Working the Wire: Free throws and Larry Hughes

Through Wednesday night, the NBA league average free throw percentage stood at 76.8 percent. If that seems uncharacteristically high, that's because it is. It's a little more than a full point higher than last year's 75.5 percent and, thanks to our friends at the Elias Sports Bureau, we've learned that it would be second-best mark in NBA history if the trend continues. Pretty impressive, huh? Just think what it would look like without Dwight Howard pulling down the average -- Howard has attempted a league-high 274 free throws and has connected on just 56.2 percent of those attempts.

Howard's woes from the stripe have garnered much attention over the years, particularly with the fantasy crowd. It's not so much the percentage that bothers us as it is the sheer number of attempts. Howard attempts 12.5 free throws per game, and therefore contributes more to your team's free throw percentage than a player who's only getting to the line 2.0 times per game. Simply put: not all free throw percentages are created equal. How, then, do we account for attempts when evaluating fantasy players? I didn't major in math in college -- far from it, actually -- but there is a quick and easy way to account for attempts when looking at free throw percentage. For example, let's say we want to compare Howard to Andrew Bogut. Howard makes 7.0 free throws in 12.5 attempts per game for a percentage of 56.2. Bogut makes 1.5 free throws in 3.0 attempts per game for a percentage of 50.0. On the surface it would appear Howard is a better free throw shooter than Bogut, but we all know that is not the case in the fantasy game.

Now let's introduce a constant player to the equation, and let's call that player Average Joe. Average Joe shoots 76.5 percent from the floor with 3.6 free throws made and 4.7 free throws attempted per game. With Average Joe now added to the mix, we can get a better feel for just how much Howard's free throw attempts are affecting your team's total free throw percentage. The equation looks something like this:

Howard + Average Joe = (7.0+3.6)/(12.5+4.7) = .616 or 61.6 percent
Bogut + Average Joe = (1.5+3.6)/(3.0+4.7) = .662 or 66.2 percent

With our new adjusted free throw percentage we can see the impact of Howard's attempts a little more clearly, and it shouldn't be surprising to anyone that Bogut ends up being the better fantasy free throw shooter. The math isn't perfect, and I'm sure there are some variables I haven't accounted for, but it is an easy way for fantasy owners to create a ranking system for the free throw percentage category. Just add the constant player (Average Joe) to every player in the league and you've got a ranking system which takes into account both free throw percentage and attempts per game.

Using the equation, we can now properly calculate the best and worst fantasy free throw shooters:

Fantasy's worst

Fantasy's Best

Now that we have a viable ranking system in place, we can start to look for ways to improve on our standing in the free throw percentage category. Some owners who drafted a Howard or a Shaquille O'Neal may be near the basement and wondering if it's even worth it to try to get back in the mix. The answer to that question really depends on the rest of your league. How close are you to making up ground in the category and where might you end up in the final standings? To help give you an idea of what type of percentage you'll need to be competitive, I've taken the average data from six of my own Roto Leagues:

Using the data above, it is clear that it's going to take a team free throw percentage of around 79 percent to get yourself into the top five in your league. That's not an easy task, particularly if you have some of the negative contributors like Howard or Shaq on your roster. One common mistake, however, is assuming that if you own Howard, you are destined to finish last in free throw percentage in Roto formats. That's simply not true. It's certainly easier to punt the category, but it's not your only option. Let's say, for example, you surround Howard with a group of high-volume free throw shooters who connect on at least 80 percent of their attempts. If you drafted a core group of Howard, Chris Bosh, David West, Devin Harris, Brandon Roy, Hedo Turkoglu and Ben Gordon you'd be sitting with a 77.1 free throw percentage, and right within striking distance of the top challengers. And with that group, you wouldn't be ignoring the rest of the categories just to compensate for Howard's free throw shooting woes.

With that said, it's a little too late to go back in time and revise our draft strategies. It is, however, worthwhile to take a look at your league standings to determine if you even have a shot at gaining some ground on your competitors. If you do, the plan to make up ground is simple:

  1. Target efficient shooters who also take a high volume of shots from the stripe. Simple enough, right? Most owners overlook the free throw percentage category in trade negotiations, so you'll have a leg up here.

  2. Addition by subtraction. Trade a player like Andris Biedrins (58.2 percent) for someone like Pau Gasol (77.1 percent) and you're making a big swing in the right direction.

