On Saturday night, the Bucks lost 112-95 to the Utah Jazz. During the game, Bucks players shot 21 free throws while allowing the Jazz 26 attempts from the charity stripe. Allowing opponents to shoot more from the line is not unusual for the 2009-2010 Bucks. Saturday's tilt was the thirty-second such game of the season. That means the Bucks have been outshot at the line in a stunning 84.2% of their games this season.
To get a gauge on how unusual that number is, I thought it would be interesting to see how these Bucks compare to past Bucks teams. To do this, I used the Basketball-Reference.com Play Index*. Unfortunately the Play Index goes back only to the 1986-1987 season, but 23 seasons of data is better than none. Here are the Bucks teams from 1986-1987 to the present sorted by highest percentage of games with a negative free throw attempt differential:
Two things jump out at me from this table. First, it's possible to rack up wins while allowing your opponents to regularly outshoot you at the line (and vice versa). Second, the 2009-2010 Bucks should not have a problem setting a team record. With 44 games left to play, they have to win the free throw battle in 19 games to tie the second-place team and just about halve their current negative FTA differential percentage in the process. Good luck with that.
So, it's clear the current Bucks are historically bad at getting to the line (at least on a game-to-game basis) compared to their opponents. The natural question then is where do they rank among all teams in the past 23 seasons?
Unlike the Bucks-only table, this one shows quite clearly it is hard to win when being outshot regularly at the line. The 1987-1988 SuperSonics are the only winning team on the list, and they were only six games above .500. To me, this suggests teams can overcome "FTA losses" to a point, but there is a limit around 70.0% of games (four of five teams at 69.5% won 41 or more games) at which teams start to sink. Of course, it's common knowledge that fouling too often is a recipe for failure.
It will probably be tough for the Bucks to jump the Celtics for first place. The team would need to lose the free throw battle in 39 of 44 remaining games. Certainly possible but, in my opinion, not likely. Call me an optimist, if you must. The Bucks are, however, nearly guaranteed a spot somewhere on the above list when all is said and done. As noted above, they need to win the FT battle in 19 games to fall off the list. Finally, just in case someone is curious, the Miami Heat are currently in second place in -FTA% this season with 64.1% (25 of 39).
Granted, all of this is rather trivial and obvious in the grand scheme of things. Certainly other aspects of the game affecting winning and losing more than free throws. However, it does paint a pretty bleak picture for the rest of the season. While nobody was expecting great things from this club at the beginning of the season, the Bucks certainly have not done themselves any favors by combining fouls with struggles to get to the line.
*- having mainly done baseball research in the past, I am most familiar with the Sports-Reference Play Indices. If there is a better or more complete basketball database, let me know.