Is one trip to the free-throw line enough?

The action stalls out when it's free-throw time. Would the NBA be better off granting just one shot? Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

I went looking for a photo of a free throw to accompany this story. Finding an appropriate image is tougher than you’d think.

A search for “Free Throws NBA” on Getty Images yields about 25,000 results, the majority of which are close-ups of the individual shooter, usually a name player. In a good number of those pictures you see a guy looking at middle distance wearing more than a blank look but less than a game face. A foul shot is one of the few moments during a game when a photographer can snap an unobstructed shot of a star. Absolutely nothing of substance or style is going on -- no acrobatics, broken ankles or rare feats. It’s a scene that could be re-enacted by any 10 fans in the crowd.

About 26 times per game last season, the action screeched to a halt and players shuffled to their spots to watch a 15-foot set shot. An NBA game featured 47 of these moments on average. It creates a world, as HoopIdea described more than a year ago, in which exhilaration quickly gives way to deflation.

Intelligent people can debate the virtues of the free throw, whether it’s an appropriate deterrent, a necessary evil, etc. But it’s hard to argue that the 15 to 20 minutes it takes to administer several dozen free throws in an NBA game aren’t the most forgettable moments of the night. Any editor charged with trimming the fat from the story would inevitably tag these blocks as the place where the narrative drags. There’s a reason rebroadcasts often skip over free throws, and why at games thousands of fans almost reflexively check their smartphones the instant a foul is whistled.

Around last season’s All-Star break, preliminary chatter began among the league’s basketball operations folks and rule geeks about the prospect of reducing all trips to the free-throw line to a single foul shot. D-League president Dan Reed and Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey were the closest thing to co-sponsors of a bill. Nobody was proposing anything to be fast-tracked, but an imperative to figure out ways to shorten pro basketball games gave the idea some life as something to consider implementing in the D-League.

The concept was this: A player fouled in the act of shooting or in a penalty situation would attempt only a single free throw. If that player was shooting a 2-point shot or in a penalty situation at the time of the foul, the free throw attempt would be worth two points. If that player was fouled in the act of launching a 3-point shot, he’d go to the line for a single shot worth three points.

By doing so, those 47 attempts per game would be whittled down to about 26. There’s no hard data on the average length of time it takes to shoot a pair of free throws, but my stopwatch clocks it at approximately 45 seconds from the sound of the whistle to the second shot reaching the rim. A trip to the line for a single technical or an and-1 situation, though, takes about 30 seconds. These numbers vary wildly. (Walking from one end of the floor to the other after a loose-ball foul takes an eternity, whereas a shooting foul in the paint is a short commute. You also have a fair share of Dwight Howards who can be timed with a calendar.) But we can fairly approximate a second or third free throw as a 15-second exercise. Using that estimate, scrapping 21 free throws from a game would shave more than five minutes of stoppage from the average NBA or D-League game.

“We’re an entertainment product, and the more free flow in basketball, the better,” Morey said. “All the surveying supports that. Basketball is better when basketball players are playing basketball. Stoppages mean less basketball, which is boring. It also means an over-instrumenting of the game. It’s a beautiful game and the closer you can get to two well-prepared teams playing back and forth without interruption or over-management, the better.”

Four rules last season ranging from reducing the number of timeouts to demanding that teams facilitate quicker substitutions trimmed a total of two minutes from D-League games. That’s not insignificant, but it’s a fraction of the five minutes that would be saved if the D-League went to a single free throw. And those five minutes come entirely during a stoppage of live play, unlike, for instance, a measure to shorten a quarter from 12 to 10 minutes, which would snip eight minutes of game action.

Reed kept the conversation about free throws alive on calls and informal conversations through the spring, and the D-League’s Basketball Rules Committee took up the issue at their August meeting. By that point Reed had departed for a position at Facebook and, without a vocal advocate, the committee decided not to pursue the idea any further.

“It’s an interesting concept,” said Chris Alpert, the D-League’s vice president of basketball operations. “But as we discussed it further with the basketball guys, we just felt it would be compromising the integrity of the game and players’ statistics. We didn’t want to skew a player’s free-throw shooting percentage and we didn’t want to compromise the purity of the game.”

