Centers' Little Helper

Dennis Hans, unrenowned former adjunct professor of mass comm and American foreign policy, relentlessly exposed the Bush administration’s “techniques of deceit” BEFORE the Iraq war, when it could have made a difference (see links). For decades he has fought baseball’s discrimination against lefthanded infielders and promoted his ingenious clockwise solution. A lifelong advocate for a flowing, non-brutal, flop-free NBA, he now champions the cause of its second-class citizens: the centers.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

I’m with Kobe on flopmeister Raja Bell
Much as I like Mike D’Antoni and the Phoenix Suns, it’s hard for me to root for a team with Raja Bell, who does indeed deserve to be disrespected. He makes a joke of the game — and his coach, his owner, Suns legend Jerry Colangelo and Commissioner David Stern — with his incessant flopping. He can be a feisty, annoying and very effective defender playing it straight. He ought to give it a try.

The great sports columnist for, King Kaufman, joins Jeff Van Gundy in calling for a technical foul whenever a ref presumes a player has flopped, rather than the ref merely allowing the play to continue with no whistle. That would be a small step in the right direction, but the NBA can do better. I’m still mulling over an appropriate penalty in the playoffs, but I think we could eliminate flopping long before the playoffs roll around with this regular-season penalty: 10-game suspension for the player, during which time his coach — who almost certainly, at a minimum, condones the flopping and may encourage or even teach the tactic — must a wear clown suit in public, in recognition of his contribution to REALLY "disrespecting" the game.

Plow right through on Route 32
In pivotal Game 4, Bob Delaney whistled Big Ben twice for what I call “Failure to yield the right of way on Route 32.” Route 32 is the highway that runs from the favorite post-up spot of Number 32 (Shaq) on the left side of the lane to his other favorite spot, just in front of the basket. Traffic along this bumpy, eight-feet stretch of road is often heavy, prompting Shaq to hop into his bulldozer and plow through the congestion. On the two occasions in question, right after he fired up the engine and traveled the first few feet of his journey, the ref blew his whistle and gave Ben a ticket for standing in the middle of Route 32. The rule requires Ben to pull off to the side of the road until Shaq reaches his destination and dunks. Once that happens, Ben is free to go where he pleases — at least until Shaq again shows up at Route 32.

I much prefer shake-and-bake Shaq to bump-and-grind Shaq. He can be a great player for another couple of seasons sticking to the former. That would also make him less prone to foul trouble and provide the opportunity to polish his rich assortment of legit low-post moves and shots.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Bad things about NBA refs, Part 1
Twice Dwayne Wade has taken very nasty spills in the postseason, and twice the refs and announcers have failed to identify the intentional nature of the fouls. Here is how Michael Sweetney and Dale Davis got away with it:

In both cases, the defender intentionally fouled vulnerable airborne Wade with his left hand — a push to the chest by Sweetney, a whack across the arm by Davis — while going for the ball with his right hand. That’s not how you attempt a clean block. That’s how you make an intentional foul LOOK like an attempt at a clean block.

In both cases, the intentional foul with the left hand is what caused the rotation of Wade’s torso and led to him falling like a sack of potatoes on to his back or hips from quite a height. The fall in the Bulls game could very easily have cost the Heat the series. So far, it looks like he survived last night’s spill in decent shape. But rest assured, the wonderful Wade’s days are numbered if the league permits him to be routinely assaulted in this way.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Ben’s free throws a risky, wristy proposition
Here are the first four paragraphs of my latest piece dissecting the seriously flawed free-throw form of Ben Wallace:

For four years I’ve been explaining to Ben Wallace and various coaches and executives with the Detroit Pistons that he can’t get better at the free-throw line merely through countless repetitions of his longstanding, tried-and-failed, all-wrist method. Little did I know that Ben has a chronic injury to his right wrist that makes his flawed delivery even more problematic. It’s a horrid shooting style with a healthy wrist, and it’s even worse given Ben’s condition.

More on that wrist in a minute, but first let’s consider the frightening free-throw facts.

In the regular season, Ben basically matched his career average of .418 by draining free throws (FTs) at a .416 clip. This postseason, through two rounds and 12 games, he’s 10 for 42. That’s .238.

His 0 for 7 in Game 5 vs. Cleveland was instrumental in the Pistons’ two-point loss. His 2 for 6 in Game 6 nearly cost Detroit, which squeaked by with a two-point win. Fortunately, his 0 for 4 in Game 7 was inconsequential, as the Pistons won handily.

