clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Completely Absurd and Definitive Guide to NBA Free Throws

The best routines, the worst shooters, the most clutch shots, and everything else you need to know

Shea Serrano

After a long summer of topless championship parades, free-agency meetings in the Hamptons, Snapchat mishaps, and gold medals, the NBA is finally, truly, really, almost back. The start of training camp marks the beginning of our NBA Preview.

This is How Basketball Works Week. We’ll be looking at the scouts, stats, coaches, and tactical developments that are shaping the game.

A couple of months ago, I received a text from a person that I publicly like a lot and secretly hate a little (these are my favorite kinds of relationships, FYI). It was a short text that required a long answer. This was the whole thing: “Who’s had the best free throw routine in the NBA?”

I thought it fortuitous that he’d sent the message when he did because, like, maybe three or four days prior I’d rewatched three games from the 1997 Jazz-Bulls Finals. I watched Game 1, which was memorable because Michael Jordan hit a jumper at the buzzer to win it; Game 3, which was memorable because Karl Malone put up 37 to keep the series alive after the Bulls grabbed a 2–0 lead; and Game 6, which was memorable because Jordan slammed the door on the series with his own doofy 39–11–4 stat line. During the games I was reminded that prior to each of his free throws, Malone would do this thing where he’d squat his knees together and then talk to himself just before rising up to shoot. Here’s him doing it for a little white kid while trying to sell some hamburgers:

When the guy sent that text, I ignored it because I’d decided that I was hating him that day. But let’s answer it now, as well as a bunch of other questions about free throws.

<strong>Alonzo Mourning’s Wristband Tap <br>Career Free Throw Percentage: 69.2<br>(All GIFs by Shea Serrano)</strong>
Alonzo Mourning’s Wristband Tap Career Free Throw Percentage: 69.2(All GIFs by Shea Serrano)

Who’s had the best free throw routine in the NBA?

To answer that question, you need to think about a few things. First: “Was it effective?” Because that’s a thing that needs to be considered. Alonzo Mourning would do a thing where he would take his wristband and tap it to his chin and then to his forehead. That’s a more interesting thing than, say, Steve Nash pretending to shoot his free throws and then licking his fingers before he was thrown the ball. But Alonzo shot 69.2 percent from the line after his routine and Steve shot 90.4 percent from the line after his. So, I mean, we can’t just ignore more than 20 percentage points.

Effectiveness isn’t the only part of judging free throw routines, though. Were that the case, the winner would just be the guy with the highest career FT percentage. You also have to ask yourself: “Is it cool?” You can’t very well be at the park or the rec center playing basketball and licking all on your fingers and shit. So in addition to being at least a little bit effective, the best free throw routine has to be something that’s cool, too. That means we’re ditching: Amar’e Stoudemire’s thing where he’d move his goggles up onto his forehead to shoot his free throws (cute, but not cool); Karl Malone’s thing where he talked to himself while shooting (only interesting because nobody knows what he says; I suspect he was reciting some sort of satanic prayer, but that’s just a guess); Dirk Nowitzki’s thing where he sang the lyrics to a David Hasselhoff song (it’s crazy to think that everyone in the 2011 playoffs got shit on by a dude singing David Hasselhoff); and Nick Van Exel’s thing where he’d stand two steps farther back than he needed to.

<strong>Jerry Stackhouse’s Deep Squat<br>Career Free Throw Percentage: 82.2</strong>
Jerry Stackhouse’s Deep SquatCareer Free Throw Percentage: 82.2

The last thing you have to ask yourself is: “Do I want to copy the move?” Gilbert Arenas once said that the reason he’d orbit the ball around his waist three times before shooting a free throw was because he wanted to have a move that kids copied. So that’s definitely a part of the conversation. And it means we can get rid of: Chris Douglas-Roberts’s thing where he’d tap his Bible tattoo before shooting (I don’t have a Bible tattoo); Jerry Stackhouse’s thing where he’d do a deep squat before shooting (I’m not trying to find ways to add squats to my basketball games, because squats are awful exercises); Kevin Durant’s thing where he shakes his shoulder twice before shooting; Jeff Hornacek’s thing where he’d rub his face before shooting; Jason Kidd’s thing where he’d blow a kiss to his wife (he kept doing the routine after he’d gotten divorced, which was funny in a petty way); and Gilbert’s behind-the-back thing (because I feel like he hustled us all with that one). That leaves us with …

Richard Hamilton’s thing where he’d make two dribbles in front of him and one dribble off to the side. It was effective (he was an 85.2 percent career FT shooter), it was easy to replicate (and also you felt cool replicating it), it was distinguishable, it was clever without being obtuse, and it felt natural while also feeling peculiar enough to be interesting. It’s the best one.