In support of the skewed stats argument, the D-League brandished stats that showed that players convert the second of a pair of free throws at a better rate than the first (for D-Leaguers, 71.1 percent vs. 76.3 percent; for NBA players, 73.2 percent vs. 77.7 percent). The trend holds for three-shot trips, as well, as players get progressively more proficient from the first to third attempts. On single attempts -- which would be every trip to the line under the proposed reform -- the D-League shot 71.8 percent, while the NBA shot 72.8 percent.

Would eliminating second and third free-throw attempts drop the league’s overall free-throw percentage? If you believe the data would translate to a single-attempt system, then yes, slightly. But a reform would have absolutely no bearing on the competitive dynamics of the game. The foul line isn’t being moved out or in, and scrapping a second and third free-throw attempt would affect both teams equally. Free-throw percentages have been variable throughout time (they were added after the advent of basketball, and even then, their current point value and the location of the shot weren’t settled until 1895), floating from the low to high 70s for the last 50 years or so. Meanwhile, the D-League instituted international goaltending rules in 2010, which has resulted in additional field-goal and blocked-shot opportunities at the rim, particularly for big men. Individual stats have undoubtedly been affected.

A degree of randomness that didn’t previously exist would be introduced into individual games. For instance, a 75 percent shooting clip at the stripe wouldn’t necessarily yield 75 percent of the available points on a given night. Let’s say a guy makes four trips to the line -- three of those attempts for two points each, but one for only a single point (an and-1 situation). Hitting three of four (75 percent) might only yield 71 percent of the available points (if the miss comes on one of the two-point attempts). Or it might yield 86 percent of the available points (if the miss happens to come on the and-1 attempt).

But over the course of the season, this stuff evens out and the overall mathematical effect is close to nothing.

The more likely reasons the proposal didn’t gain more traction are more cultural than empirical. Apart from being at least marginally profitable for those who invest, the D-League has two central mandates as an enterprise:

  • Provide an environment in which talent can develop the skills to succeed in the NBA

  • Serve as the NBA’s research and development lab

These two missions are in no way mutually exclusive, but they coexist with an occasional degree of tension. Certain voices in the game place a higher degree of import on one objective over the other. A basketball lifer who experiences the game as a former player and is rooted in certain fixed truths might place a higher premium on continuity than a blue-sky thinker whose appreciation for pro basketball are driven by a passion for innovation and imagination for what basketball should look like two decades down the road. We’ve tackled many of these ideas over the last few years at HoopIdea.

Reed was squarely in the innovation camp and his departure has been met with some sadness among the league’s futurists. Morey and others have characterized Reed as a guy who understood how to fashion new ideas and how to temper the anxieties of those who might be nervous about their implementation.

That’s a difficult balance to strike and one reason why identifying Reed’s replacement is a very big hire for the NBA and the D-League. The hope in midtown Manhattan is to have a new president of the D-League in place before its season begins in mid-November. A bias toward innovation is essential, because the gravitational pull among much of the league still veers toward institutional tradition, even if new commissioner Adam Silver is a change agent at heart.

The dead-ball free throw conversation is instructive of these conflicts between tradition and innovation, development and research. It’s far easier to believe that this particular idea got shot down because a radical proposal that feels alien to the game we know and love requires some time to marinate before cautious people upset our perception of what a pro basketball game is supposed to look like. An idea often needs to work its way through the cycle of discussion and consideration a few times before a level of comfort can be achieved. Once decision-makers turn the concept over in their heads a few times, they can form a fact-based argument for or against.

For instance, those 15 or 20 minutes of dead time during free throw attempts could be vital to in-game recovery for players. That may or may not be true, but it makes more sense as a suggestion than the idea that eliminating dead-ball free throw would ruin the statistical integrity of the game.

The league could certainly get away with a safe hire and opt for a “weak executive” model in which decisions are made by the collective opinion of the most powerful voices. There are no shortage of people in the NBA world who feel they have the expertise to run a satellite league that exists almost entirely to accommodate the NBA.

But the NBA and D-League’s current momentum is all the more reason to double down on the success. New York should find a forward-looking influencer who will continue to see the D-League as an incubator for experimentation, not because incubating ideas is more important than incubating basketball talent, but because the NBA and its affiliate already have plenty of smart people who develop players. Developing the consensus for change is far more challenging.