  3. Target big men who can hit their free throws. For the most part, power forwards and centers have a tough time from the stripe. Find ones who can make free throws and you'll have a major advantage over your competitors. Potential targets include David West, Yao Ming, Bosh, Amare Stoudemire and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

  4. Use the waiver wire to your advantage. The wire is typically filled with players who can help from the line, but don't contribute much in the other categories. Even if these players don't attempt a ton of shots, you can stream solid shooters into your lineup a few nights a week to improve your percentage. A few potential streaming options include Roger Mason, Aaron Brooks, Luke Ridnour and Kyle Lowry. Use them for a night, then drop them and pick up another, more useful player the next night.


Players named last week who remain quality waiver-wire additions: Kevin Love, Steve Blake, J.R. Smith, Tim Thomas, Kendrick Perkins, Ryan Gomes.

Larry Hughes, SG, Bulls (9.3 percent owned): Hughes has burned so many fantasy owners over the years that sometimes we forget that he's still a pretty good player. Hughes has been hot as of late, averaging 15.6 points, 1.8 steals and 2.8 3-pointers per game over his past five. Grab him while he's hot.

Anderson Varejao, PF/C, Cavaliers (5.7 percent owned): If Zydrunas Ilgauskas' ankle injury lingers, Varejao is going to reap the benefits as the replacement starter in Cleveland. Varejao is a fantastic per minute performer in points, rebounds and steals with 11.6 points, 7.0 rebounds, 0.8 steals in just 24.6 minutes over his past five games, so his value will jump if his minutes increase as a result of Z's injury.

Boris Diaw, SF/PF, Bobcats (61.7 percent owned): Diaw will never get back to his glory days in the high-octane Suns attack, but he can still be a versatile fantasy threat provided he's earning quality minutes. He was averaging just 8.3 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.5 steals and 0.4 blocks in 24.5 minutes in Phoenix prior to the trade, but figures to improve on all of those numbers with increased minutes in Charlotte. It still remains to be seen how he'll fit in with Larry Brown's system, but he figures to be a big part of the frontcourt rotation, and should have steady value moving forward.

Jose Juan Barea, PG, Mavericks (3.3 percent owned): Don't look now, but Barea is averaging a cool 16.8 points, 4.8 assists and 0.8 3-pointers over his past five games. Given the way he's playing, Barea could have some staying power in the Mavs' starting lineup at shooting guard, where he'll help fantasy teams in points and assists. He'll undoubtedly take on a lesser role on the offensive end once Josh Howard returns, but Howard has an undefined timetable to return at the moment, so Barea looks like a safe option for at least two to three more weeks.

Matt Bonner, PF/C, Spurs (1.0 percent owned): I don't think he'll be able to keep it up, but there's no denying Bonner is hot right now. With 11.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.6 3-pointers per game over his past five, Bonner is getting it done as a role player for the Spurs. Bonner ranks as a lower level pickup option, but there's no harm in using him as a streaming option, or a short-term filler if your team is struggling with injuries.

Craig Smith, PF, Timberwolves (0.5 percent owned): Smith is mostly a specialist for points and field goal percentage, but it looks like he's going to be a starter for Kevin McHale's 'Wolves. His upside is somewhat limited, but McHale is a fan of Smith's game, which means he'll likely see 25 to 30 minutes per night in Minnesota for the time being.

Juan Dixon, SG, Wizards (0.4 percent owned): With Antonio Daniels gone, Dixon stepped into the starting lineup Thursday night and made the most of his opportunity with 17 points, 7 assists, 4 steals and a 3-pointer. He won't be this good every night, but if there's one thing we know about Dixon it's that he can have some value in steals and 3-pointers when given an opportunity. In 74 career starts, Dixon has averaged 13.5 points, 1.2 steals and a 3-pointer, so he'll be a solid option as long as he can hold on to the starting gig.

Javaris Crittenton, PG/SG, Wizards (0.2 percent owned): If Dixon doesn't pan out, Crittenton could get the call in Washington until Gilbert Arenas returns. Crittenton isn't a pickup option just yet, but he should be monitored closely just in case he starts earning minutes in the Wizards' backcourt.

Brian McKitish is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN. He can be reached at bmckitish@yahoo.com.