<strong>Jeff Hornacek’s Face Rub<br>Career Free Throw Percentage: 87.7</strong>
Jeff Hornacek’s Face RubCareer Free Throw Percentage: 87.7

Who’s made the most free throws in history?

Karl Malone made 9,787 free throws over his 19-year-long career. That’s good for first place. And since we’re here: Karl Malone also holds the record for most career free throw attempts, too. He attempted 13,188. That’s more than 1,300 attempts past the second-place finisher (Moses Malone, 11,864).

Who’s missed the most free throws in history?

Wilt Chamberlain. He missed 5,805 in his career. For context, that’s the same number of free throws that Shawn Kemp ATTEMPTED in his 14-year career. Wilt was getting them shots up there, man. It’d have been cool if somebody had taught him how to actually shoot them. Mostly, he just went up there and kicked the ball at the rim and hoped it went in.

<strong>Karl Malone’s Possession<br>Career Free Throw Percentage: 74.2</strong>
Karl Malone’s PossessionCareer Free Throw Percentage: 74.2

Who’s the dorkiest player to have made the clutchest clutch free throws?

That’d be the Slovenian Machine, Sasha Vujacic. He shot (and made) two free throws with 11.7 seconds left in Game 7 of the 2010 Finals to secure the title for the Lakers. He had at least a tiny cushion (the Lakers were up by two at the time), but still. Consider these things:

  • Sasha had taken only two shots in that game, both misses. So it’s not like he was stepping to the line behind the strength of some great game.
  • He’d not attempted one single free throw that game.
  • In fact, he’d gone to the line only four times the entire series.
  • It was Lakers-Celtics, which already always magnifies everything, but it was also a Revenge Title for the Lakers because they’d lost the 2008 Finals to the Celtics.
  • More than just being a Revenge Title in general, it was a Personal Revenge Title for Vujacic. The 2008 series turned after Game 4, when the Celtics erased a 24-point lead to win the game and take a 3–1 lead. It was the biggest NBA comeback by a team since 1971. Guess who gave the Lakers their 24-point lead in the second quarter? Sasha. And guess who Ray Allen blew by for the final layup at the end of the game that gave the Celtics an insurmountable five-point lead with 16 seconds left? Sasha.

Who’s made the most free throws in a row?

Over an eight-month stretch in 1993, Micheal Williams made 97 free throws in a row while he was playing for the Timberwolves. That’s the most for an NBA player. The nonprofessional record for most consecutive free throws made belongs to dairy farmer turned free-throw shooter Ted St. Martin. He set the Guinness Book of World Records record for it by making 5,221 (!!!) in a row. It took him over seven hours to it. He did it in April of 1996. That was five months before Tupac got shot. Those two things probably aren’t related. I wonder if Tupac was a good free throw shooter. I’ll bet not.

Who’s made the most free throws in a quarter?

Vince Carter made 16 free throws in the fourth quarter of a game against the Heat in 2005.

Who’s taken the most free throws in a single game?

Dwight Howard shot 39 free throws in a 2012 game against the Warriors. That’s 14 more than his second-most attempts (25). Of the 39, he missed 18 of them, which isn’t super terrible for him, but then you remember the “him” you’re talking about is Dwight Howard and everything Dwight Howard has done since the 2009 All-Star Game has been super terrible, so yeah, 21-for-39 actually is super terrible.

Who’s missed the most free throws in a single game?

Andre Drummond actually set this anti-record last season. He missed 23 free throws in a game against the Rockets. Missing 23 free throws is worse than missing 18 free throws, but being Dwight Howard is worse than everything so, in this particular case, missing 23 free throws is actually better than missing 18 free throws. Dwight’s is an unbreakable record, really.

<strong>Amar’e Stoudemire’s Goggle Displacement<br>Career Free Throw Percentage: 76.1</strong>
Amar’e Stoudemire’s Goggle DisplacementCareer Free Throw Percentage: 76.1

Can you invent a free throw statistic so we can talk about Russell Westbrook for a second?

Sure.

If we define a Clutch Free Throw as one that is shot during the fourth quarter or overtime of a game in which neither team is ahead by more than five points, then last year Russell Westbrook was the clutchest free throw shooter in the league during the playoffs among players who shot more than eight free throws during clutch moments. He was 11-for-11 on Clutch Free Throws. Next up was Dwyane Wade in second place with 9-for-10. And then Kawhi Leonard and Joe Johnson tied for third place with 8-for-9, but let’s go ahead and give that trophy to Kawhi because he’s Kawhi and Joe Johnson is Joe Johnson, you know what I’m saying?

