Strike 3: It defies any logical explanation.

The defending NBA champion Denver Nuggets stink at the simplest shot in basketball: Free throws.

Making three out of four of uncontested, unencumbered and untimed shots from 15 feet away from directly in front of the hoop seems simple enough. Three of four would be pretty good for a local high school or rec league team. But we’re talking about the NBA here. The best players – the best shooters – on the planet. Guys that can drain off balance, off the wrong foot, falling away 3-pointers from ridiculous angles, with a defender in their face. For the season (and they weren’t a lot better a year ago) the best these world champs can do collectively is 75%?

That places Denver third from the bottom in free throw shooting in the NBA.

Back in December, head coach Michael Malone lamented the stat. “We’re leaving a lot of points on the foul line,” he told the media. “When games are close, it’s a one or two-possession game, you don’t want to keep the opposing team in the game because of all these missed free throws. I do know guys are getting in the gym individually and getting their reps in. And I hope that sooner or later, we’ll find a rhythm.”

That rhythm has remained elusive.

The easy thing would be to point the finger at Aaron Gordon, who makes about six of 10 freebies for his career, and is hovering around 61% this season. And DeAndre Jordan, who plays sparingly and is a notoriously poor free throw shooter (this year 46%) also drags down the team stat. But they aren’t alone. Guys like Reggie Jackson (right at 75%) and Michael Porter Jr. (just slightly above three out of four) are well off their career norms from the line. Three members of the regular playing rotation, Peyton Watson, Christian Braun and Gordon are all below the threshold.

Even though it hasn’t hurt them all that much so far, it’s a reason for concern, especially in the playoffs when inside play (and the fouls that come with that) become more important than 3-point shooting, defense get ratcheted up, games are tighter and every single point could be a difference maker.

A year ago, the Nuggets malaise from the free throw line didn’t end up costing them. With Gordon mustering just 47% from the line and Braun just 56%, the Nuggets were just barely (76.1%) better than three of four against the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. Meanwhile, the Heat stayed close by shooting a nifty 86% from the line.

On the plus side, Denver seems to be better from the line late in games. Perhaps it’s a concentration thing?

There has to be some sort of explanation. Fatigue maybe?

How do they fix this before the most important part of the season? Most of the time it’s hard to replicate game conditions in practice. Standing alone in the local gym with no one around, a lot of folks could hit eight out of 10. But when you’ve been sprinting up and down the floor, your heart is racing and you’re catching your breath, it’s very different. But it is something that can and is practiced – sprinting down the floor and back and then stepping to the line is a common drill. Even in scrimmage situations, coaches will stop the action and shoot free throws.

Maybe it’s a lack of shots during most games? The Nuggets are among the teams with the fewest free attempts in the league, even if Steve Kerr doesn’t think so.

To be fair, the Nuggets have gotten progressively better as this season has gone along. They’re approaching 80% from the charity stripe during the month of January. Keep up this trend, and they might not stink too much longer.