If the Pistons’ coach and president are smart, they’ll enlist my help pronto. The season may very well hang in the balance. My advice is to act soon, before Shaq and the Heat sign me to an exclusive tutoring deal for the remainder of the postseason.

How to get pump-fake calls right
Steve Kerr was about to make a valid criticism of current NBA officiating during Wednesday’s game when he got sidetracked. Raja Bell had just pump-faked, getting Jerry Stackhouse to jump to the right of Bell in an attempt to block or bother the shot while avoiding contact with the shooter. Bell, seeing that Stackhouse was about to fly past him, leaned a couple feet to his right to create a collision, then heaved up a prayer. The whistle blew. Foul on Stackhouse.

I believe Kerr was going to say something like “This is absurd.” If he was, he’s right. Since when did it become a foul for a defender to leave his feet? That’s how you make plays! Today’s refs don’t exercise near enough judgment. On these pump-fake situations, the rule should protect active defenders who aren’t invading the shooter’s space, which should consist of the shooter’s starting place and perhaps the area one-to-three feet DIRECTLY in front of him, depending on the situation.

Guys shooting treys are generally going to jump toward the basket, coming down 2 or 3 feet closer to the hoop from where they rose up. If you’re 14 feet from the hoop and you get the defender off his feet, you should be entitled to your takeoff place and maybe a foot directly in front of you. But if you lean left or right or take an unnaturally long step toward the hoop to cause contact that otherwise wouldn’t occur, that should never be a defensive foul.

We need to return to thinking of the pump-fake as a tool to turn a contested shot into an uncontested one: you get the guy off his feet, pause, then rise up for your shot while he’s descending. It’s only a foul if the defender jumps into space that a reasonable person would consider to be the natural jumping area for that particular shot. We need to get away from the mindset that you’re entitled to two shots merely for getting the guy off his feet, irrespective of the space the defender is jumping into.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Blame Riley for Shaq’s free-throw woes
(This essay appears at Inside

In one sense, Shaquille O’Neal’s free-throw woes are indeed mental: His coach has a mental block that prevents him from understanding that repetition alone is not the answer.

Shaq’s problems at the stripe are 100 percent physical. A gifted, graceful athlete with a keen sense of rhythm away from the basketball court, Shaq nevertheless is a robotic, fundamentally flawed klutz at the line who can’t even keep the ball from sliding in his shooting hand as he’s about to release it. He was that way his last season with the Los Angeles Lakers, and he’s been that way his two seasons with the Miami Heat.

In Miami, the person most responsible for Shaq descending ever deeper into the depths of free throw (FT) despair is Pat Riley.

At the time of Shaq’s arrival Riley was president of the Heat, and Riley may have had some basis for his belief that he, coach Stan Van Gundy and the rest of the staff could help Shaq at the stripe. Here’s how Riley expressed that belief on July 29, 2004, in response to my letter explaining how I could help the Diesel (who had just shot .a dismal .490 for the Lakers after having shot a career-best .622 the season before):

The Heat “have an excellent team of assistant coaches and trainers who have developed their own system, which they are anxious to apply to Mr. O’Neal. These techniques have proven to be very successful, and we are expecting the same outcome with Mr. O’Neal.”

Alas, “Mr. O’Neal” proceded to stink out the joint in the 2004-05 pre-season. And the first few weeks of the regular season. And December, January and February. By the All-Star break, it should have been crystal clear to Riley that the “system” and “techniques” of his “excellent” staff were having no observable positive effect.

Applying the philosophy “If it’s broke, don’t fix it,” Riley, Van Gundy and staff helped Shaq shoot a career-low .461. But the good thing about Shaq is that he “makes them when they count”: In the 2005 playoffs his percentage skyrocketed all the way to .472.

Riley took the coaching reins from Van Gundy early this season, and Shaq continued to fire bricks with the same basic delivery from last season, finishing up at .469.

It’s worse than you think
Those putrid numbers don’t begin to tell the story, for Shaq’s arrival in Miami coincided with the NBA’s new “zero tolerance” policy for FT lane violators. This has amounted to a de facto, league-approved subsidy to the Heat and Shaq, whose pause-at-the-top release disrupts the timing of rebounders, who see Shaq just a few times over 82 games. A competently run league would explore practical remedies — such as requiring refs to remind rebounders to “Wait for the pause at the top” every time a delayed-release shooter like Shaq or Elton Brand attempts a live free-throw. Alas, it seems that NBA refs prefer to play “Gotcha!” with anxious rebounders.