Who’s missed a free throw (or free throws) in the most devastating fashion?

There are a bunch of heartbreaking moments that come to mind.

The saddest one was when John Starks missed those two free throws in the 1995 Knicks-Pacers series after Reggie Miller had just hit impossibly impossible back-to-back 3s to tie the game. That one super sticks out because it was the first time I can remember looking at a guy in a game and seeing that he absolutely, 100 percent, in no way at all, in any shape or form, wanted to be involved in the moment that he was suddenly a part of.

The most HAHAHA one was at the end of Game 1 of the 1997 Jazz-Bulls Finals, the first time that Utah made it to the NBA Finals. There were nine seconds left in the game. It was tied. And Karl Malone, who’d won the MVP that season, had a chance to help the Jazz steal the game. It was all there for him. If he made both, the Jazz would have had an 84 percent chance to win the game. If he made even one, they would’ve had a 67 percent chance to win the game. But he didn’t do either of those things. He missed the first, then he missed the second, then he watched as Jordan hit a jumper at the buzzer to win Game 1 for the Bulls. I can’t stand Karl Malone. I will never forgive him for the time he knocked David Robinson unconscious with a cheap-shot elbow. I was so fucking happy when Jordan hit that jumper.

The most devastating one, though, was Nick Anderson missing four free throws in a row at the end of Game 1 of the 1995 Finals between the Magic and Rockets. There were 10 seconds left and the Magic were up three (and had been up by 20) and he just needed to hit one to really ice the game away. He missed the first, then the second, then got the rebound, was fouled again, then missed the third and then missed the fourth. After that, Kenny Smith hit a 3 to tie the game and send it to overtime. The Rockets ended up winning. And poor Nick Anderson turned to mush in the years that followed. He’d been a career 70.4 percent free throw shooter up to that point. Two years later his percentage plummeted all the way down to 40.4 percent. “It affected the way I played,” he told Yahoo! Sports. “It affected the way I lived. It played in my head like a recorder — over and over again.”

<strong>Nick Van Exel’s Two Steps Back<br>Career Free Throw Percentage: 79.4</strong>
Nick Van Exel’s Two Steps BackCareer Free Throw Percentage: 79.4

Which recent player shot a free throw under the greatest amount of duress?

The fourth-place finisher is Jimmy Butler, who got up out of a wheelchair after spraining his knee to shoot his free throws last season. The third-place finisher is Rudy Gay, who shot two free throws with only one arm after seriously injuring his shoulder in a 2011 game against the Sixers. The second-place finisher is Kobe Bryant, who shot two free throws after he’d ruptured his Achilles. The first-place finisher is Carlos Boozer, who shot four free throws with hair painted on his head. That’s real courage. That’s real heroism.

Who has the highest free throw percentage in a single season?

Jose Calderon shot 98.1 percent for the 2008–09 season. He made 151 of 154 shots. That’s fucking nuts.

<strong>Jason Kidd’s Kiss<br>Career Free Throw Percentage: 78.5</strong>
Jason Kidd’s KissCareer Free Throw Percentage: 78.5

Who’s attempted the most free throws in a single season?

Wilt Chamberlain shot 1,363 free throws in the ’61–62 season. That’s the most. (1961–62 is the same season Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds a game, which, I mean, OK, I know he was playing mostly against a bunch of stodgy little white dudes with flat tops, but that’s still pretty fucking impressive.) (Quick sidebar: Not only does Chamberlain have the record for the most free throw attempts in a season, he also owns second place [1,113], third place [1,054], fourth place [1,016] and fifth place [991].)

Who’s made the most free throws in a single season?

Jerry West made 840 during the ’65–66 season. If you’re looking for a post-merger leader, then it’s 1986–87 Jordan. He made 833. And if you’re looking for the most free throws made by a person I am in love with, then that goes to Tim Duncan, who made 560 free throws during the 2001–02 season.

<strong>Gilbert Arenas’s Behind-the-Back<br>Career Free Throw Percentage: 80.3</strong>
Gilbert Arenas’s Behind-the-BackCareer Free Throw Percentage: 80.3

Who has the highest free throw percentage in history?

Steve Nash and Mark Price both retired with a career average of 90.4 percent.

Who has the lowest free throw percentage in history?

Ben Wallace shot 41.4 percent from the line for his career, but the lowest free throw percentage in NBA history belongs to Dwight Howard at 56.8 percent because he’s Dwight Howard. (Dwight Howard has taken a real pounding here today.)