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Suns missing out on the free throw boom

The NBA is going crazy with free throws, but the Phoenix Suns aren’t joining the fray

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Take a look at the simplest stat: The Phoenix Suns are 7-15 in games where the opponent shoots 10+ more free throws than they do.

As long as the Suns keep the FT battle within 10, their record is 30-18 (62%), a 51-win pace. But if the opponent can +10 them, the Suns win rate drops to 32%, which would mire them in the lottery.

Seems logical, but that’s quite a change from a year ago where they went 10-3 when they got +10’d by an opponent through 71 games. The year before, they were 8-6 in such games through 71.

This year, the Suns offense ranks only 15th in the league so they just don’t have the firepower to overcome such a disparity in freebies. And it’s happening more often than ever.

Giving up too much

“We’ve got to stop fouling so much,” head coach Monty Williams said after Sunday’s loss to the Thunder where they committed a season-high 31 fouls and got outshot 36 to 24 at the free throw line.

He’s previously made a habit of complaining about the refs after games like that, but Sunday he said the obvious.

The Suns simply commit too many fouls (5th most in league, after ranking 12th a year ago) and way too many of those are shooting fouls. They are allowing the 4th-most free throw attempts (25.2 per game) this year after allowing the 7th-most last year and 17th most in 2020-21.

And they’re trending in the wrong direction. Since February 9 (15 games), they’ve been worst in the whole league by allowing 28 free throws per game. Sure, they’ve faced a particularly grueling set of foul-drawing opponents including the individual talents of Giannis (19 FTAs), Luka (19), Shai (19), and the collective Kings (7th-most FTs a game) and Magic (9th), but they’ve still got the Lakers (1st) and 76ers (6th) coming up, plus another with the Kings.

You probably want to blame the foul troubles on the losses of Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson in the Kevin Durant trade on February 9, and you’d be partially right. Bridges made it a habit to take on the opponents’ best player every night and somehow not rack up fouls, but you’ve got to know that 5 of those ‘+10’ games this year happened before the big trade and the Suns gave up the 7th-most free throws per game before he left.

Josh Okogie and Torrey Craig are aggressive defenders, but they too often stick that arm in or they try to take a charge without getting into legal guarding position. Maybe they will adjust, or maybe the Suns will have to adjust their defensive scheme so as not to put Okogie and Craig in such one-on-one positions.

And yet, the Suns still have the league’s 7th-ranked defense since the big trade. Not a big drop off from 6th pre-trade, and a huge win considering Durant has played in only 3 of the 15 games. Okogie and Craig haven’t been bad overall, and the team defensive scheme is still quite effective. Since Feb 9, they have allowed the 5th lowest Effective Field Goal % (which gives extra credit to threes) to opponents.

The Suns have got to get those fouls under control.

Not getting enough of their own

If you’re going to give up more free throws, at least counter it with more of your own.

You might be surprised to find out the Suns are committing only 1.4 more fouls per game this year than their opponents, but they are allowing a whopping 4.1 more free throw attempts per game.

For the year, they shoot only 21.4 free throws of their own (3rd fewest) to their opponents’ 25.6 per game (4th most). Seems bad, but that’s really only a 4-point difference that they usually make up for in shooting (fewer free throws = more shot attempts).

But that doesn’t work if you can’t make enough of those extra shots: 13th in shot attempts, 23rd in FG%. A year ago, the Suns were #1 in both field goals made and FG%.

For most of this year, the Suns have been at a deficit of shooting talent. Devin Booker and Cam Johnson missed half the season. Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, Landry Shamet and Cam Payne have missed more than a month each. It’s only been a 5-month season!

Getting Booker, Paul and Durant in the same lineup with Deandre Ayton, while having key reserves Landry Shamet and Cam Payne available at the same time will help tremendously on making up the free throw deficit with better shooting and playmaking.

But let’s take a moment to talk about free throws anyway.

