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Shaq must look to his past for free-throw solution

NBA Statistical Analyst Dennis Hans
by Dennis Hans, 6/13/06

Summary: There's still time for Shaq to rebound at the stripe. To do so he must ditch his current delivery and resurrect either of the strokes from his two semi-respectable stretches.


In Game One of the NBA Finals, a nip-and-tuck affair until Dallas pulled away in the last few minutes, Shaquille O'Neal went 1 for 9 from the free-throw line - 1 for 11 unofficially, as two misses didn't make it into the box score because of lane violations by the Mavs. The game might have had a different outcome if Shaq sank a respectable percentage when it mattered.

Incidentally, ALL free throws (FTs) matter, despite what you may have heard from a certain center who claims "I make them when they count," by which he means down the stretch in tight games. First quarter swishes count just as much as their fourth-quarter counterparts. Each is worth exactly one point. Granted, one doesn't know in the first quarter if the game will end up a blowout or barnburner. The prudent course is to assume the latter.

I'm sure Shaq does exactly that. He helped the Lakers win the 2002 Western Conference Championship, en route to their "threepeat," with his FT markmanship through all four quarters over seven games, while Sacramento lost it by going 16 for 30 in the Game Seven nail-biter. The Kings wouldn't have lost in overtime if they had made six more FTs early, when Shaq says they don't matter.

But that success came with an entirely different stroke, which last was seen on an NBA court in 2003. As I've explained repeatedly since May 2004 (see essays linked at http://dennishans.blogspot.com), when I briefly gained the ear of Mitch Kupchak and Phil Jackson (as Jackson notes on pp. 205-06 of The Last Season), that delivery can't be the solution because it's THE PROBLEM.

Shaq needs a makeover pronto, before his bricklaying jeopardizes another potential win - and the Heat's shot at a championship.

We'll get to the makeover in a minute, but first some more math.

A little boost could go a long way

Shaq's postseason FT percentage is .373; he's sinking, on average, 3.0 of 7.9 attempts per game (see Shaq's playoff stats) That may sound like a sharp drop from his regular-season mark of .469, but it's not. That .469 figure is deceptive, as it doesn't count the countless misses that were wiped off the books because a rebounder stepped into the lane a split-second too soon while Shaq was in the act of laying a brick. If he averaged 1.5 do-overs per game and we counted those misses, then he shot about 40 percent. That's barely above his playoff mark (which itself is slightly inflated by a lesser rate of do-overs).

My estimate of 1.5 do-overs per regular-season game might seem high, but based on the dozen or so times I saw the Heat play it could well be low. I've seen Shaq get three do-overs in a game a few times, and even get two do-overs - four shots to make two! - in a single trip to the line against Orlando. In the playoffs, do-overs are down because rebounders see Shaq repeatedly and adjust to his pause-at-the-top stroke. (I don't think he had any against Detroit.)

I suspect that Dallas will end up sending him to the line 10-12 times per game, but let's make the conservative assumption that he continues to average the 7.9 attempts of the first three playoff rounds. Here are the percentages he would have to shoot to add, on average, a point, 1.5 points or two points to his and the Heat's nightly total - points that could possibly spell the difference in a game or two:

Added
Points
FT% FTM-FTA
1.0
1.5
2.0
.506
.570
.633
4.0 for 7.9
4.5 for 7.9
5.0 for 7.9

From the perspective of June 2006, those numbers look like an impossible dream. They're not.

To add a point he simply needs to approach his career average of .528.

To add 1.5 points he needs to approach his rookie mark of .592, when he utilized a conventional delivery similar to that of Heat teammate Jason Williams, producing a similar ball flight and reasonably soft shot.

To add two points he'd have to match his best stretch with the Lakers, when he shot .649 in the 2002 playoffs, followed by .622 in the 2002-03 regular season and .621 in the 2003 playoffs, using an old-fashioned one-handed shot (no guide hand on the ball as he releases it) taught to him by former LSU sharpshooter Ed Palubinskas. (He worked with Shaq from late 2000 to 2003, when the two had a falling out.)

