At a certain point, it’s too weird not to talk about it. Giannis Antetokounmpo’s free-throw shooting has fallen off a cliff, and it hit its nadir last night, when he made only 1 of 10 shots from the line against the Dallas Mavericks. The Bucks still won, sure, but man, it was ugly for the two-time reigning MVP.
What’s so strange about this dramatic drop in conversion rate from the line is that for a while, Giannis was a pretty good free-throw shooter. From his second season in the league through his first MVP season, he made at least 72.4 percent of his shots in the line for five consecutive seasons, topping out at 77.0 percent in his first All-Star season (2016-17). During that five-season span, he made 74.6 percent of his shots from the stripe. He was, essentially, a nearly league-average free-throw shooter.
And then something happened. And I think it happened in Game 3 of the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals against the Raptors. In a 6-point loss, Giannis went just 2 of 7 from the line. For the rest of the series, he made only 17 of his 36 tries — 47.2 percent. And he hasn’t been the same since.
Consider the chart below. It shows three things:
The league average free-throw percentage during Giannis’ time in the league (red, 0.763)
Giannis’ career free-throw percentage, regular season and playoffs, up to and including the most recent game (cream)
Giannis’ 50-game rolling average free-throw percentage, regular season and playoffs, up to and including the most recent game (green)
I’ve also marked off the high-and-low water marks for his 50-game rolling averages, as well as Game 3 of the Raptors series. The drop-off is… striking.
What on earth happened here? Honestly, I have no goddamn idea. My best guess is that our dude just has the yips. It happens. But it’s also been going on for a while now, and it’s becoming a bigger and bigger issue. Down the stretch of the game against the Mavs, Giannis was essentially refusing to drive to the rim, and it’s hard not to think that it was because he didn’t want to get fouled.
For a player who makes his living attacking the basket with more force than anyone else in the league, not wanting to go to the line is a significant problem. If teams aren’t scared of his jumper and he’s not barreling into the paint with full force, he is suddenly a much different, much less effective player. For that reason, the free-throw shooting is a far more pressing concern than the jump shot. Especially because teams may decide to employ a hack-a-Giannis strategy at some point, betting that Giannis at the line will be less efficient than the regular ole Bucks offense.
Maybe it’s just a blip and he gets this all ironed out soon. But we’re going on nearly 100 games of this now, and it’s not getting better. That’s not a very encouraging sign for the Bucks.