After the Phoenix Suns' 122-111 loss against the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday, coach Monty Williams was displeased with the officiating. More specifically, he was irked by the Lakers having attempted 26 more free throws than the Suns.
In his postgame press conference, Williams repeatedly referenced this disparity. And he did not limit his comments to that night's game. He mentioned that Oklahoma City Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had attempted 19 free throws against Phoenix on Sunday (another Suns loss) and told reporters that he'd voiced his concerns to "Joe" -- presumably Joe Dumars, the NBA's executive vice president and head of basketball operations -- last week. When Williams was finished talking about the free throws, he stood up and left.
Williams' full comments:
"Listen man. I spoke with Joe last week. I can sit here and rant and rave about what I feel like is not a fair whistle. It's just not. Forty-six free throws. We're doing the same, we're attacking the rim. I'm getting explanations about 'we're taking too many jump shots, midrange jump shots -- we're playing a physical game. They had 27 free throws in the first half. They end up with 46. When do you see a game with 46 free throws for one team? That's just not -- that's not right. I don't care how you slice it, it's happening to us too much.
"Other teams are reaching, other teams are hitting and we're not getting the same call. And I'm tired of it. It's old. Forty-six to 20 free throws. With Devin Booker on our team. He gets 12. Josh [Okogie] gets [six]. I mean, our bench had no free throws. That's just -- I'm over it. I've been talking about the same thing for a while. Doesn't matter what team it is. Last game, Shai [Gilgeous-Alexander] gets, I think he had 19 free throws. And it's old. And I'm tired of talking about free throws. Our guys have to do their job, we understand that. But that's a huge disparity. Forty-six free throws. And I'll say it again: Forty-six to 20. That's it. That's all I got to say."
A few notes on this:
- It is rare for a team to shoot 46 or more free throws in one game, but it happens. On Wednesday, the Lakers became the third team to do it in a regulation game this season. It has also happened twice in overtime games.
- Only the Spurs and Warriors have shot fewer free throws than the Suns on a per-possession basis this season. They are also the only teams with a lower free throw rate (FTA/FGA).
- According to Cleaning The Glass, Phoenix has taken 40 percent of its shots from midrange, a mark that comfortably leads the league. It has only taken 26.1 percent of its shots at the rim, and that's dead last.
- On a per-possession basis, the Suns rank 25th in drives this season, according to data from NBA.com and pbpstats.com.
Generally speaking, a large disparity in free-throw attempts does not mean that one team has been treated unfairly, and teams that rank toward the bottom of the league in drives and rim attempts don't shoot a ton of free throws. This is not to say that Williams doesn't have any legitimate gripes about recent games -- he can surely point to several calls or non-calls that didn't go Phoenix's way -- but there is a bit of a deficit baked into its style of play on offense. Beyond Booker, there are not many players on the roster who put pressure on the rim.
This should be less of a problem when Kevin Durant returns from his ankle injury. Durant takes his fair share of jumpers, but he has attempted 9.8 free throws per 100 possessions this season, which is better than anyone else on the team.
There is another part of this equation, however. The Suns' opponents are averaging 26 free-throw attempts per 100 possessions and have a free-throw rate of .303, which is a fancy way of saying Phoenix is sending teams to the line more often than anybody else in the NBA. Even last season, when the Suns had the third-best defense in the NBA (it is down to seventh -- still good! -- this year), they had a high opponent free-throw rate.
The way Williams sees it, this is because the referees have not given Phoenix the same amount of latitude to play physical defense as other teams get. It could also simply be that the Suns need to be better at defending without fouling.