Friday, January 2, 2009
Thought exercise: The WNBA championship is at stake, and you're down by one free throw with one second left. You'll get two free throws, and if you make both of them, you might be WNBA champs.
If you were the coach of the team at the free throw line, given your drothers, who do you want at the line?
a) an American player, or
b) a European player?
While reading the WNBA messageboards, and the various end of the year reviews/criticisms from other sources/detractors, one of the criticisms that came up more than once compared WNBA players with their European counterparts. The general theme was that European play was to be praised and WNBA play was to be condemned.
In particular, focus came on free throw shooting. Fans bemoaned the WNBA players for not hitting large numbers of free throws, while praising the Europeans for a more team-oriented game.
I decided to see if this criticism had any basis in fact. Last year, the WNBA shooting percentage was 75.2 percent - out of every four attempts at the charity stripe, three were hit. (Incidentally, the NBA's free throw shooting was 75.5 percent in 2007-08, which is statistically the same).
I then looked at how well the Euroleague teams had done in the first round. Euroleague consists of the (hypothetical) 24 best teams in women's basketball in Europe. Each of these 24 teams played 10 first round games, and I looked at the combined free throw percentage.
The results? European free throw shooting was 73.4 percent, slightly worse than American free throw shooting. You'd probably have to track Euroleague vs. WNBA over time to determine if this deficit is consistent, but it existed in 2008. Based on the small sample size, and one season, the first hypothesis is that the European women shoot either a) exactly as well as or b) marginally worse than the American women at the free throw line.
Why the misconception? I think it's because of the bias held by many WNBA fans - "team play is much better and more emotionally satisfying than individual play" (oddly enough, in the NBA the reverse bias is true, despite claims to the contrary). European players are seen as the ultimate team players, for a number of reasons. If you follow the line of bias, fans conclude that European ballers must be better than WNBA players on the lesser known of the "Four Keys" of Dean Oliver, namely free throw shooting and turnovers/team passing. (Shooting percentage and offensive rebounding are left to the Americans.)
But at first glance, it looks like the ladies of Europe are no better at free throws than the Americans. And these are the best teams in Europe. As for free throwing in general among the worst teams, I've seen stuff in the boxscores that can turn your hair gray....