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Posted on October 23, 2009 | 18 Comments
[I was having a discussion with someone over at the Raptors Republic about Bargnani's developmental ceiling, when I brought up the same argument I have dozens of times. Instead of going back over the same stats that I always do, I realized I should put it in a post, which I can point people to, should the need arise, and save me the time typing and researching.]
In the NBA, there’s a big difference between someone who can score, and a great scorer. Someone like Andrea Bargnani can score. He’s an incredible shooter, and because of his ability to hit the three point shot, and his quickness, he is very good at getting defenders to bite on his shot fake and get by them. His pull up shot is something that guys a foot shorter would love to have. He’s also big enough to score over smaller defenders inside, which makes him a bit of a matchup nightmare. It’s no wonder many Raptor fans foresee stardom in Bargnani’s future. The problem, however, is that despite Bargnani being a great shooter, he’ll simply never become a great scorer. Why? The answer lies with his inability to get to the line.
You see, a top scorer needs to be able to do more than just shoot (whether from close or faraway). A top scorer needs to be able to score even when his shot isn’t dropping, or when he’s being defended so well he can’t get a clean look. The difference between a good scorer and a great scorer is the ability to manufacture points. In basketball, there’s only one place to manufacture points, and that’s at the free throw line.
Simply looking at how many times someone gets to the line can be misleading, however. Dwyane Wade went to the line an NBA leading 9.8 times a game last year. Obviously Wade is going to get to the line more than, say, Eric Gordon, of the Clippers. Wade has the ball far more, shoots more and the offense revolves around him. It might surprise you to learn, however, that Eric Gordon is almost as good at getting to the line as Wade. Sure, he went to the line less than half as many times, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Instead of looking at how many free throws a player attempts, you have to look at how many free throws a players attempts in relation to how many shots they take. This ratio is the best indication of how well they get to the line because how often a player gets to the line is directly tied to how often they shoot, no matter how often that is. The ratio remains fairly constant whether a player plays 15 mpg and shoots very little, or 40 mpg and shoots a lot.
Last season, for every 100 shots Eric Gordon took, he went to the line 38 times. That’s a very good average and one that shows he has good potential to, one day, become one of the NBA’s top scorers. For every 100 shots Wade took, he went to the line 44 times last season. So we’ll say that Wade has a FT/FG ratio of .440. Let’s look at the career FT/FG ratio of some of the NBA’s top scorers.
- LeBron James: .420
- Kobe Bryant: .400
- Dirk Nowitzki: .388
Yes, Dirk Nowitzki.
Now, I first came up with this ratio when some Raptor fans were trying to convince me that Charlie Villanueva was going to become a better scorer than Chris Bosh. Their logic was that Villanueva was a much more versatile scorer than Bosh, so obviously he should eventually be able to score more, right? Wrong. Villanueva was very bad at getting to the line. So bad, in fact, he had a FT/FG ratio similar to Jason Williams (.170). That’s awful, by the way, especially for someone with the offensive skills of Villaneuva. Of course, they argued that it was so low because Sam Mitchell had him stuck on the three point line and because he was playing out of position at small forward. Three point shooters don’t get to the line as much as slashers, right? Well, that’s true, except when you’re talking, again, about the top scorers.
Even in Dirk’s rookie season, which was considered a bit of a disaster. He only scored 8.2 ppg after Don Nelson famously touted him as a future star. Many scoffed at that prediction after that rookie season, but a closer look would have shown that he still showed ability to become a great scorer. You guessed it. He had an excellent FT/FG ratio of .381 (very close to his career FT/FG ratio). His field goal percentage was not very good (.405), and his vaunted three point shooting was nowhere to be seen (.206), but he could manufacture points.
Now, I must add here that the FT/FG ratio of players fluctuate very little from their first season to when they start to decline (more on that later). The fluctuation is generally under 10%. It’s how a player plays. It’s pretty much ingrained by the time they reach the NBA. Either they are aggressive and look for contact, or shy away from it. As evidence, we look again at Villanueva. Last year, his best statistical season of his career, was his fourth full season (third in Milwaukee), one in which he started more than half the games, and played the entire season at his more natural position of power forward. His FT/FG ratio was a slightly better .220. It’s pretty safe to say that Villanueva, despite his offensive gifts, will never be a top scorer in the league because he can’t manufacture points. A bad shooting night or a good defender means he won’t score.
That takes us back to Andrea Bargnani. In Bargnani’s rookie season, his FT/FG ratio was .227. That’s lower, by the way, than Jose Calderon’s rookie season (.295) or last season (.239), when he was injured. Not good, but Sam Mitchell had him camped out at the 3 point line most of the time, didn’t he? It’s not his fault he couldn’t get to the line. Well, last season, which saw him breakout and become the scoring threat many envisioned, he saw his FT/FG ration jump to .277. Not a ratio that is going to get him in the top ten in scoring. Okay, but what about after he broke out and became a starter at center? A minutely better .278.
Before you say that the FT/FG ratio doesn’t mean anything, let’s take a look at the ratio of all the top ten scorers for this past year, as well as their ratio for this past year, their rookie year and for their career.
Everyone is in a pretty similar range. Kobe and Dirk had the lowest ratio of the top ten scorers, but they’re also the oldest players. Perimeter players tend to get to the line less once they hit a certain age. For some, like Jordan, that age is a little later. His ratio only went down once he came out of retirement the second time. It’s not surprising. As players get older, they want to save the wear and tear on their body, and try and avoid the contact, rather than initiate it. Does this mean that Kobe and Dirk are declining? I’d say so.
Also, LeBron had a relatively low ratio of .308 in his rookie season. His jump of 17% is one of the highest I’ve seen.
Chris Bosh’s ratio is excellent, and is why he has the ability to be such a good scorer. Inside players, however, generally have a higher FT/FG ratio than perimeter players. Shaq’s career ratio is .580. Dwight Howard’s is an astounding .781, although that’s partly due to the fact that he is such a bad free throw shooter than players foul him intentionally rather than give up the dunk.
These numbers are pretty similar no matter what year you look at. Top scorers get to the line. It’s always been that way in the NBA.
Bargnani went from .227 in his rookie season to .277 last season. Certainly nothing that indicates that he has the potential to be a 25 ppg scorer, as some seem to believe. In many ways, Bargnani is incredibly similar to Villanueva. In Villanueva, Raptor fans mistakingly saw a player who would supplant Bosh as the franchise player, and someone who would eventually become a better scorer than Bosh, simply due to their offensive versatility.
See, versatility is nice, but in the end, it all boils down to putting the ball in the basket. Karl Malone scored the second most points in NBA history by having little else but a short jumper and a good first step (as well as being stronger than just about everyone else). He wasn’t exactly Kevin McHale in the post, but what he did do was get to the line. Malone’s .503 FT/FG ratio allowed him to get over a quarter of his 36,928 points from the line.
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