One of the underrated stories from this Spurs season is the marked improvement the team has had from the line. Traditionally a Spurs weakness, they now rank 3rd in the league in free throw percentage with a stellar 79.3%, trailing the Thunder and the Mavericks. To find the next contender on the list you'd have to go down to 7th, where the Grizzlies rank. That's a huge leap forward from the 19th place the Spurs occupied next season, shooting 74.8%. There is no question about it: this is by far the best free throw shooting team the Spurs have had in the Duncan era.
Free throw shooting is not the key, but it's an important piece of the offensive puzzle
Now, free throw percentage is not a good predictor of team quality, much less playoff success, as we've learned from the Spurs championship teams of the past and their struggles in that area. That's especially true when the team doesn't get to the line a lot and the Spurs rank 18th in the league in free throw attempts with 21.2 per game. OKC, for example, ranks second in free throw attempts with 27.3 a game, so it's clear that free throws are a bigger part of the Thunder's offense. But when you combine the Spurs' ever efficient approach to offense -- emphasizing as their strengths of getting good looks and converting shots close to the basket and beyond the arc -- with the now elite free throw shooting percentage, the Spurs become a more well-rounded offensive team as a whole and one that doesn't display a lot of weaknesses. That's a scary proposition.
The Spurs are now, on average, winning the free throw battle
Even if the Spurs don't get to the line a lot, they are making the best of their limited trips and that mostly evens things out with teams that get to the line a lot but can't take advantage of it. Let's use the Lakers as an example. The Lakers lead the league in free throw attempts per game with 27.6, mainly because teams want Dwight Howard on the line and because they get a lot of And-1s. They also have the worst free throw percentage (68.8%). They get over six more free throw attempts a game than the Spurs do but only get two more points (19 vs 16.8) out of them. Let's disregard the And-1s for this exercise and just look at their free throws as traditional trips to the line. For every two free throws the Lakers attempt, they score 1.17 points in that possession while the Spurs get 1.58. For the Spurs taking more free throws would be great now that they can hit them but for bad free throw shooting teams going to the line deprives them of the possibility of using possessions in a more productive way.
When you combine the Spurs' success from the line even in limited attempts with their commitment to avoid fouling on the other end, it gives them an edge they've seldom had in the past. Opponents are only taking 19.9 free throws against the Spurs and hitting 76.1% of them. That's an average of 15.2 points per game and results in a +1.6 differential. Free throw rate (free throws attempts/shot attempts) has never been a strength of the Spurs and that, unfortunately, hasn't changed but since the Spurs are hitting their freebies at such a high rate, they've managed to, on average, tip things in their favor in terms of points resulting from trips to the line.
The Spurs are now impervious to intentional fouls and don't have to worry about being forced to change lineups
The Hack-a-whomever has been a somewhat controversial tactic over the years, with the Spurs among its most consistent practitioners. Last playoffs the Spurs used it against the Clippers and then got a taste of how that feels when OKC started fouling Tiago Splitter and sending him to the line. Now, while there are many different reason for implementing the tactic, like using it as a desperation move against an extraordinarily hot night from the opponent or trying to prevent a trailing team from getting hot from three, the only way it makes statistical sense to do so is if the free throw shooter they are putting in the line is not just bad but downright terrible. Let's take the Clippers and DeAndre Jordan as an example.
The Clippers average 100.3 points per game on 93.72 possessions a game. That means that on an average game, they score 1.07 points per possession. Jordan averages an abysmal 39.6% from the line, which equals to 0.79 points every time he's sent to the line for two free throws. You don't need to be a great coach or great with numbers to see that It's a no-brainer sending him to the line. But take a bad but not terrible free throw shooter like Blake Griffin and things change. Griffin might make only 66.5% of his free throws but that equals to 1.33 points per two free throws, which is more than the Clippers get on an average possession.
Last post season Tiago Splitter shot 37.2% from the line. Needless to say, making him shoot free throws was a very good way to make sure the Spurs' high octane offense wouldn't get going. But that doesn't seem to be an option anymore; Splitter's improvement from the line has made sure of it. Unless there is an injury that severely affects someone's shooting form (which might have happened last playoffs to Splitter), the Spurs won't need to worry about intentional fouls, while potential payoff foes like the Clippers (Jordan), Lakers (Howard) and Rockets (Asik) all have major contributors that it makes statistical sense to send to the line to stop offensive outbursts or to protect leads. In the Clippers' case, it even affects their lineup management since they can't have Jordan in late in the fourth quarter.
So you see how important having big men that can hit free throws is and the Spurs now have no weak links. Diaw, Bonner and Blair are only OK from the line but the starters had improved by leaps and bounds. And while Splitter rightfully gets the most attention for his improvement after last season's playoff struggles, Duncan deserves a lot of credit as well for having a career year in yet another area: free throw shooting percentage. Duncan is shooting over 80% from the line right now--81.4% to be exact-- after shooting just 69.5% last season. That's a fantastic turnaround, especially considering Duncan is shooting only slightly fewer free throws per 36 minutes this season.
After being a bad free throw shooting team for most if not all of the Duncan era, the Spurs are now surprisingly among the league's elite, mostly because of the improvement made by their big men. At this point, all of the Spurs' big time offensive contributors can hit free throws at a more than acceptable rate, which is not something a lot of teams can claim. And while that doesn't really affect their title chances that much, it allows for a harder to counter offense and it assures that, unlike other West playoff teams, they won't have to adjust their lineups or dread one of their core guys being sent to the line. And with how competitive the West is looking, every little edge helps.
Stats via NBAcom