Making Free Throws--To Make A Difference

The Free Throw Difference:

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The New York Knicks fell to the Dallas Mavericks, 92-77, last night as many have this year to the NBA's best. It's a little unrealistic, but had the Knicks shot 100% from the free throw line, they would have pushed the game into overtime. The Knicks – the sixth worst foul shooting team in the league -- shot 15-for-30 (a horrendous 50%) from the charity stripe last night compared to the Mavericks 77 percent (21 out of 27 attempts). Foul shots count.

The Mavs, at 80.8%, and the Phoenix Suns, at 80.7%, are the only teams that shoot better than 80 percent as a team. This is one of the reason's why the Mavericks and the Suns are the best two teams in the league and why the Mavericks' win over the Knicks is their 41st win in 45 games, tying an NBA record.

Yes, free throws make a difference in many games, something that Mavericks owner Mark Cuban clearly realizes. That's why before the season Cuban decided to make Gary Boren the team's full time free throw coach by giving him a three-year contract with benefits.

"Teams still shoot 70 plus percent for the most part so on a small basis 70 to 80 percent might not seem like a big differentiation," Cuban told me. "But when you are trying to win a championship it is. And it's like any other element of a business. You want to optimize every you possibly can in everything you do and there's a cost versus a reward and return on investment and we think we get our money's worth."

What is interesting is about Boren is that he's an investment banker by day at Dallas-based Equity Bank, helping new companies find capital and board members. I sat down with Boren to talk about how he got into this profession.

Q: How did you get into this?
Boren: This is the entertainment business. That's why I started this. I didn't think it was very entertaining to pay a lot of money for a season ticket and watch these guys that are getting paid an awful lot of money miss a free throw.

Q: So what did you do from there?
Boren: I bought every book there was on shooting and every video tape and I shot until I made 500, and it first maybe took me 750 shots or whatever and I got better and better and better. I did that every day for 13 months and I was testing what all these different coaches had to say about it and then developing some of my own stuff.

Q: So what did you come up with?
Boren: I came up with the idea of filming the player. Before I say anything, I film them. Then I have this little checklist of 41 things I'm looking for and I break down the tape and check the things where I think he can improve.

Q: How did you get your big break into the NBA?
Boren: I looked at the stats and the worst free throw shooting team in the league during that season – the 1993-94 season – was the Golden State Warriors. I contacted them, they interviewed me and coach Don Nelson told me, 'We'll try you and we'll fire you if it doesn't work out.' It did and I followed Nelson to the Knicks and then the Mavericks.

Q: How do you evaluate how you are doing?
Boren: The beauty on my deal is you can quantify it. Even on an outside shot, how good was the pass? Was it off the dribble? Was it one of those last second heaves? All those outside shooting stats are hard to quantify. But a free throw you can quantify. You can measure exactly what's going on. Everybody likes 80 percent better than 75 percent.

Q: This kind of comes out of nowhere, but when people are waving those things behind the basket to distract the shooter, is that the best thing to do?
Boren: Not really. If they were smart what they would do is they would all sit still and just about the time the player gets ready to shoot it some guy in an orange suit will jump up. Now that would be distracting. The way they do it now, it actually works to our advantage.

Q: For a decade, you've been a consultant of the Mavericks and you've actually worked with the Clippers during the season as well. But this year, Mavs owner Mark Cuban gave you an exclusive contract. What does that say about what you've done?
Boren: There's a value to what I do and there's a value to me not doing it for anyone else. So they decided to take care of me.

Q: How long are you going to do this for?
Boren: It's an interesting sideline activity I think I can do until the day I die.

By the way, when I went to Dallas I shot around with Cuban. He is really a great shooter. He must have hit 17 of 20 free throws when I challenged him to shoot his team's percentage from the line.

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