The sliding-hand kiss of death

This season and postseason, Shaq's range of misses has never been greater. He misses way right and way left and way long. The only thing missing from his repertoire of misses is a Ben Wallace-style way-short airball, though in Game 2 a couple of attempts came close.

Just as frightening, his margin of error has never been smaller. He shoots a line-drive howitzer, often accompanied by sidespin, so that if he's just a little bit off the shot will ricochet like a pinball around the inside of the rim before bouncing out.

There'll be no "fine-tuning" or "tweaking" this atrocious delivery. We're tossing it in the nearest bin. Never again will he have to worry about the ball sliding in his shooting hand as he's about to release it. Yes, what I just described has, for three years, been a standard feature of Shaq's stroke. I first spotted it during the 2004 Western Conference Championship Series vs. the T-Wolves and brought it to Kupchak's attention. But neither the Lakers nor the Heat have addressed that flaw. (Rest assured it was not a feature of the Palubinskas Period, when Shaq would shoot with the ball perched on his fingertips. That's not a grip I'd recommend, but it does guarantee that the ball won't be sliding in your hand as you shoot.)

The quick fix

One of the highlights of the Heat's victory over the Pistons was Shaq's 13-foot pull-up shot from the right side in one of the later games. It was a hybrid, sort of a cross between a jumphook and a jumpshot. The release bore a resemblance to Shaq's release in the two respectable periods discussed above, which accounts for the directional accuracy and the nice arc. One thing it didn't resemble is his current FT form.

Shaq shot that sweet little hybrid from above his right shoulder and, if viewed from a profile camera angle, from above and slightly in front of his head. The shot looked easy because it was easy.

On the day of Game 2, cable channel ESPN Classic rebroadcast a bunch of recent Finals games, including the pivotal contest of 2000, 2001 and 2002. The first of these featured a stiff-legged Shaq with a longish stroke and a line-drive shot; he shot 36 for 93, or 39 percent, in the Finals vs. the Pacers. The 2002 game featured Shaq at his compact best, with his legs flexed, his weight forward and the ball in front, above and to the side of his head. As noted, he shot 65 percent that postseason.

Now consider his current FT attempts. Shaq releases the ball from behind the center of his head. A simultaneous herky-jerky lerch of arms and legs launches a line-drive missile in the general direction of the frightened rim. Because the ball slides in his shooting hand, his guide hand is more apt to get involved, which makes it very easy for Shaq to produce unwanted sidespin and a shot that veers to the right. Or if he overcompensates, it might veer leftward. Talk about your degree of difficulty!

Shaq needs to return to a release point in the general vicinity of the release on that hybrid shot and his Palubinskas Period. Getting comfortable with that shouldn't take any time at all. Posing a greater but hardly insurmountable challenge is reincorporating his legs and rhythm into his routine. Let's not forget that Shaq, in virtually every athletic endeavor not involving the charity stripe, is a very coordinated and rhythmic dude. It's only at the line that he looks like an oaf, and there's no good reason why that should be the case.

In two hours I can get Shaq's arms and legs working in a complementary fashion, resulting in a softer shot and improved distance control. He won't have to hope and pray to "find a rhythm" during the game because it will be infused in his motion.

Although I think Shaq has greater potential with a fine-tuned version of the conventional stroke of his rookie season, his best chance for dramatic, immediate improvement is to go with the one-hand stroke, preferably without the extreme fingertip grip. The one-hand stroke, in addition to its simplicity, eliminates his guide-hand problem, and right now simplicity and problem-elimination is the name of the game.

With a title on the line, Shaq needs to be ready AT the line. There's scant chance of that happening if he sticks with the delivery that is the cause of his ongoing ineptitude.

# # #

Bio: Dennis Hans's essays on basketball - including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting - have appeared in the New York Times, Slate, HoopsHype.com and InsideHoops.com. His writings on other topics have appeared in the Washington Post, Miami Herald, and at a host of online outlets. Read more of his work at his weblog, http://dennishans.blogspot.com, and contact him at hans_d@mail.firn.edu

2006 by Dennis Hans


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