It’s easy to blame things on the refs when you’re losing. And while there were a few questionable whistles in the Sixers' deflating 114-109 loss to the Raptors (see observations), a 35-14 disparity in free throws attempted can’t be explained away by one or two bad calls.
In scoring a career-high 45 points, DeMar DeRozan attempted 15 free throws (more than the entire Sixers' team), making 13. Kyle Lowry was a perfect 8 for 8 from the line.
After the loss, Brett Brown commented on the duo’s ability to get to the foul line: “I just think it’s what they are ... They bury their head, they find a spot, they bull their way into environments that are confrontational and expose that collision.”
“DeMar is gifted in so many ways. You look down and to have 45 points against what analytics would say aren’t very efficient shots and he just picks spots and jumps. He sure makes a lot. He’s been doing it a long time. I think it’s the physical nature of how they attack.”
The Sixers have allowed the most free throw attempts per game in the NBA (26.5). It’s not a surprising statistic for a young team that often makes questionable decisions, whether that be fouling jump shooters or leaping at pump fakes.
DeRozan is also an especially crafty player, visiting the line an average of 7.9 times. But the Sixers are going to have a difficult time beating any team, let alone an Eastern Conference contender like the 22-8 Raptors, when they concede a 21 free throw advantage.
With 23.3 foul shots attempted per game, the Sixers are 10th in the league, but that stat is heavily influenced by Joel Embiid. Without Embiid, who averages 8.3 free throw attempts, you’d expect the Sixers to struggle to draw shooting fouls, as was the case Thursday.
Tasked to be the main offensive catalyst in Embiid’s absence, Ben Simmons has shown none of DeRozan or Lowry’s penchant for drawing fouls. We all know Simmons is not a good free throw shooter, with the most famous example of his ineptitude the nearly successful Hack-a-Simmons move used by the Wizards on Nov. 29, when the rookie shot 12 of 24 from the line in the fourth quarter alone. Overall, Simmons is shooting 54.8 percent from the line.
One thing Thursday’s game demonstrated, which Simmons surely already knows, is being a good free throw shooter is a valuable tool for someone who can attack the paint as well as he does. At a minimum, it’s crucial for him to improve his foul shooting to the point that fans no longer are cringing when he goes to the line late in games.
The second, less obvious lesson is how important it is for Simmons to get to the line more often. Overall, Simmons is averaging 5.0 free throw attempts per game, though those numbers are skewed by the 29-attempt night against Washington. Since the game against the Wizards, Simmons is just 20 for 39 from the line in 11 games.
A player who penetrates as well as Simmons, who is third in the league with 13.59 points in the paint per game, should be taking a significantly higher number of free throws. He doesn’t have to radically change the way he plays, but he should occasionally be leaning into defenders when he’s blown past them, pump-faking off-balance opponents or bullying smaller point guards. Even if in the short term Simmons is still a subpar foul shooter, two or three more attempts each game would be a big bonus.
Of course, the disparity in free throw attempts is just one of many factors behind the Sixers’ funk. Still, it’s emblematic of many of their issues. Smart, veteran teams like the Raptors tend to shoot more free throws than their opponents.
The Sixers visit Toronto Saturday night. We’ll see if they’ve learned anything.