Hey Denver, they’re free, free, free!

The Nuggets hope improvement at the foul line will fuel their turnaround (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images).

The Nuggets hope improvement at the foul line will fuel their turnaround (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty).

Mile high. And a little short.

Or long. Or left or right.

That’s how Brian Shaw characterized the Denver Nuggets’ gap between where they wound up last season and where they should have been. If you work backwards from Denver’s 36-46 finish last spring and first missed postseason in a decade in search of a butterfly effect – a hiccup in one area that leads to a major disruption somewhere else – you need to look hard at the Nuggets’ foul shooting.

Denver ranked fifth in the NBA in free-throw attempts last season but a miserable 27th in FT percentage (.726). The league average was .815, but never mind that: the Nuggets had 28 games in which they made fewer than 70 percent of their free throws and they went 10-18 on those nights.

“That’s more mental than anything else,” Shaw, Denver’s head coach, said last week during a break in the NBA coaches meetings. “Usually games are won or lost within the margin of how many free throws are missed.”

Let’s see: Denver missed an average of 7.2 free throws last season. Fifteen of their 46 defeats were by a margin of seven points or less. Roger that.

Your average NBA team got 17.83 points per game from the foul line in 2013-14. The Nuggets had 36 games in which they failed to hit more than 17, going 13-23. They had three games in which they made 12, missed 10, repeatedly hitting their low mark of 54.5 percent in a game.

This wasn’t some new speed bump for the Nuggets. Shaw has been talking about free-throw proficiency since he took over prior to last season, in part because he was a career .762 foul shooter in 14 NBA seasons with seven teams.

Denver ranked 28th (.701) in foul shooting in 2012-13, George Karl‘s final season as coach. It ranked 25th (.735) the season before that. Not since 2009-10 have the Nuggets finished in the top half of the NBA in success rate (.772).

Last October, Shaw generated some headlines by standing under the rim one day at practice and allowing the ball on made free throws to hit him on top of the head. It was a challenge to his guys, and while some took aim and hit their target, Shaw never was at risk of submitting to concussion protocols.

“I think it’s a combination of a lot of things,” Shaw said, asked for the cause. “You have to have a comfort level at the free-throw line. It takes a lot of practice. Different guys react differently – some guys make ’em all in practice but then they get out there in the game, when the stands are filled, and they [struggle]. We have a sports psychologist at their disposal to talk to and work on ways of calming themselves down.”

Only five Nuggets out of 16 last season managed to shoot the NBA average from the line and only one, Randy Foye, ranked sixth or higher on the team in minutes. Combined, those five accounted for only 18 percent of Denver’s free-throw attempts. Point guard Ty Lawson shot the most (406) but ranked sixth in accuracy (.798), an improvement from .756 in 2012-13.

Shaw noted that confidence at the foul line, or lack thereof, can creep into other parts of a player’s offensive game.

“It’s a snowball effect because there are certain guys who, if they’re struggling at the free throw line, they won’t want to get fouled,” he said. “They think. ‘If I drive to the basket or roll to the basket hard and I get fouled, I have to go to the free throw line. And I’m not going to make my free throws.’ ”

Keep in mind, Denver was winning 50 games or more and reaching the playoffs while missing a bunch of freebies under Karl. Still, addressing last season’s free-throw malaise would seem to be worth the five games it would have taken to swing the Nuggets’ record to .500. There also was a question of health – the Nuggets lost 287 man-games to injuries – that they hope to answer in the affirmative, rather than the infirmary, this season.

“We had five guys who had surgery last season,” Shaw said. “And I think we missed the second-most player games [to injury] behind the Lakers. As weird as it may sound, we went 36-46 and I still feel like we had a good season. We won 36 games with … if you look at any other team and the starting small forward doesn’t play any games, the starting center plays only five games and then you go down the line.”

Danilo Gallinari was the missing SF. JaVale McGee was that C. Then there was Nate Robinson, sidelined with an ACL knee injury after 44 games. And Lawson and Wilson Chandler, who each missed 20.

“The positive is [center Timofey] Mozgov got to develop and show he’s very capable,” Shaw said. “Kenneth Faried took off the second half of the season and played very well. Some of our young guys that wouldn’t have gotten that kind of experience were able to get it. That will make us a better team.”

Faried had a breakthrough stint with Team USA this summer, averaging 12.4 points and a team-best 7.8 rebounds in 21.7 minutes for a national team in need of both his power game and his energy. It’s not just his individual performance that has Shaw excited, either.

“Hopefully that confidence he gained from the way he performed over there will carry over to our team,” Shaw said. “One of things we sorely needed was leadership. We had a young team but nobody really stepped to the forefront, just holding everyone accountable.”

Here’s the real ray of hope in Faried’s global showing: He sank 10 of his 15 free throws (.667), a step up from last season’s .650. He just needs lots of company. Denver always has been proud of its 5,280 feet-above-sea-level advantage. Now it has to establish one 15 feet from the rim.

3 Comments

  1. jake s. says:

    Nuggets just don’t know their identity. They play fast-paced, but they don’t really have consistent nights. Some nights they blow out teams like OKC and Portland… other nights they lose to Detroit and Orlando. They don’t bounce back very well. It’s like their recovery time is just too long.

  2. harriethehawk says:

    Sorry, the Denver Nuggets stunk last year, and they will stink again this year. And so will Rocky.

  3. The Denver Nuggets will hit the Western Conference hard. They will run, play disciplined, and defend as a team. With a healthy roster and the return of Aaron Afflalo who will be a strong two-way player for them they will challenge to get into the top four in the Western Conference playoffs. This is Brian Shaw’s opportunity to put his stamp on this team in the post George Karl era, he has depth, talent, and experience at every position to be at his disposal. Anything short of the playoffs you will see the coaching carousel continue in Denver.