I don’t get to see many Heat regular-season games, but I've seen enough to know that it’s not unusual for Shaq to have two or three misses wiped off the books in a single contest. I’d be shocked if he didn’t average at least one do-over per game. If that conservative one-per-game estimate is right and we include those uncounted misses, Shaq has actually been a 42-percent shooter as a member of the Heat.

This postseason, he’s cruising along at a .400 clip (36 for 90) after 12 games, as Riley continues to wait patiently for the “system” and “techniques” to take hold.

Mind-reading Riley
What accounts for Riley’s unending patience? My hunch is that he’s confused on two key points.

First, because of the infinite variety of shooting styles among good FT shooters, Riley may well believe that ANY style can be made to work if the player will only put in the time. And if it doesn’t work, that simply means that the player — be he Wilt, Ben Wallace or Shaq — simply can’t shoot.

The logical flaw here is that Shaq has been far more effective in two chunks of his career, each with a distinctive style that differs significantly from his Heat style, which features scant rhythm, poor mechanics, a challenging release point (a few inches above the center-rear of his head), the ball sliding in his shooting hand as he bends his knees, and a stroke initiated by a simultaneous, herky-jerky lerch of hands and legs.

Long ago Shaq had a fairly conventional stroke that produced consecutive seasons of .638, .528 and .592; that’s his last two years of college and his NBA debut. (I didn’t see him in college, but a few months ago I saw the 1993 NBA All-Star Game. Rookie Shaq shot the ball like a normal person. His mechanics could have used some fine tuning, but he had a smooth delivery that produced a nice arc and backspin.) Things went steadily downhill until he began to turn things around in 2000-01 with the help of a 1970s LSU sharpshooter named Ed Palubinskas. Using an old-school one-handed stroke (something that was fairly common up to the mid-1960s) and a bizarre fingertip grip, Shaq had some very good stretches in the three-year period he worked off and on with Ed, including that .622 mark in 2002-03 and postseasons of 62 and 65 percent.

This suggests that HOW Shaq shoots is a factor in HOW WELL he shoots.

Second, the fact that Shaq shoots a respectable percentage in practice may have persuaded Riley that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with his technique or delivery. If so, let’s count Riley among the many coaches who have yet to figure out that everyone — even Wilt and Big Ben — shoots reasonably well in practice. That’s because FTs in practice bear only a superficial resemblance to FTs in games. You shoot the latter one or two at a time in between intense stretches of banging and running, and often with considerable time between trips to the line, even for line-dweller Shaq. The only FTs in practice that resemble their game counterparts are the first two you shoot. As for the next 48, each becomes progressively easier because you’re standing there doing the same thing over and over. It’s easy to strike a groove, but it’s a false groove. It doesn’t help you with your next meaningful FTs, which might come a day or two later mid-way through the first quarter.

The question the Heat should ask is not why Shaq made or missed this or that FT in a recent game. Rather, they should ask: What are the characteristics of Shaq’s technique, rhythm and/or routine that explain why, under game conditions, he shoots 42 percent?

And here are a few follow-ups:

Are these flaws fixable? How quickly can we iron out the flaws and ingrain the corrections? Should we tackle any or all of these problems now? Can we make a bad situation worse — that is, could Shaq plummet from 38 percent in the first two rounds to 25 percent in the next one or two rounds? Even if we can make the situation worse, does the possibility of swift, dramatic improvement to 60-65 percent render it a risk worth taking? Given that no one on our Heat staff appears to have a clue what is wrong or how to fix it, how could we, of all people, help Shaq? Being clueless, how can we evaluate outsiders who claim to have the answers?

Those are daunting questions as the Heat prepare for the Eastern Conference Championship Series.

A way out of the wilderness
My advice would be to hire me, as I seem to be the only one who has bothered to compare and contrast the various deliveries Shaq has used in his career. I’ve also written a number of analyses of Shaq’s oft-changing form, beginning with a June 2000 piece for the online edition of the Sporting News. I could help now with a quick fix — re-connecting the muscle memory buried deep in his bones to recapture the rhythm and form of either of his decent periods, or create a hybrid that combines the best elements of each. I could also help over the long haul, developing a sound, rhythmic, repeatable and low-maintenance routine that will enable him to shoot 65-to-75 percent in his twilight seasons.

