No “D” in “Free”

Anderson Varejao attempts a free throw against the Raptors

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post on how for a team that was in a lot of close games (and had a record of 3-4 at the time), the Raptors’ lack of free throw attempts and a possible improvement in that category could make quite the difference.

Two weeks later, there have been few competitive games since, and the Raptors now sit at 4-11. What hasn’t changed since then, however, is Toronto’s situation at the free throw line. They’re still not getting there enough and their opponents are getting there too often.

On the positive side, despite their recent struggles and current six-game losing streak, another thing that hasn’t changed since opening week is the Raptors’ defence. The Raps currently sit in a tie for third in opponents’ field goal percentage (41.2), sit ninth in points allowed per game (92.1) and sit a very improved (from last season) 19th place with a defensive efficiency of 100.9 points allowed per 100 possessions.

However, one of the main reasons that last stat (defensive efficiency), and perhaps the most important one, isn’t as good as it could be comes back to that aforementioned free throw problem. Last time I wrote about it, I was more concerned with how rarely the Raptors were getting to the free throw line (and I still am), but this time, I’d like to focus on how often Toronto allows its opponents to get to the stripe.

When looking at the statistics, it’s clear to see that the Raptors are the second worst team in the NBA (only better than the Warriors) in terms of free throw attempts allowed. They sit 29th in opponents’ free throw attempts per game (27.6), 29th in opponents’ free throw attempts per field goal attempts (.354) and 29th in opponents’ free throw attempts per possession (.269). And they actually sit dead last in opponents’ free throws made per 100 possessions, at 22.869.

No matter how good the Raptors have been or will continue to be in terms of making it difficult to score during the natural flow of a game, they can’t allow teams to go to the line on such a big chunk of their possessions if they want to have any serious kind of success, whether it be this season or in the future.

Being a hard-nosed defensive team is great, but if you’re gift-wrapping free points away by sending your opponents to the charity stripe, then it kind of defeats the purpose.

Now obviously, many Raptors fans would argue that this free throw discrepancy might have more to do with unbalanced officiating against Toronto than it does with the Raptors’ personnel. The problem with this theory is that three seasons ago, the Raps were actually one of the best teams at not allowing free throws, so it’s hard to say the refs are out to get them. And if the officials do have something to do with this problem, I’d assume it has more to do with the officials’ unbalanced calls on young and inexperienced players than the city of Toronto itself.

For the most part, it’s the Raptors players getting themselves into trouble. Amir Johnson is currently seventh in the NBA with 7.4 fouls per 48 minutes and the Raptors have four players (Amir, Ed Davis, James Johnson and Leandro Barbosa) in the top-30 in this category, with all four of those players logging over 20 minutes per game for the team.

The big question is this: Is Dwane Casey’s style of physical interior defence (Casey has said he wants his team to play physical on the defensive end, but has stressed that he wants them to play physical in a legal way) always going to land the Raptors near the bottom of the league in terms of free throw attempts allowed, or is it a simple matter of some of Toronto’s youth learning to play solid defence for the first time?

If it’s the latter, and the Raptors’ core players do learn to limit their fouls on defence over time or the Raptors just bring in more players than can defend legally, it could make a big difference for Toronto’s defensive efficiency.

When you look at how well and how hard the Raptors have played defensively, and when you see how good the numbers are in terms of opponents’ field goal percentage, becoming even an average team in opponents’ free throw attempts allowed could make this a legitimate top-10 defence in the NBA.