Wilt Chamberlain’s Sabotage of the NBA’s Free Throw Percentage: A Pro Hoops History Investigation

Sabotaging Storm Troopers

The mammoth impact of Wilt Chamberlain has been written about often here at Pro Hoops History. Most notably his 100-point game and his 55-rebound game. But today I’d like to focus on a rather amazing correlation, perhaps even causation.

Wilt Chamberlain’s free throw shooting seems to have significantly reduced the overall FT% of the entire NBA for a decade.

The season before Wilt joined the NBA (1958-59) the league-wide FT% was .756. The next season Wilt was a rookie and the league’s FT% dropped to .735. The NBA wouldn’t climb above the .750 mark again until the 1969-70 season, when Wilt wound up missing all but 12 games due to a knee injury. The correlation is startling and shows the tremendous influence a force like Wilt could have in a league of eight teams in 1960.

The Percentages

Season Wilt’s FT% NBA FT%
1955 0.738
1956 0.745
1957 0.751
1958 0.746
1959 0.756
1960 0.582 0.735
1961 0.504 0.733
1962 0.613 0.727
1963 0.593 0.727
1964 0.531 0.722
1965 0.464 0.721
1966 0.513 0.727
1967 0.441 0.732
1968 0.380 0.720
1969 0.446 0.714
1970 0.446 0.751
1971 0.538 0.745
1972 0.422 0.748
1973 0.510 0.758
1974 0.772
1975 0.765
1976 0.751

Well, that doesn’t bode well for Wilt’s reputation. To make matters visually worse, here’s a graph of the Wilt-induced trough. The vertical lines demarcate Wilt’s rookie year (black), his knee injury (blue) and his retirement (orangish):

Wilt FTs NBA FTs

Well, let’s dig a little deeper and see just how gargantuan Wilt’s share of FTs missed and attempted were these years. You’ll notice that as his share of total FTAs decreased – thanks to a combination of his own declining FT numbers as well as the NBA adding more teams and thus FT attempts from other players – Wilt underwent Herculean efforts to maintain his destabilizing impact by decreasing his FT%. Which, if you remember from above, bottomed out at 38% in 1968. He attempted 11.4 FTs a game that season, too.

Wilt FT chartsOk, so the entirety of the NBA’s bad FT shooting from 1960 to 1973 can’t be blamed on Wilt, but a whole helluva lot of it can. These were the worst years for NBA free throw shooting and Wilt was the most voluminous bad free throw shooter in NBA history. The Walt Bellamys (career .632 FT%) and Bill Russells (career .561 FT%) helped Chamberlain out, but in terms of just one overwhelming source, it was Wilt (career .511 FT%) that sabotaged free throw shooting.

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