Last night, as you may well have seen, Amir Johnson was ejected after he tried to grab the ball in-between free throws. The referee wouldn’t let go, they wrestled over the ball, and Amir Johnson got tossed. And then threw his mouthpiece at the referee. This occurred among adults during an NBA game.
This ridiculous situation gave Henry Abbott at TrueHoop an idea: what if we just disallowed players from touching the ball in-between free throws? Considering the complaints that the rise in video replay has added length to games, could this be a novel way to shorten games? I was intrigued by this idea, and decided to run some numbers.
This season there has been an average of 46.4 free throws shot per game. In developing his model for estimating possessions, basketball statistician Dean Oliver calculated that 88% of free throws came from a situation where a player shot two free throws (either they were fouled during the act of shooting and missed, or they were fouled on the floor when the other team was over the foul limit). Parsing some limited 82games.com data from the 2005 and 2006 seasons, we can estimate that somewhere between eight and nine percent of free throws shot league-wide that year came in And 1 situations. When you include technical, flagrant, and illegal defense free throws, it adds up pretty close to Dean Oliver’s estimation that 88% of free throws are shot together.
Therefore in each NBA game this year, there is on average a little over 41 free throws that come in pairs. I’ll round this to 42. Since a player doesn’t grab and touch the ball after the second free throw of a pair (which may or may not have gone in the basket), that leaves 21 chances a game for somebody to slow the game down by grabbing the ball. Assuming an extreme case where a player holds onto the ball for ten seconds of tomfoolery, that’s 3.5 minutes a game that could be saved. If we assume a more reasonable 5 seconds of ball-holding in-between free throws, that’s 1.75 minutes saved.
It’s an interesting idea, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t be implemented, but it doesn’t affect the length of games nearly as much as a couple unnecessarily long video replays at the end of the 4th quarter (see: Golden State vs. Denver two weeks ago).