Phil Jackson, in his book The Last Season (pp 205-06), drops my name and mentions a small portion of the advice I passed to Mitch Kupchak who passed to Phil who passed to Shaq, which may have played a role in Shaq pulling out of a prolonged 30-percent slump that had lasted into the first round of the 2004 playoffs. After my advice arrived (covering, among other things, how to recapture the proper sequence and timing of his .622 delivery), Shaq began to look a tad better, though his release was still a mess and his uncomfortable release point added to the degree of difficulty. He shot 22 for 42 for the remainder of the Spurs series, and 48 percent overall (Game 3 of the Spurs series through the Finals). To be sure, 48 percent stinks to high heaven. Still, it’s a big help to a team when a guy who lives at the line goes from 30 to 48 percent — about two points per game that postseason.

Other flaws I mentioned went unaddressed, including a doozy I spotted early in the 2004 Western finals faceoff with the T-Wolves: the ball sliding in Shaq’s shooting hand. I alerted Kupchak who passed the tip along, presumably to Jackson, but no correction was attempted.

That glaring flaw plagues Shaq to this day. Who knows, maybe Miami’s “excellent” staff considers Shaq’s sliding-ball trick a key to FT excellence and thus have encouraged him to retain it. All sarcasm aside, this would seem to be easy to correct — but only if someone brings it to Shaq’s attention and helps him make the necessary adjustments so he can join the rest of the b-ball universe of players who, for some strange reason, prefer to shoot without the ball sliding in their shooting hand.

Here are some of the pieces I’ve penned on Shaq at the stripe; the two from 2004 mirror the advice I sent to Kupchak that spring:

How I’ll (again) help Shaq at the stripe (March 12, 2006)

Why Shaq Can’t Shoot (April 16, 2005)

Hacker Shaq invites Hack-a-Shaq (Jan. 28, 2005)

Shaq’s free-throw odyssey (May 10, 2004)

Shaq's free-throw fix is in 2002 tape (May 6, 2004)

It would be a shame if Riley’s ego prevented him from getting help for Shaq — help that could spell the difference between a loss in the Eastern or NBA Finals and a Heat championship.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The artistry of Tim Duncan
Although he’s one loss from elimination, this postseason Tim Duncan has dusted off his low-post repertoire and reminded folks just how great he is. A combination of a healing foot and opportunities to operate one-on-one against the Sacramento and Dallas big men has enabled him to display his fab footwork and ambidextrous artistry. I’m not sure Popovich made the right decision in benching his bigs (I probably would have given Tim a chance to guard Dirk at least for 15-20 minutes per game so that the Spurs could, at certain times, employ a strong rebounding lineup), but that move has worked splendidly at the offensive end.

Duncan is looking better at the line, too. He didn't opt for the free-throw makeover I recommended, but he has made technical adjustments to the position of his arms and shooting hand at address, and this has made for a crisper, more confident release. He’s still prone to the way-shorts, but the ball comes out of his hand much more cleanly. The result is improved directional accuracy and a slightly less flat shot.

Time will tell if he can sustain the improvement — or if he'll even get a chance to. A determined Dallas squad is intent on ending the Spurs season Wednesday night. Should be a barnburner.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Blame America, not Europe, for the flop
My latest hoopshype essay is titled Blame America, not Europe, for the flop. Here’s the long subtitle: “Pat Riley is brain-dead or dishonest when he claims that crafty hoop immigrants from Europe introduced flopping to an innocent NBA. In truth, Americans were taking dives to con refs decades before Euros made it to The Show.”

Elton Brand and Bernard King
Elton Brand on offense bears a striking resemblance to the great Bernard King, who had a stretch under Hubie Brown with the mid-1980s Knicks where he was an unguardable, ridiculously efficient scoring machine. That’s Brand today, right down to the in-your-face, unblockable jumpshot with the unorthodox release. Brand’s release is more behind-the-head than King’s, while King’s was a tad quicker and sometimes would come while King was still rising. Both guys are deadly off the dribble from 10 to 15 feet.

King was a great scorer from the get-go, while Brand didn’t reach greatness until this season. He’s always been very good, but this is the season he perfected his midrange jumper. Couple that with heightened mobility from dropping 20 pounds and you wind up with a legit MVP candidate.

