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An N.B.A. Arbitrage Opportunity

Benjamin Hoffman has an article in today’s N.Y. Times about an investment banker named Gary Boren whom the Dallas Mavericks use as their free-throw guru. He films the players’ free-throw attempts, breaks down their mechanics, and then teaches them to improve. “Since he joined the Mavericks [in 1999],” Hoffman writes, “they have finished in the top six in the league each season in free-throw shooting, including four first-place finishes. This season, Boren has them at 80.7 percent, the fourth time his team has been higher than 80 percent at the line.”

There are a few wrinkles worth thinking about here. Maybe the Mavs were already a good free-throw team before Boren arrived (the article doesn’t mention this statistic). Maybe his presence simply forces them to shoot more free throws in practice. Maybe there’s a placebo effect in play.

Regardless, this is a pretty fascinating window into how one team is emphasizing an integral but often overlooked aspect of the game. According to Hoffman, no other N.B.A. team has hired a free-throw coach. If what Boren is doing is truly successful, that is mind-boggling.

Here are a few key insights into Boren’s approach (which he learned from Denny Price, a longtime basketball coach and father of free-throw legend Mark Price):

1. “What’s amazing is, these guys have seen miles of film running up and down the court and the coaches are yelling at them, but not one in a hundred has been filmed standing still shooting a free throw,” Boren said. (I agree: that is amazing, and along with the fact that no other team has a free-throw coach, presents a great arbitrage opportunity for the Mavericks.)

2. “They all think they’re better shooters than they are,” Boren said. (This is a bit like investors’ overconfidence bias.)

3. “Possibly Boren’s biggest success story was the 7-foot-6 center Shawn Bradley. During the early part of his career, Bradley shot mostly between 60 to 70 percent from the free-throw line. Working with Boren, he reeled off three consecutive seasons above 80 percent, including 92.2 percent in 53 games in 2001-2.” (Again, we don’t have all the factors here — was Bradley hurt in those earlier years? — but still, it’s impressive.)

All of which makes me wonder: why do no other teams have a free-throw coach, and why didn’t Pat Riley buy one for Shaquille O’Neal for Christmas?

On a barely related note, here’s how a variety of N.B.A. players wished a Happy Hanukkah. (P.S.: check out the Hebrew writing on Shaq’s police hat; too fuzzy for me to make out, but perhaps someone out there can.)