Free-Throw Observations on Shaq, Tim, LeBron
• Shaq had three entirely different free-throw strokes on display Sunday, from three periods of his career. Early in the day, ESPN Classic aired four vintage All-Star games. The 1993 contest featured Shaq as a rookie displaying a normal-looking delivery that produced an accurate shot with a nice arc and perfect backspin. His arm motion was a bit constricted, but he had a smooth, rhythmic leg action and delivery. Nothing herky-jerky or freaky looking. That could have been the foundation for a 70-75 percent stroke. He shot 59 percent that year, which ranks as his second best mark. In the following seasons his form went through a variety of changes, his percentage dropped steadily, and he hit rock bottom in the 2000 Finals. The 2003 contest featured Shaq with a freaky but compact and effective delivery molded by Shaq’s then-shooting coach, Ed Palubinskas. This featured a one-handed release with a bizarre grip, as the ball was perched on the tips of Shaq’s finger tips. Shaq shot a career high 62 percent that season. The 2006 game featured Shaq’s current release, which is his own creation (perhaps with input from Heat assistant Bob McAdoo), and has been in use the past two seasons. His official percentage was 46 last year and is 49 this year, but the actual numbers are probably around 40, as Shaq is the beneficiary of countless do-overs because of lane violations. Compared to 2003, Shaq’s release point has migrated about two feet in a southeasterly direction. A unique feature of his current stroke is that the ball slides in his shooting hand as his knees bend a split second before he releases the ball. As any fool could imagine, this introduces an additional element that can go wrong and which increases the degree of difficulty (as do other features of his stroke). For more on Shaq's fixable flaws, see this piece I penned last April.
There are many ways to be a decent FT shooter. Shaq doesn’t necessarily have to go back to the method taught to him by Ed P (with whom Shaq and/or Lakers management seems to have had a falling out by early 2004), with or without the fingertip-perch grip. That’s just one of the options to choose from. He can go back to a refined version of his rookie form. He can make technical adjustments to his present form (which in some respects resembles a bad imitation of Elton Brand’s unorthodox but highly effective delivery). Or Shaq can try one of several other methods. I’d be happy to help him select an option and help him master it. What I strongly advise against is sticking with an unfixed version of his current stroke. Yes, some days the ball comes out of his hand pretty good, and he has had a couple decent stretches in 2006. But it’s hard to be consistent when the ball is sliding in your shooting hand.
I also urge the morons who run the NBA to come up with a practical solution to lane violations. In back-to-back games vs. Orlando last week, Shaq got 4 do-overs and cashed 2. Counting the misses that were wiped off the books, Shaq was 8 for 23. The Heat outscore opponents by 3.8 points per game; I wouldn’t be surprised if his do-overs contribute the .8. The league’s silly obsession with strictly enforcing this rule has, for two years now, been a bonanza for the Heat. It’s the type of call that a ref would make if he was really keen on getting a good grade from his supervisor, because you always get the call right, and that boosts your percentage.
Here’s one possible fix: For Shaq and other shooters with a delayed release, rebounders can’t enter the lane until the ball hits the rim. The ref would remind rebounders of the new rule every time a delayed-release shooter goes to the line.
• Lebron James has technical flaws that he has to iron out if he’s ever to be better than a mediocre free-throw shooter. His basic form works fine when he’s firing treys or 20-foot fadeaways, because these shots require him to strongly accelerate and follow through. But those factors don’t come into play when you’re a powerful dude shooting a 15-foot set shot. From the stripe, his long stroke, minimal acceleration bordering on deceleration, poor follow-through posture and an awkward elbow position (the latter is either part of the problem or a benign idiosyncracy) combine to make this a more difficult shot for him than it needs to be, particularly in the clutch. He’s shooting a decent 74 percent for the season, but that’s what it has fallen to after a strong start.
• Tim Duncan looks better. I don’t know if he’s finally working with Chip Engelland, who the Spurs hired to help Tony Parker with his shooting form from mid-range and at the stripe (which has proved to be a very wise investment), or if Chip is sharing with Tim some of the advice I sent Chip in a recent letter or my analysis laid out in an Inside Hoops column last summer. In the letter I pointed out that Tim is “rhythmically clueless” — at least at the stripe. That is, he has no idea how to infuse rhythm into a routine that is devoid of it. If you have a tendency to leave the shot way short, as Tim does, having a routine where you hold the ball for five seconds while staring at the rim is likely to exascerbate the problem. The more you bear down, the more likely you are to introduce tension into some element of the stroke — tension that makes it more likely you’ll come up short again. Well, it appears that Tim is now making an effort to “get on with it.” He twiddles the ball a couple seconds and then goes into his shot. No five-second stare-down. I don’t want to get carried away based on three attempts in the All-Star game, but it looks like he’s taken a step in the right direction.