Player Rater: Free throw helpers
It occurred to me this week as I was doing my usual perusal of the sights and wonders of the Player Rater that the two best free throw shooters in fantasy -- at least on a per-game basis -- are both pretty seriously injured at the moment. Remember, this isn't necessarily about which players shoot the highest percentage from the line, but rather which players provide the greatest value (value being some perfect combination of high percentage and high volume of attempts). First is the Denver Nuggets' Danilo Gallinari, who is out indefinitely with a sprained ankle. Second is Chauncey Billups, who is out for the season after having surgery on his left Achilles.
The absence of Gallinari and Chauncey got me thinking about the peculiarities of the free throw percentage category in fantasy. Free throw shooting, of course, is a tricky category even with the help of the Player Rater. Looking at rankings based on raw totals might discount players who have missed time with injury or overvalue players who have simply played more games than everybody else; the Golden State Warriors, for example, have played only 85 percent of the games the Chicago Bulls have played (29 to 34). Looking at rankings based on per-game averages, however, overvalues the contributions of a someone like reserve Magic big man Daniel Orton, who has played only three minutes all season but managed to sink a pair of freebies while he was out there and now finds himself between guys like Deron Williams and Kyle Lowry in the free throw rankings.
In addition, the free throw category is one that penalizes poor performance far more than it rewards good performance. That is, the best free throw shooters can't possibly make up for the worst ones. Dwight Howard is currently 182-for-363 from the line for the season, good for 50.1 percent. The most valuable free throw shooter in the league to this point in the season based on raw totals has been Jamal Crawford. Crawford shoots 94.2 percent from the line, but even so he's just 97-for-103. Add them together, and it's still not pretty; you're sitting at just 59.9 percent. To get to 70 percent, you'd need three Jamal Crawfords.
All of which is to say this: it's hard to move up in the free throw category. Most teams have already played half their games this year, and that means that if you are in a roto league, you've already carved out half the data that will determine your team's free throw percentage at the end of the season. If you're currently stuck at 73 percent as a team, you'd need to shoot somewhere around 79 percent on the same amount of attempts just to get your team up to 76 percent by season's end.
The best way to adjust? Pick a terrible free throw shooter on your team, and try to replace him with a really good one. If you have Dwight Howard (or, to a lesser extent, Blake Griffin), the problem is obvious, and you could make a huge leap by trading him for someone who at least isn't terrible. But looking at the Player Rater can help you find out just how much a player is hurting you at the line. Here are a few guys you might want to think about going after.
Amare Stoudemire, PF/C, New York Knicks: It has been an extremely disappointing season thus far for STAT, but the one area in which he's been almost as good as his normal self is in free throw shooting. He's at 81.3 percent so far this season, which is not at all out of line with what he's done in seasons past, and the fact he's been so terrible in other areas might make him available if you're willing to part with someone decent. Just by way of example, if you offered Blake Griffin for Stoudemire, you could probably pick up another decent player for your trouble, and you could make enormous gains in free throw percentage that might even offset the hit you'd take in points, rebounds and field goal percentage. Remember: fantasy is all about buying low, so if you're desperate, STAT's not a bad option all-around, considering he was a first-round pick in many leagues coming into this season.
Ray Allen, SG, Boston Celtics: Allen, obviously, is one of the greatest foul shooters of all time, so it's not like he's sneaking up on anyone here, but after years of outperforming his average draft position, it appears this is the season he's finally slipping in the rankings. He's still great for 3s and free throws, but that's about it. If free throws are what you need, though, he's definitely worth targeting, because even if he starts looking like he's got tired legs, he's still probably going to make better than 90 percent of his freebies. Trading Andre Iguodala for Ray Allen, for example (you'd probably want to get another player in return, as well), would mean losing some steals and assists, but you'd make up a ton of ground from the line and in field goal percentage and 3s, as well.
Kevin Garnett, PF, Boston Celtics: If you're noticing a trend here, you're right. A lot of the guys worth targeting if you need help in free throws are players who are past their prime (and, if you're a Celtics fan like me, this list is making you really sad). Free throws age well, and players tend to stay proficient from the line even as their other skills are waning. That means you can sacrifice small amounts in other categories for big gains from the line. Roy Hibbert and Garnett, for example, are in close proximity on the Player Rater, and while you'd have to give up some blocks and a few rebounds, you'd pick up a little ground in assists and steals, and you'd go from a minus to a sizeable plus from the foul line. In a vacuum, I'd rather have Hibbert than Garnett in fantasy (just as I'd rather have Blake Griffin and Andre Iguodala than Amare Stoudemire and Ray Allen), but in this case Hibbert-for-KG is a fair trade that could absolutely help you if you need to make up ground in the free throw category.
Off the waiver wire
Norris Cole, PG, Miami Heat: Cole struggled a bit at the line to start the season, shooting just 62.5 percent in December and 78.3 percent in January, but he was an 82.6 percent free throw shooter over his four years at Cleveland State, and he's yet to miss one so far in February. Just as important is the fact he lived at the line at Cleveland State and his attempts have risen from 1.5 per game on the season to 2.8 over his past five games for the Heat. He should keep contributing as a free throw shooter, and could be a good pickup overall if he can keep getting more than 20 minutes per game.
J.J. Redick, SG, Orlando Magic: He's been getting decent minutes all season long whether the guys ahead of him are hurt or not, and while he hasn't gotten to the line much of late, his 2.3 attempts per game on the season give him just enough volume that he's been able to ride his 96 percent shooting from the line to a top-10 performance as a free throw shooter so far. He's available in most leagues, and is definitely worth a look. He'll get you some 3-pointers as well, of course, so if you can sacrifice some steals, he's your man.
Brandon Bass, PF/C, Boston Celtics: Bass is currently out with some right knee inflammation, but he should be back after the All-Star break (if not sooner), and has real potential as a free throw shooter, especially if you can sacrifice some of the more traditional stats centers tend to contribute. He'll still give you decent numbers in scoring and rebounding, and he's a career 82.3 percent free throw shooter, so I'd be willing to bet he'll improve significantly over the second half from the 77.2 percent shooting he's put up so far this season.
Seth Landman is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.
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