The Four Factors were originally developed in 2004 by Dean Oliver in his book, Basketball on Paper. Oliver proposed that if basketball teams could control each of the four factors (Shooting, Turnovers, Rebounds, and Free Throws), teams would have a much higher chance of success than a team that didn’t have an advantage in these categories. This idea has been one of the pillars of the advanced statistics movement. Look at any team page or box score on Basketball-Reference, and you will see a box for the four factors, and their primary methods of measurement: Effective Field Goal Percentage, Turnover Percentage, Offensive and Defensive Rebound Percentage, and Free Throw Rate.
The weight of each of these factors is up for debate. Shooting is widely regarded to be the most important for team success, but each factor, if decided by a wide enough margin, could be valued as highly important for an individual team’s success. Take the Houston Rockets for example. Houston is the league’s most turnover-prone team, but are top five in each of the other three factors, and lead the league in Free Throw Rate. The Chicago Bulls, on the other hand, are a mediocre offensive team by the Four Factors, but are where they are because of their seventh best mark in ORB%, and have the league’s 2nd-best defense by eFG%. Different factors are more and less important for each team.
The Cavaliers are no different. Shooting is not their friend, but they have strong rebounding percentages. However, the factor that has become incredibly important for this team lately, and is one where they struggled early in the season, is free throw shooting.
The Cavs have been a pretty average team in free throw rate over the course of the season. They get to the line 22.6 times per game on average, which is 17th in the league, and convert an even 75 percent of their attempts, which is 21st. Their free throw rate (Free throw attempts divided by field goal attempts) is around league average at 0.202. However, when the Cavs edge out the other team in free throws, it’s been an incredibly good predictor of success, especially as of late, when the Cavs have surged to play over-.500 ball.
Taking the last 25 games as a sample, the Cavs have had a higher free throw rate than their opponent 13 times. In these games, they are 9-4, with a 4-8 record when they don’t. This has been especially true in the last couple of weeks, as they’ve posted a higher FTR than their opponent four times in 5 games, and won each game, losing the lone contest where they did not lead against Brooklyn on Friday. Further, when the Cavs have posted a FTR above .225, they’re 7-3. Getting to the line in an efficient manner is quite important for the Cavs, and they have been doing a fairly good job of that lately.
This has also helped out the offense as a whole. The Cavs’ offense is at its best when Dion Waiters and Kyrie Irving can routinely attack the rim, as they were able to do with ease Wednesday night against the Magic. A high number of free throw attempts indicates that a team is attacking the basket often, as getting into the paint, especially on a drive, results in a higher number of fouls. In the Cavs’ 13 wins over the last 25 games, they’ve gotten to the line an average of 24.9 times per game, or about two and a half times more than their average for the season. In their losses, they’re averaging 20.9 attempts. Those extra four attempts per game can swing a close game in your favor, and it’s an easy way to boost your offensive efficiency.
Granted, free throws are never fully in a team’s control, as the officials have sway in the distribution in free throws, and it’s very hard to control your performance and your opponent’s performance, especially when compared to shooting and rebounding, which a team can directly influence on both ends. There’s not much a team can do to influence their opponent’s free throw rate, other than avoiding fouling, far from a completely controllable strategy, and limiting looks in the paint. However, the Cavs have been getting to the line far more frequently than their opponents in most of their wins, and with Kyrie Irving back in the lineup to attack off the dribble, those numbers should increase more. As the Cavs continue to push their faint playoff hopes to the brink of this season, outpacing opponents in trips to the charity stripe will continue to be paramount, and if the last two weeks have been any indication, the Cavs have figured this out as well.
Raw free throw data was gained through Basketball-Reference, and can be found here.