Why the NBA Should Radically Change Its Free Throw Rules

Ethan Sherwood StraussNBA Lead WriterDecember 10, 2012

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 04:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder handles the ball as Joe Johnson #7 of the Brooklyn Nets defends during their game at the Barclays Center on December 4, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
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Last week, David Stern wrestled with how to rid the league of Hack-a-Dwight, or more precisely, how to rid the league of intentionally fouling in general. As detailed by Henry Abbott of ESPN, Stern lamented the following:

"I would have liked to have seen the rule changed to make the last-two-minute rule the whole rule. It was getting to a point last year where, [in the] first period, they were just grabbing players. I think that's ludicrous."

While I applaud David Stern's efforts to eradicate intentional fouling, he's not addressing the issue at heart: Free throws are boring and should be chucked into history's dumpster.

Now, I know what you're going to respond with: Free throws are part of the game. If we replaced free throws with, say, guaranteed points, basketball would be destroyed some way and somehow. 

Human being are averse to change, especially when it comes to sports (See: People freaking out over a the "Pelicans" rebranding). Though sports are imperfect, man-made constructs, there is no shortage of fans who insist on keeping the structures as is.

One of the reasons I wish to reform basketball, be it with a shorter, more predictable schedule or with free-throw eradication, is that we're working with some wonderful clay here. This is a beautiful game, a graceful game. A few tweaks could allow to conquer the country and world far beyond its already impressive popularity. 

Free throws are not beautiful. They are not graceful. There is no highlight package on Youtube of "best free throws." They are stagnant interruptions of this aforementioned grace and beauty. Worse, they have the potential to ruin the building rhythm of exciting, back-and-forth hoops.

It would be one thing if all free throws resulted from accidental swats of the arm, but this is not the case. We have the aforementioned Hack-a-Whomever, but there are many instances where defenders just grab an open guy near the rim. Instead of a dunk, we get the potential for injury, followed by drawn-out, boring FTs. 

One of the more frustrating elements of free-throw shooting is that it largely remains unchanged for every player over the course of his career. If a lot of guys markedly improved at the skill, it might be fun to chart and even occasionally watch. But this isn't the case. 

As Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus detailed, stars who dramatically improve their free-throw shooting (Karl Malone and Chris Webber were cited as the exceptions) are quite rare. The average player tends not to get better at freebies over the course of his career. No matter how hard guys practice, there is something about that open, 15-foot shot that seems to make it an intrinsic ability.

I often hear fans lament how certain players should practice free throws, or how it's inexcusable that these players have trouble hitting such shots. It would appear that this skill, for whatever strange reason, is immutable for a lot of athletes. Asking a player to shoot better from the line might be analogous to asking him for higher jumping, or even more height. 

In light of that, consider the absurdity of making players "earn" the victimhood of being fouled. The league is punishing a defensive actor for breaking rules, but the fouled player must "earn" his compensation through a skill that he probably can't improve? It just doesn't make much sense.

So now that we've established that this is a lesser aspect of the game, an aspect that disrupts the aspects we enjoy and an aspect that players are near-powerless to improve within, what is there to be done about the problem? I have a simple solution, but one that you might find a bit extreme: Award points in every situation where we give free throws. 

The counter arguments to this suggestion would be that "referees will decide the game." Don't they anyway? The average player reaps 1.5 points per trip to the free-throw line. Guys like Kevin Durant and Steve Nash are virtually automatic at roughly 90 percent from the stripe.

With a few exceptions, fouling anybody is a bad idea. A 50 percent free-throw shooter gets an average of a point per trip to the stripe—more than a defense should be willing to give up on possessions. Referees already are impacting the games with their calls, and it makes little sense to keep free throws around because they indulge the pretense that points are divorced from a ref's whistle.

I'm not swayed by the argument that automatic points would lead to constant flopping and timid defense. We already have constant flopping and defenders who fear its deceptive wrath. Automatic points would at least force defenses into trying for blocks instead of wrapping up players after getting beat. Automatic points wouldn't discourage defense; the practice would encourage defense, or at least the spirit of defense. 

While I concede that upping rewards from "1.5 points" to "2 points" per line trip would alter the game, it's no less a radical reform than adding a three-point line. That measure converted many two-pointers to three-point instances, a bigger change than going 1.5 to 2. The result was a more fluid, exciting game. Eradicating free throws and the hacking that precedes them would accomplish the same.