What’s the Worst Way to Lose an NBA Game?

The Stockton Kings, G-League affiliate of Sacramento’s NBA team, posed an interesting question on Twitter on Tuesday.

Would you rather get crossed over on the game winning play and lose, or miss the game winning free throws?

In the red corner, you have guys like Bryon Russell and Craig Ehlo, who will forever be known for getting shook by Michael Jordan on two of His Airness’ most famous plays from a whole career of famous plays.

In the blue corner, you have Nick Anderson, a guy who will forever live in infamy in Orlando for choking at the line in Game 1 of the 1995 NBA Finals, missing four clutch free throws as the Houston Rockets won the game 120-118 and seized the momentum that would carry them to a sweep for their second title.

The thing is, if you lose because the other team’s guy did something great, sure, you’re the trivia answer, and you might even look foolish on a poster, but nobody’s saying you cost your team the game.

Simply put, if you get crossed over, blown by, or have the enemy player hit a dagger in your face, all the attention is on the guy who won the game, not on the guy who lost it.

Likewise, if you miss a prayer of a shot at the end of a game and the other team escapes by the skin of its teeth, you’re rarely labeled a choker unless it happens to you more than once or, if it happens to you in a Game 7, you never redeem yourself later on down the line.

Kobe Bryant choked plenty of times. But he hit enough of those game-winners that nobody remembers the ones he missed, not even Lakers fans who were in the building when those “Mamba mentality” shots refused to go down.

Jordan himself even lampshaded it in a shoe commercial, when he pointed out that “26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot…and missed.” The very next thing he said, and the reason everyone remembers that Nike ad, was “I have failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed.”

But the free throw line is different. In 2020, NBA players made 77.3 percent of their free throws. NBA players have not, as a league average, hit less than 70 percent from the line for as long as the NBA has been officially called the NBA. You have to go back to the Basketball Association of America, in 1947-48, its second season in existence, to find a league-wide FT% below .700.

The 77.1 percent mark the league hit way back in 1973-74 stood as a record until 2017, and still stands not only as the third-best free throw mark of all-time even 46 years later but also stands just one free throw in 500—four makes per team league-wide over the entire season that year, or one every 20 games or so—short of still being the all-time high-water mark.

NBA players have always been good at free throw shooting. With a few notable exceptions (Ben Wallace, Chris Dudley, Andre Drummond, and DeAndre Jordan, the only four players in league history to shoot less than 50 percent for their career), we expect a fouled player to at least make one free throw from each trip to the line. Even legendarily lousy free throw shooters like Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O’Neal averaged better than one point per two shots.

That’s why anyone old enough to remember 1995 remembers Nick Anderson’s choke so vividly. It was a legendary failure, a complete failure, a statistical oddity so rare than even Ben Wallace would only have a 12 percent chance of missing four in a row based on his career mark of 41.1 percent.

Anderson shot 70.4 percent that season. He had just a 0.76 percent chance of missing all four free throws. Or, put another way, he had a 99.24 percent chance of making at least one of them and a well over even shot at making at least two out of four.

And yet he missed them all. A spectacular, 130-to-1 odds choke.

And that’s why despite a 13-year NBA career that spanned 800 games played, 11,529 points scored, a triple-double in the 1991-92 season, and everything you hope for a role player/third option to be on a good team, that’s the only thing people remember about Nick Anderson.

He had four shots from the free throw line with a chance to put his team up 1-0 in the NBA Finals.

And he choked.

So in answer to the Stockton Kings’ question:

Absolutely, I’d rather get shook out my shoes by a guy who dribbles me out of position and gets an easy bucket to clinch the game.

Because at the end of the day, they’re not going to destroy my entire legacy over it. Even as Ehlo and Russell are known for getting scored on, it’s Michael Jordan. Heck, Russell has an entire legion of truthers insisting Jordan committed an offensive foul.

If I missed the free throws, that’s all anyone would ever remember until the day I died. No thanks.