Examining Tim Duncan’s astounding FT improvement

Jacob Eisenberg reports on Tim Duncan’s abnormally high free throw percentage…

Tim-Duncan Featured Image

Tim Duncan is a pretty darn bad free throw shooter. If you’ve been following the NBA for the past decade and a half, you have probably come to accept that truism.

Except for one thing:

It isn’t true anymore.

It’s not even close to true. It is, in fact, astoundingly untrue this season.

Duncan went to the free throw line four times in San Antonio’s 90-85 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday, and he knocked down all four.

That perfect performance bumped his season percentage up to .826, ranking him 39th in the league. And Monday marked the 20th consecutive game in which Duncan has not missed more than one free throw — an astounding string for a player whose struggles from the line earlier in his career were viewed as his defining deficiency.

Duncan has been perfect from the line in 16 games — all of which have come since Nov. 23 in the Spurs’ 13th game of the season. He is ranked higher, percentage-wise, than Tony Parker, Luol Deng, Danilo Gallinari, Russell Westbrook, Paul George and J.R. Smith – all of whom have made more than 80 percent of their attempts.

What’s up with this transformation?

“I have done nothing to change my shot at the line. I really do not know what it is,” said Duncan, a career 69 percent shooter who bottomed out at .599 in 2003-04.

Although there was another moment when he bottomed out even worse, on the NBA’s biggest stage.

On June 19th, 2005, the San Antonio Spurs were a minute of basketball away from taking a commanding 3-2 lead over the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals at the Palace of Auburn Hills. With an 88-87 lead and with Duncan at the free throw line for two shots, Spurs fans had to like their chances of pulling out the victory.

Then, something bizarre happened: the ever-composed Duncan lost total control. Already having missed his first three free throw attempts of the fourth period, Duncan stood at the line with a minute left and helplessly missed his next two free shots.

When he returned to the line with an opportunity to give his team the lead with 34 seconds left, Duncan missed another crucial free throw to mark six consecutive missed shots.

A game that the Spurs should have won handily was forced into overtime.

Had it not been for Spurs’ forward Robert “Big Shot Bob” Horry’s heroic 3-pointer with 5.8 seconds to steal the win from Detroit, the Pistons would have won Game 5 of the finals and probably would have gone on to win the 2005 NBA Championship in large part to Duncan’s 4-for-11 night at the line.

After the game, Duncan called his performance “an absolute nightmare” to the media. It was the first (and perhaps the only) time Duncan has looked mortal on the NBA’s largest stage.

But that was a long time ago.

Over the course of history, it has been a common occurrence for poor free throw shooters to improve their free throw percentages throughout their NBA careers.

Karl Malone, for example, shot only 48% from the free throw line as a rookie. However, Malone became a 70 percent free throw shooter by his third year in the league and shot worse than 70 percent only once more in his 19-year career.

In Malone’s case, his poor free throw shooting was due to a combination of a lack of confidence and poor form. Both of these issues were easily corrected as he matured mentally and physically into an NBA star.

However, for already decent free throw shooters, improving free throws is another matter entirely.

Without identifiable issues in mentality or form, it is hard for coaches to point out something tangible for the shooters to correct. Consequently, in nearly every case, decent free throw shooters do not improve nor regress throughout their careers. They merely remain decent.

This trend is what makes Duncan’s sudden improvement at the line so fascinating. Duncan, at age 36, has finally broken out of the “decent” category and is becoming a consistent converter at the line. In fact, Duncan is on pace to do what only two players in NBA history (Kevin Willis in 1998, Jamal Mashburn in 2001) have done before him: improve his free throw percentage by 13% or greater from his career average.

For the past 15 years, Duncan has dominated the NBA. With four championships and career averages of 20+ points and 11+ rebounds a night, it is safe to anoint Duncan as the most unheralded superstar in league history. While he has been the epitome of consistency throughout his career with both high efficiency and unique durability for a big man (Duncan has never played fewer than 58 games in a full season), merely decent free throw shooting has always been the lone blemish on Duncan’s otherwise pristine resume.

Though he has never been a consistent albatross like Shaquille O’Neal at the line, Duncan has not exactly been Steve Nash when it comes to cashing in on his free shots either.

“Opponents have never fouled him expecting him to miss,” said third-year teammate Gary Neal. “For a big man, his free throw shooting has never been great but it is not like it has not been bad.”

But for stars of Duncan’s caliber, greatness is expected in all facets of the game. And if one were to nitpick on Duncan, his subpar free throw shooting is an easy target. Consider this: over his 15 years with the Spurs, Duncan has left nearly 2,500 points unfulfilled at the line.

This season, however, the script has been flipped. While teams have historically lived with fouling Duncan in the post and sending him to the free throw line, opponents now have to be extra careful in defending Duncan in the paint. If they guard him cautiously, he will score over you. However, if you defend him over-aggressively — more times than not — Duncan will reward his team with two points at the line.

The 82 percent Duncan is shooting is perhaps the biggest upgrade for San Antonio this season. After all, Duncan has not made over 73% of his free throws since the 2001-2002 season. This year, improved free throw shooting has led to Duncan scoring more points a game than he has since 2009-2010.

So why, at 36 years old, does it appear that Duncan has finally mastered the art of free throw shooting? The truth is, no one knows.

Or is saying with any specificity.

Tony Parker, Duncan’s longtime All-Star teammate, can only suspect that Duncan is shooting better from the line because he has changed his mentality.

“He is shooting with a lot of confidence. When I first came into the league, he was shooting great from the line too. He has had some off years recently but that is how it is. Free throws can come and go.”

Interestingly, Neal suspects that Duncan’s improvement at the line comes in direct relation with the 36-year-old’s aging body: “Free throw shooting is the one aspect of his game that he can improve without a lot of wear and tear in training. I think his improvement comes from practicing and working with the shooting coach Chip Engelland over the summer. He is focusing better at the line. He is shooting it great. It is just another credit to him being a Hall of Famer and having a great work ethic.”

While the Spurs have collectively noticed Duncan’s improvements at the line, no one ever doubted Duncan and his ability to become a strong free throw shooter. Head Coach Gregg Popovich said, “I think it is great. I am not surprised.”

So, come crunch time, does Duncan’s added efficiency at the line make him even more of a focal point in the offense? Not necessarily…

As Parker said with a smile, “I am going to feed Tim regardless of his free throw shooting. He is our go-to-guy.”

Still, the career-high free throw percentage has to add some confidence to the team’s morale toward the end of games.

So as Duncan continues to shoot his free throws with the most confident stroke of his career, memories of Game 5 of the 2005 NBA Finals are growing more distant by the day.

Originally published on Sheridanhoops.com on 01/22/2013

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