The Minnesota Lynx Offense and the Case of the Missing Free Throw Attempts

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 Heading into the last five games before the All-Star break, the Minnesota Lynx had an offense that was trending upwards. That came crashing down in a loss to the Atlanta Dream on July 12th in which the Lynx lost despite holding the Dream to 33.8 percent shooting. Starting with that loss, the Lynx went 1-4 in the five games before All-Star weekend and appeared to be badly in need of a chance to recharge and regroup.

There is not one simple reason why a team goes through a slump like the Lynx did. There are always multiple factors that go into both winning and losing. However, over the course of those five games, one of the most obvious factors limiting the Lynx offense was the team’s inability to get to the free throw line.

The Lynx are losing the free throw battle

The Lynx had fewer free throw attempts than their opponent in all four of their losses in the five game stretch before the break. They lost by 7 points to Atlanta in a game where the Dream’s entire margin of victory came from four more made free throws and just one more made three-pointer than the Lynx.

Despite a late push in their game against the Seattle Storm on July 17th, the Lynx were outshot significantly from everywhere on the floor and lost 90-79. While it may not have been the main deciding factor in the game, the Lynx lost the free throw battle, shooting 8-9 to the Storm’s 12-13.

Against the Las Vegas Aces on July 21st, Minnesota shot 8-11 at the free throw line compared to the Aces’ 17-22. Even though the Lynx made more field goals in the game, this free throw disparity allowed the Aces to beat the Lynx by just five points.

In their game against the Washington Mystics, the Lynx tied Washington in made field goals (30 apiece) and had only one less made 3-pointer. However, once again the Lynx were defeated at the free throw line. The Mystics shot 11-15 on free throws, while the Lynx shot 4-4. The Lynx lost by eight points.

In all of the Lynx’s losses in this stretch aside from their matchup with the Storm, free throws were the  deciding factor in the game. Meanwhile, in their lone win in that five game stretch, Minnesota tied the Phoenix Mercury in free throw makes and attempts. Both teams shot 8-9 from the free throw line in the contest.

Not getting to the line enough and missing too many free throws

The strangest thing about this recent trend of the Lynx consistently losing the free throw battle is that free throws were a major strength for the team for much of the season. In their first fifteen games, the Lynx shot 17.1 free throws per game, the fourth highest number of attempts in the league. Of those attempts, Minnesota made 13.3 free throws per game, which was the second highest number of made free throws per game in the league.

However, in the five games just before the break, the Lynx only averaged 7.2 free throw attempts per game, easily the lowest mark in the WNBA. The team with the next fewest attempts, the Dallas Wings, averaged 12.8 free throws per game during that timeframe. Meanwhile, some of the league leaders in free throw attempts during this period of time averaged over 20 attempts per game.

Over the course of their slump, the Lynx were losing free throw attempts from several key players. In the first fifteen games, Odyssey Sims led the team in free throw attempts and makes (3.3-3.9). Napheesa Collier (2.6-3.3), Sylvia Fowles (1.9-2.8), and Danielle Robinson (1.7-2.0) followed her in attempts and makes per game. Over the five game stretch before All-Star, Sims and Collier averaged exactly one (1.0) free throw attempt per game, Robinson averaged 0.6 free throws per game, and Fowles averaged 2.0 per game. That is a drop of 7.4 free throw attempts per game from several of the Lynx’s key starters.

Are the refs to blame?

The severe downturn in free throw attempts for the Lynx is hard to explain. It is well established at this point that free throw attempts are down throughout the league. Sims, Robinson, Fowles, and Stephanie Talbot are all posting career lows in free throw rate. For Robinson and Talbot at least some of this may be the result of taking more threes than at any other point in their careers (a shot which generally doesn’t get players to the foul line). However, in the five games before the All-Star break, Robinson only attempted three total three-pointers. For that stretch of games at least, more three-point attempts are not an adequate explanation for her lack of free throw attempts.

When asked after the Lynx’s loss to Washington if she was happy with her team’s aggression and shot selection, Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve said, “Yeah, we played in the paint. I don’t know how you can play in the paint—I don’t know how you can walk out in the first half and only have two free throws. I don’t know how that happens. Four free throws total between two teams. And I think it’s been talked about—pretty widespread now. The officiating is different.”

The paint, and specifically contact on post touches for centers, has been an especially lawless area this WNBA season. Compared to her teammates, Fowles’ lack of free throws seems to stem directly from the changes in officiating this season allowing more contact underneath the basket. While Fowles’ style of play has not changed much from the last few years, her free throw rate this year is 0.256 (free throws per field goal attempt), compared to her career average of 0.461. Taking this career average free throw rate and applying it to her field goal attempts this year, Fowles would be averaging approximately 4.9 free throw attempts per game and making about 3.4 without the officiating changes. Instead, she is shooting 2.7 free throws per game and making 1.9.

Asked how she deals with the frustration of not getting calls, Fowles said, “I just had this talk with Cheryl the other day. Just playing my game. It hasn’t been good for me, complaining to the refs. I’ve just got to get back to that mindset of, ‘They’re not going to call calls, you just go through people,’ and if they call it then they call it. If they don’t, just make sure you get back on defense. And so just having that mindset, pushing from here on out and not giving up on plays, because when I get mad I give up on plays—and they going the opposite way scoring the basket. So just making sure I just let it go and keep playing through it and hopefully I get some calls.”

Getting back on track

Officiating alone isn’t enough to explain the Lynx’s free throw numbers. Again, earlier in the season the Lynx were one of the best teams at getting to the foul line. If the Lynx are to get back to consistently winning games, they will need to address their recent free throw woes some way or another in their offense.

You know, Odyssey’s not getting there,” said Reeve about her team’s lack of trips to the foul line. “I will say she could do more. She’s one that was averaging five free throws a game. Syl’s only getting two. A little over two. So we’re not getting them from other places. You know, Phee gets fouled. But nothing’s being called in the paint. So it was a big part of our offense in May and June, and we we went from being the top two in free throw rate to the bottom. By a lot. And so we’re trying. We’re trying to be in the paint. And sometimes if you know they’re not calling it, it’s that tough decision—do you keep doing it?”

The Lynx will have more to clean up than just free throws in the final playoff seeding push.  Still, getting back to the foul line should make life a little easier for them.

We need to find a way to get more [at the line]  because we’re putting so much pressure on just being able to make shots and offensive rebounds,” said Reeve. “You’ve got to find other ways in terms of the four factors [of winning]. You’ve got to do something, because our offensive rating consistently is under 100.0. Consistently. Those are things that we talk about every day, trying to find a way. So we’ll have some time over the break and [we’ll] see if we can’t get a little more aggressive, see if we can’t kind of force the issue.”

Before the All-Star break, Reeve joked, “I think we left our team in Atlanta. I’m going to go back there over the break and see if I can’t find us, and see if we can be better outside the break.”  In their most recent contest against Atlanta, the Lynx won 85-69 in Seimone Augustus’ return to action. The Lynx shot 21-27 on free throws to the Dream’s 21-25—a win in attempts and a tie in makes. In their first two games after the All-Star break, the Lynx have already tied their free throw makes (32) and surpassed their attempts (40 compared to 36) from the last five games before the break. It is not yet clear if this signifies a reversal of the recent free throw trend, but perhaps the Lynx have found themselves again in Atlanta.

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