The San Antonio Spurs have not always been known for their free-throw shooting. They were often mediocre at best, largely thanks to the players who took the most free-throws on the team being average FT-shooters . Tim Duncan shot just a hair below a 70% from the line for his career and only exceeded 75% three times (‘00, ‘02, ‘13). Tony Parker was better with a career average of 75.1% at the charity stripe, and Manu Ginobili was a career 82.7% shooter, but it was still not enough to help boost the Spurs into the upper echelon of the league.
While free throw shooting rarely deterred that era of Spurs teams from achieving their ultimate goal (we’re ignoring the game-that-shall-not-be-named), the current iteration could use all the help they can get, and they’re giving themselves plenty by being the best FT-shooting Spurs team of all time by a wide margin. They are currently hitting 82.7% of their free-throws, good for second in the league behind the Warriors. Only two other times in franchise history have they exceeded the 80% barrier (‘80 and ‘16), and both times it was just barely.
Some of this season’s success can be attributed to the personnel. Team-leader in free-throws taken is DeMar DeRozan, a career 82.8% shooter who is currently hitting 84.4% on 211 attempts so far this season. The next two team leaders in FTAs, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay, are shooting 82.7% and 84.4% from the line, respectively. Overall, ten players are shooting over 80% from the line for the Spurs, led by 91.7% from Davis Bertans.
Having your top three free-throw shooters in terms of attempts shooting that well will always boost your numbers, but it has been a team-wide effort from the line, and a lot of that can be contributed to another factor: Chip Engelland and his free-throw competitions.
“It’s probably part of it,” said coach Gregg Popovich, when asked about the free-throw competitions designed by assistant coach and shooting guru Chip Engelland that are a staple of the team’s workouts and prompt the cheering.
“Chip does a great job of being low key, but, at the same time, putting them through paces that keep them under pressure at the line (in practice),” Popovich added. “And they enjoy it. They like the competitions he sets up for them. It probably has something to do with it. But as some people say, if you have good free-throw shooters, you have a better percentage. If we had bad free-throw shooters, what Chip does wouldn’t mean anything.”
It’s an enjoyable part of practice for the players, who practice them under all different kinds of pressure, which has helped the team during actual in-game high pressure situations.
“We do them every time we practice,” said Patty Mills, who is shooting 84.8 percent (39 of 46). “Guys take individual responsibility to (practice after practice ends) as well. It’s a big part of the game, being able to knock down free throws, especially when there is pressure on the line at the end of the game. We have confidence at the line and we draw a lot of fouls too with LaMarcus and DeMar and Rudy (Gay, 84.4 percent on 54 of 64) It’s a big part of what we do.”
As the Spurs seek consistency in other areas of the game, it looks like one thing they weren’t always able to rely on in the past is already there now, and there’s nothing wrong being elite at one of the easiest shots in basketball.