. These are easy points he wasn't getting his first three seasons in the league.
In Steve's off-season critique of Griffin's game, a year over year decline in free throw attempts per minute was a primary area of concern. Consider that problem ameliorated.
I zhived the lede pretty hard here, but the study of Blake Griffin's free throw numbers is compelling. I could go on. My main interest, however, in the topic at large is in the excellence of four particular Clipper free throw shooters, and this is where Chris Paul comes in. The longterm struggles of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have obscured the fact that the Clippers have had a core group of truly outstanding free throw shooters for the last two years, and the current quartet has a chance to do something very special, as they could all finish in the league's top ten. My primary study has been watching that quest for domination play itself out.
It was the free agent signing of Jamal Crawford that probably started this foolishness. I didn't know much about Crawford before he signed with the Clippers. Failing to note his 09-10 SMOY award in his first year in Atlanta was probably Western Conference bias on my part, but it was a big headline in signing him to play alongside 10-11 SMOY Lamar Odom. At the same time it was hard to miss the fact that Crawford had led the league in FT% the previous year, as an exception to his general struggles in Portland. In 2010-11 Crawford played 60 games and a low 1613 minutes (mostly out of position at PG), and he was 191-206 from the line, .927. Missing 15 free throws over the course of an entire season is impressive.
Crawford was joining Chris Paul, a very good free throw shooter throughout his career, around 85% and slowly climbing. Paul was 260-302, .861 in his first season as a Clipper. But CP3 wasn't the free throw maestro on the 2010-2012 rosters -- that was Chauncey Billups, a truly great free throw shooter. Before joining the Clippers Billups had four straight seasons of 91% free throws, and he was 85-95, .895 in 20 games before blowing out his Achilles. Billups managed to make 45-48 free throws (.938) in the otherwise regrettable 22 games he played for the Clippers last season. Chauncey's 130-143 as a Clipper ain't bad.
Billups was clearly done, and elite free throw precision was just about the only thing the Clippers figured to miss in his departure. Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford might provide a counterweight to Griffin and Jordan, but not a very compelling one. And then, after the summer dust settled, the new 2013-14 Clipper roster contained two more outstanding free throw marksmen: J.J. Redick and Darren Collison. Back in the ballgame! Redick would be top five in the league had he not missed so many games. (J.J. would have to make another 65 free throws this season to officially qualify, which is almost certainly not going to happen at this point.) His career percentage is Billups-like (864-977, .884), with the small proviso of 4000+ more attempts for Billups. Redick was 662-726, .912 in four years at Duke, including a remarkable 143-150, .953 as a sophomore. As a UCLA fan I knew that Collison was a good free throw shooter in college (349-410, .851), evolving toward excellence as a senior (113-126, .897), and his NBA career percentage (846-980, .863) slips in just above Chris Paul but below Redick.
So it was intriguing to have four outstanding free throw shooters on the Clipper roster at the start of the season, with rising hopes for Griffin and Jordan. Griffin started slowly, as noted, but Chris Paul came out on a tear, missing only one free throw in his first seven games, and making 63 out of his first 65. Perhaps the most amusing thing about tracking elite free throw shooting on a single team is the question of who shoots technical fouls. We all know Chris Paul is a competitor, and he seemed to want to erase any doubts about that question as the season began. And suddenly a new candidate has emerged to take the T's, as Danny Granger (55-58 on the season, a sparkling .948 well above his excellent career rate of .849) stepped to the line in the third quarter against the Suns. Paul settled into steady excellence after 10 games, reverting to his career standard of making 17 out of every 20. This places him at the bottom of the league's top 15.
Redick started out flawlessly from the line but he had fewer attempts than Paul, who was 16-17 on his way to 40+ points in game 2 against GSW. Redick was perfect in 16 attempts in the first five games, including 8-8 in game 4 against Houston. He was 51-55 before he was injured in game 17 against Sacramento, and that was enough for him to sit atop the league as he shut things down for six weeks. He's 34-38 since returning (and now missing some more games), good enough for him to still hold the lead until Dirk Nowitzki and D.J. Augustin went on their own tears. Regardless, this is the rarefied air over 91% where each miss moves the needle.