On the plus side, Kevin Durant promises to bring more free throws by himself (7.3 in 36 minutes per game) than Bridges and Cam Johnson combined (5.0 in 55 minutes per game).

But the crazy part is that those are PRE-TRADE numbers.

Since Bridges and Cam J were sent to Brooklyn, the ‘twins’ have doubled up, combining for 10.4 free throws in 65 minutes per game, while Durant only got to the line 5.7 times per game for the Suns (3 games, 32 minutes per game).

The twins have doubled their free throws per game in Brooklyn, while Durant’s dropped by 30%.

Maybe the problem is Phoenix? How else do you explain the twins suddenly becoming free throw regulars while Durant can’t get a call?

Bridges’ 71 free throw attempts in 8 games for the Nets so far in March are tied with Anthony Davis for 8th most in the entire league. That’s up from ranking 51st in January with 57 free throws in 15 games — at the time, a career high for a month by a wide margin.

He is definitely ‘the man’ now in Brooklyn more than he ever was in Phoenix. ‘Brooklyn Bridges’ is their leading scorer by a wide margin with 25.9 points per game (16 games), with Spencer Dinwiddie (17.5) and Cam J (16.5) coming in a distant second and third. Looks a lot like Booker in Phoenix, doesn’t it?

In Brooklyn, he’s blown away the career-best version we saw from January 10 to February 7 (22.2 points on 48/37/90 splits, including 4.5 FTs per game) with eye-popping numbers as the main man (25.9 points on 49/44/89 splits with 6.4 FTs per game).

Just look at this career progression from him, in terms of scoring:

  • 2019-20: 9.1 points per game
  • 2020-21: 13.5
  • 2021-22: 14.2
  • 2022-23: 19.2
  • 2022-23 (before Jan 10): 15.4
  • 2022-23 (Jan 10 - Feb 7): 22.2
  • 2022-23 (since Feb 9): 25.9

He’s got a totally different level of confidence this past two months than we’d seen at any point before that. Heck, even the first month of being ‘the man’ in Phoenix this season was a disaster. Remember him struggling through shooting sub-40% for a month when Booker and Paul were mostly out?

Now, he’s not only a great shooter but he’s getting to the line constantly! Good thing they don’t play the Suns any more this year. I’m not sure I could handle Bridges giving us the Shai treatment.

Back to the Suns, and their inability to get to the line consistently.

Where will improvement come from? For sure, Durant will get his. Booker is starting to get his too.

How about Josh Okogie? He’s unorthodox, but since ‘the trade’ he’s been 3rd on the team in free throws per game (4.0, in 31 minutes) and is one of the 36 players this year who have recorded a 15+ free throw game.

Take a minute to digest that. Thirty-six different players have put up at least one 15+ free throw game this season.

Across the league, 15+ free throws for a single player has already happened 136 times this year, and there’s still 15% of the season to go. The Suns have recorded three of those (Booker has the other two), while giving up 8 to the opposition. Only the Minnesota Timberwolves (9) have allowed more 15+ FT games than the Suns (8), but it’s not a runaway as a handful of teams have allowed 7 such games this year.

Those 136 games so far are up 72% from a year ago (79) and none of the last 6 seasons have exceeded 110.

I don’t know what else to say about the free throw boom, except this: If Mikal can do it, why can’t another young Phoenix Sun figure it out? I’d love to see the light go on for Deandre Ayton some day before he puts on a different jersey.

Drawing fouls is easy these days, DA. Just ask Austin Reaves.

Next Up

The Phoenix Suns play the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday, and they’ll have to face new foul maven Austin Reaves, who scored 35 points on Sunday night in a Lakers victory where he got to the 18 times. Wut.

When asked after the game what’s happened, Reaves said he’d been studying James Harden and Trae Young for tips on how to draw shooting fouls.

Overall, the Lakers (35-37) lead the league free throw attempts per game while allowing the 3rd fewest. Bad combo for the Suns, who are 28th and 27th, respectively.

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