Sunday, February 25, 2024

Warriors fans think Stephen Curry deserves more free throws, but the data suggests otherwise

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It seems to me, and maybe this is because I’m more in tune with all things Warriors than any other team in the NBA, that frustrations regarding the way Golden State, and more specifically Stephen Curry, are being officiated are higher than normal this season. 

Two things about that. One, the Warriors are two games above .500 clinging to a playoff spot with one of the worst road records in the league. Fans are on edge, and thus, even more prone to whining than usual. 

Two, the Warriors’ extreme free-throw disparity has been widely cited all season. At 20.1 per game, Golden State attempts the fewest free throws in the league. At 25.4 per game, their opponents attempt the sixth-most free throws in the league. 

This is a hill they are trying to climb every night, and it’s steep. You have to make a lot of shots to overcome that kind of free-throw discrepancy, and the natural tendency is to want to blame the refs, as though this is a league-wide initiative to keep the Warriors off the free-throw line. 

This is madness. And it needs to stop. 

Though I’m fully aware that it won’t. 

Scapegoating officials for your own inadequacies is a time-honored basketball tradition. 

But back here, in reality, teams and players have, barring exceptions, been making their own luck with officials since basketball started. Which is to say, to whatever extent the Warriors get an unlucky whistle, it’s their own fault. 

You want to shoot more free throws? Attack the rim more. Golden State initiates 36.8 drives per game, per tracking data, the second-fewest in the league. What’s more, on those 36.8 drives per game, they pass out of them 42.3% of the time, which is the league’s second-highest drive-to-pass ratio.

In other words, the Warriors are infrequent drivers, and on the rare occasion that they do go to the basket, they don’t do it to finish at the rim or draw contact. They drive to kick out to their shooters. That’s not how you draw fouls. 

The same is true of Golden State’s post-up game. At 4.7 per game, the Warriors rank 19th in post-up rate, but at 59.2% they rank first, by a mile, in pass frequency out of those posts. The Warriors don’t throw the ball down low to Kevon Looney or Draymond Green with the intention of those guys drop-stepping to the rim and creating contact. They post to pass. Everything is a mechanism to create space for their shooters, not to draw fouls. 

Space. That’s the most important word in all this. Everything the Warriors do is in an effort to create, and ultimately score in, large swaths of space. That’s how Curry, as the most defensively tracked shooter in history, still manages to take a league-leading 5.9 “open” 3-pointers per game, which is defined as the closest defender being four-to-six feet away, and 3.3 “wide-open” 3s (closest defender at least six feet away). 

Do the math, and 9.2 of Curry’s 11.3 3-point attempts per game, or 83%, are classified as either open or wide open. This is the result of a team that operates almost entirely off screens, which are inherently used to get a scorer away from the defender. The Warriors, in a total flip of conventional basketball wisdom, aim to create their leverage uphill, with pindown picks for defense-lifting shooters, rather than downhill. 

Downhill, into traffic, is what creates fouls. 

That said, Curry is a relatively frequent driver at 9.0 per game, not too far south of LeBron James‘ 9.9. However, don’t fall victim to the idea that simply driving the ball entitles you to a certain amount of foul calls. Broadcasters, coaches, pretty much everyone loves to cite extreme free-throw disparities with the implication being there is some unwritten rule that there should, at the end of a game, be a certain level of equality as it pertains to free-throw distribution. 

This is not the case. In general, there are contact finishers and creative finishers. Luka Doncic, Ja Morant, Zion Williamson, Giannis Antetokounmpo, these guys do not avoid contact. They seek it. It’s no surprise that they are among the league’s top driving foul drawers. 

Curry is a creative finisher. He aims, in general, to avoid contact, to finish around defenders, under them with fancy flips, over them with high arcs, etc. A similar finisher is Kyrie Irving, who, for reference, earns a foul call on 6.6% of his drives. Want to know Steph’s foul percentage on drives? 6.6%. 

Fact is, Curry’s 6.6% driving foul rate is very close to Donovan Mitchell’s 7.1%, and Mitchell is a far more physical driver. Bottom line: Curry is not getting unlucky on calls. He makes his own luck, or lack thereof. 

Two more things worth mentioning. First, Curry is terrible at selling contact. There is nothing natural about his flails. It’s the one part of the game for which he doesn’t have a good feel. Combine that with his lack of consistent attacking, and there is no attrition factor with the officials. If you’re constantly driving, constantly selling contact in a convincing way, officials are human. They start to give in. Curry doesn’t put that kind of pressure on them. 

Second, Curry does have a legitimate beef with the way he’s fouled off the ball. As he winds his way all over the court, he’s constantly being held. But this is no different than a guy like Joel Embiid getting fouled on damn near every post attempt. Embiid shoots a lot of free throws, but not nearly as much as he’s fouled. The simple truth is officials let certain parts of the game go. Off-ball movers have always had to deal with extra contact as the officials’ eyes are more naturally concentrated on the ball. 

Also, these off-ball fouls aren’t going to send Curry, or anyone else, to the free-throw line unless the team is in the bonus, so this isn’t adequate beef as it pertains to Golden State’s low free-throw volume. 

So, this is the deal, Warriors fans. Your team isn’t getting an unfair whistle. Your superstar isn’t getting an unfair whistle. They have gotten lucky in a lot of other ways throughout this run, and I will be the first to tell you that they created most of that luck. The reverse is true, too. If the Warriors do, on occasion, fall victim to an unlucky whistle, they create that luck as well. 

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