For the last five seasons, the Orlando Magic have been one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, and at the same time one of the poorest free throw shooting teams in the NBA.
This season, however, the Magic have taken this trend to a new high (or new low, you could say). They’re having one of the worst statistical years at the foul line in NBA history. The good news, though, is that — historically speaking — it’s not such a bad thing. In fact, it’s a very good thing.
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Almost two-thirds through the 2011-12 season, the Magic are shooting a woeful 64.8 percent from the foul line. Since 1950, that ranks as the fourth-worst percentage in the NBA. Only the Philadelphia 76ers of ’67-’68, the San Francisco Warriors of ’63-’64 and the ’64’65 Warriors shot free throws worse than this year’s Magic.
The common thread in these four teams — a dominant big man who struggles at the foul line. Wilt Chamberlain back in the ’60s. Dwight Howard today.
My Sun Sports/Fox Sports Florida broadcast partner, Matt Guokas, who played with Chamberlain and has announced almost all of Howard’s 607 NBA games, often talks about the plight of the dominant big man.
“With great big men like Wilt, Dwight, Bill Russell, Shaquille O’Neal,” Guokas says, “people tend to focus on the one negative, when the positives are so much more important.”
And it is so true. Chamberlain, a career 51 percent foul shooter, was a four-time MVP and a two-time champion.
Russell, a career 56.1 percent free throw shooter was a five-time MVP and won 11 NBA titles with the Celtics.
Shaq shot just 52.7 percent at the line for his career, but won one MVP, three finals MVPs and four NBA titles.
In 1967, Philadelphia shot an NBA record low 63.5 percent from the line. Chamberlain, averaging over 11 attempts per game, shot a career low 38 percent. However, the Sixers still won 62 regular season games before losing to the Celtics in seven in the conference finals.
In 1963, with Wilt hitting just 53.1 percent at the line on almost 13 attempts per game, the San Francisco Warriors made just 63.8 percent of their free throws. Still, the Warriors won the Western Conference title before losing in the Finals to the Celtics.
Even in Magic history, there is an example of an ultra successful team led by a poor foul shooter. In 1994-95, Shaq shot just 53.3 percent from the line (the Magic, as team, shot 66.9 percent), yet the team advanced to play the Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals.
Now, Dwight Howard has yet to reach the level of success achieved by the aforementioned NBA greats in this piece, and he won’t be thought of in their class until he wins NBA titles and/or MVP awards. But clearly, there is no connection between his success at the free throw line and the potential success of his teams.
And as for the Magic’s near historic free throw shooting problems this season, there should be little reason for concern. This Orlando team is keeping some pretty good company.