Oddly enough, it was the former FT champ Jamal Crawford who started out slowly for the Clipper elite. He was 4-7 after three games, bad enough, and a horrendous 21-31 after 13 games. One thing we've noticed about Crawford in his third year as a Clipper, however, is that he gets some good streaks going, and he notched 30+ in a row around the time he became a starter, soon after Redick was injured. In game 24 against the Brooklyn Nets Crawford missed 5 free throws, which was shocking. This all led to Crawford being mired in the mid-20s on the league leader board when Chris Paul got hurt. But then he began his climb. He still missed the occasional free throw, but his attempts went up, and he had an 11-12 game and two 10-11 outings. Crawford put up a streak of 33 straight (including a 12-12 game against Toronto) before Ralph mentioned it in the Portland game, and then he missed of course.
Darren Collison also played a much bigger role after Chris Paul's injury, and the added minutes enabled him to raise his attempts and get comfortable at the stripe. Collison has made 80-88 free throws since his installment as Paul's relplacement. He raised his percentage to .870 (127-146), good enough for 9th place on the leader board at the ASB. Crawford's climb was more dramatic and fun to watch, as he came up from the mid-20s to land at #13 (222-257, .855) going into the break. Redick is still on top. Collison successfully cracked the top 10, and Jamal Crawford is racing up the chart.
Which finally brings us back to Chris Paul and those two miscues against Portland. They could have cost the Clippers the game, but they didn't. And yes, maybe they were the price to be paid for DJ making his two absolutely necessary free throws on a previous play. But they were especially untimely, if not quite catastrophic, for the quest to get the entire Clipper quartet into the top 10. Paul dropped from .866, good enough for 11th place (and making them both would not have pushed him past Steph Curry), and fell all the way down to 16, at .857. Sacre bleu!
Even so, Crawford and Collison did some great work in the absence of Redick and Paul, and four free throw shooters in the top 20 (five if you include Granger) isn't bad at all. It's time for a deep breath, some centering, a renewal of focus and purpose. And know, if you've read this far, that any miss by one of these guys over the remainder of the season, is a heavy blow to the twisted and obsessional zhivian psyche. One final number: the ASB total for the Big Four was 602-692, .870.
Obviously it's impossible to discuss Clipper free throw shooting in great detail and ignore DeAndre Jordan. Let's start by taking the Big Four's current total of 706-814, .867, and add in Blake Griffin's 388-556, .698, which gets us 1094-1370, just shy of 80%. After his slow start we have to wait for next year for Griffin to contribute meaningfully to the Big Four, but it's something to look forward to, and the 80% isn't bad for now. DeAndre Jordan, however, has been a machine for missing free throws, and his 132-290, .455 drags the number for six players down to 74%.
I gave up hope on DJ's free throws pretty early on this season, fully satisfied by his phenomenal improvement in rebounding the ball, running, defending, and staying on the floor, with big props to Doc Rivers. My original goal for DJ to get off to a good start at 60% and stay there and maybe do a little climbing (just as Griffin's numbers would have ideally been 70% heading towards 80), but he was 3-12 in game two (when CP was 16-17) and the writing on the wall was clear. Lately things have changed a little bit, however. In the past, over the last couple of years, it seemed like DJ should be able to make free throws: his basic shooting form stabilized and he was working hard at it. We shouldn't forget that he shot .525 in 2011-2012, and that was as he was still settling into a consistent stroke. The 4-4 outing against Portland was the capper to a good run where DJ was making more free throws than he was missing, leaving out the odd Hack-the-DJ 10-22 game against Toronto. DJ has gone from "should" to "can": the 48-86, .558, since February seem to have reversed the tide and is the longest sustained run of over .500 foul shooting in his career. While it's fun to track the Big Four trying to squeeze into the NBA top 10 together, and Blake Griffin's free throw shooting is an interesting and important part of his ongoing general statistical barrage, nothing would be more satisfying than watching DeAndre Jordan become a consistently proficient free throw shooter. The cumulative effect or elite free throw shooters are the top and improvements for Griffin and Jordan is that while the Clippers have been 29th or 30th in the league in foul shooting since DJ became the full time starter, this season they are 25th -- a not insignificant jump.
Digging into these numbers and putting them into context was a fun pursuit both before and during All-Star Weekend. But now the last part of the season is underway, we're past the trade deadline and the buyout bonanza, and the Clips have a lot on their plate. Accuracy from the free throw line will not only be fun to watch and track, but it will also be an important component in their success and the type of performance and focus that they bring to the playoffs. Adding good (Glen Davis) to great (Danny Granger) foul shooters to the big man rotation is a stark contrast to the likes of Reggie Evans, Kenyon Martin, Lamar Odom and Ronny Turiaf coming off the bench in the last two postseasons. Perhaps this time around the Clippers strengths at the line will be the story rather than their weaknesses.