The Lakers’ free-throw shooting could cost them a championship

Los Angeles Lakers (Photo by Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images)
Los Angeles Lakers (Photo by Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images) /

The Los Angeles Lakers must get better from the charity stripe.

Behind a wide-open layup, a free throw should be the easiest shot in basketball. There is no defender to disrupt the shot, the player can take their time to set up, and it is only 15 feet away. And the Los Angeles Lakers are struggling at what is easiest.

The number one seeded team in the Western Conference is missing free throws 30 percent of the time this postseason. Why?

It could be a mixture of them being rusty and fatigued coming off over a three-month layoff, having playoff nerves settling in, dealing with all the distractions and dangers from Covid-19 and social justice issues, the new empty gym setting, and simply having a roster poorly constructed to shoot from outside and from the free-throw line.

It is no secret that the Los Angeles Lakers are very poor free-throw shooting team, with them lacking any sharpshooting guards in the starting lineup, their best free-throw shooting option in the regular season was Anthony Davis, who has been up and down from that distance since the postseason started.

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Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Danny Green are career 80 percent free-throw shooters, and even they dipped to 77 and 68 percent from the line this season, respectively.

Their woes from the free-throw line as a team went from bad during the regular season, to downright awful in the playoffs.

One would assume their free throw shooting would improve in the new bubble format in an empty gym without any fans at the game as a distraction. However, that has been peculiarly the opposite with the Lakers who have dipped from 72.6 percent in the regular season to 70.0 percent in the playoffs.

Despite a new coaching regime this season — and the longest-tenured Lakers player being Kyle Kuzma, who has only played 3 seasons with the team — the Lakers free-throw shooting struggles from their recent past have followed them into this season.

The Los Angeles Lakers’ recent history with free-throw shooting

In the past 10 seasons, the Los Angeles Lakers have ranked dead last in the NBA from the free-throw line two times, they ranked the second-worst in the league two times, and they only cracked the top 10 twice as well. The highest they ranked out of any of those seasons was seventh, and their average ranking was a mere 20.8, well in the bottom half of the league.

This postseason they are last in the league at the free-throw line once again, and before the season was suspended, they ranked second to last in free throw shooting, only in front of, of course, the New York Knicks.

Those stats point to the Lakers having a culture of bad free-throw shooting that stems from being comfortable with being one of the worst teams in the league at shooting from the line. Just like a culture of losing, a culture of poor free-throw shooting can be contagious and spread throughout a team and an organization.

That is evident in the Lakers supposedly skipping shootarounds despite them struggling to make open shots consistently on an individual basis for most of the season. The easiest thing in basketball to simulate is shooting the open shot or a free throw, so why would they limit their shots in any way.

One article suggested they skipped shootarounds because veteran stars like AD and LeBron did not think they were necessary. Even though those stars need their rest and need to stay healthy for the Lakers to successful, when the leaders of the team do not want to work on fundamentals, sometimes that can negatively rub off on the rest of the team.

It is easy to preach the Mamba mentality, but they must practice what Kobe preached as well. He never skipped getting shots up or a work out at any point in his career, and he would always point to that as one of what separated him. Maybe that is why he was able to hit two free throws with a torn Achilles.

However, their issues at the line can not simply be blamed on them not getting enough shots up in practice.

Frank Vogel reportedly required all the Lakers players to make 100 free throws at a recent practice after the team shot 65 percent from the line in their Game 3 win. That extra practice did not help their free throw shooting at all, they still shot 66 percent in their big blow out game four victory.

One of the most important parts of a free throw is the routine that gets the player focused and set to shoot the free throw. Maybe that is why LeBron and Dwight Howard have had some of the worst free-throw shooting seasons of their careers.

Assistant coach Jason Kidd, who had a strange free throw routine himself, mentioned to Sports Illustrated earlier this season that LeBron has tweaked his form throughout this season.

"“As you can see, his free throws right now, he’s gone back more closer to his high school free throw and he’s shooting over 80 percent since he’s done that,” Kidd said. “He’s always searching to get better and is there a way to fix something. And that was probably one of the things in his game that he needed to work on.”"

Don’t get twitter started on Dwight Howard’s shooting form, you may have noticed he is standing a few feet back from the line. It has yet to be figured out if he is giving a tribute to former Lakers guard Nick Van Excel, or if he is simply too strong to stand that close to the basket to shoot. The world may never know, but take a look for yourself.

If the coaching staff is letting stuff like this come from the practice floor into the game, that is part of the problem. They need to be consistent and shooting from a random spot, and playing around with the routine game to game is not it.

Focusing in through the distractions and blocking out the fatigue from running up and down the court helps from the line. Maybe the combination of the layoff and the stress from the bubble and other distractions from a crazy 2020 season can shoulder some of the blame on their performance, but they were already a bad free-throw shooting team during the season before this bubble started.

Another reason for their postseason dip in percent could be blamed on them missing their best free-throw shooting guard in terms of percentage from the season. At 83 percent, Avery Bradley was having the best free-throw shooting season of his career before deciding to opt-out of the bubble for personal reasons.

Lucky for the Lakers, they still have time to improve from the line, but if the issue lingers it could cost them in a second-round series against the Houston Rockets or even the Oklahoma City Thunder. Also, if the Lakers put Anthony Davis at center in a small ball lineup, no one in their lineup should be a liability from the free-throw line.

Another positive the Lakers have going for them is that they are shooting the fourth most free throws in the playoffs so far, with 28 attempts per game. So even with their poor percentage their number of attempts somewhat offsets their issue.

Just like every other facet of the game, the Lakers are going to need AD and LeBron to step up when it comes to free throws because they shoot by far the most per game just because of their usage rate.

LeBron averages just below six attempts per game, and AD averages over 8 attempts per game. The next two closest Lakers to them are Dwight Howard and Kyle Kuzma, who average just over three and two attempts per game respectively.

That is why the Lakers are struggling with free throws more in the postseason, LeBron and AD have been bad from the line. Davis has dipped from 84.6 percent in the regular season to 71.4 percent in the playoffs, and LeBron has not been much better at 73.7 percent.

If the Los Angeles Lakers’ two stars falter from the charity stripe, then they will automatically struggle as a team by the numbers.

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All the teams that the Lakers could come across in the playoffs are shooting at least a whopping 10.8 percent better than the Lakers have this postseason. That could easily be the difference in a close series against any of those squads, especially in tight games down the stretch.