Two big edges he has on King is on the boards and as a swatter. King was a fine rebounder as small forwards go, but Brand is a power forward and boards like one. He’s also an elite shot blocker, both as a helper and on his own man. What a wonderful player. Great guy, too.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

NBA values out of whack
Reggie Evans squeezes Chris Kaman’s testicles in a tussle under the boards and gets a fine but no suspension. Cliff Robinson violates NBA drug policy — presumably for testing positive for marijuana, though Robinson maintains his innocence and seeks a re-test (false positives are rare but they have occurred in the NBA testing program) — and is suspended for five games. That means the Nets are without their second-best Shaq defender for the remainder of the series with the Heat. Friday night, without Robinson, the Nets lost a close game, and it appears that the suspension will be the determining factor in the series. This stinks.

Any league that welcomes alcohol sponsors should not be suspending players for using a less dangerous, albeit illegal, drug such as pot. I speak as a non-toker and very light drinker who can’t help but notice that alcohol wreaks far more havoc than marijuana. If a player has a problem with pot — as has been the case with Quyntel Woods, Damon Stoudamire and some others — intervention and perhaps carrot-and-stick rewards and penalties to help the guy stay clean are called for. If there’s no evidence of a problem, the NBA should simply look the other way. Just because Vin Baker, Chris Mullin, Jayson Williams and quite a few other players have had serious drinking problems doesn’t lead us to conclude that every player who enjoys beer or wine occasionally — or even regularly in moderation — needs alcohol counseling. The league should apply the same logic to pot.

If a player is physically and mentally ready for evening games and morning shootarounds and practices, that's a pretty good sign that any recreational use of booze or pot is not a problem in his life or career. Not a guarantee, but a pretty good sign. Robinson is respected and liked by his Net teammates and coaches; his discipline and professionalism are reflected in the fact that he's still productive at age 39. (Admitted pot smoker Robert Parish played NBA ball till he was 43 — the all-time longevity record.)

Also, there’s no good reason why Robinson’s suspension couldn’t wait till the start of the next season. Why punish his teammates so severely for an infraction (assuming he is indeed guilty) that’s tantamount to jaywalking? The NBA — especially its gutless Players Association — needs to quit kissing up to our govt’s drug warriors and make a stand for sensible drug policies. Most players don’t think there’s anything wrong, despite what the law states, with adults smoking pot occasionally. They should demand an NBA drug policy that reflects their sensible thinking, not one that kowtows to people they despise.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Bonzi Wells is Charles Barkley
I reserve the right to change my mind, but as of today I’m rooting for the Kings to take the NBA crown.

Perhaps the most remarkable story of this postseason is the emergence of Bonzi Wells as the second coming of Charles Barkley. With Bonzi and Ron Artest at the two wing positions, the Kings remind me of the old Packers backfield of John Brockington and MacArthur Lane. Each had fullback size and power but with halfback maneuverability.

Bonzi and Ron are about as COMPLETE as two players can be, excelling at most every phase of the game. And where one is so-so (Ron on the boards), the other is out of this world. Bonzi has been a terror on the offensive boards, and the ability of Bonzi and Ron to beat various Spurs off the dribble has turned this opening round series into a donneybrook.

Nocioni is THAT good
Hot off the presses, I come to the depressing conclusion that Andres Nocioni — even without the benefit of his unscrupulous antics — is a better power forward than the late, great NY Knick, Dave DeBusschere, who was voted in 1996 one of the NBA’s top 50 players. Nocioni splits time at the two forward spots, but when he’s at the 4 the Bulls take off. Nocioni, like DD, is short as 4s go, but also like DD he has a great advantage in quickness, skill and well-roundedness over most 4s he faces. Now if he’d just cut out the flops and cheapshots I might actually pull for the guy.

Speaking of flops, it’s good to hear Jeff Van Gundy condemn this vile practice with such passion. I’ve got problems with JVG, but on the flopping issue he’s A-OK.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Playoff Diary: Foul trouble is killing NBA bigs
Among the many serious structural problems with the NBA game under David Stern’s disastrous commissionership is the constant foul trouble — and missed court time — of quality big men. I outlined several of the causes a few months ago in the essay Starting centers merit more minutes.

While great backcourt players are putting in 40 to 48 full-bore, free-and-easy minutes — as they should —Shaquille and Jermaine O’Neal and others have been forced to sit for long stretches and tippy-toe when they are on the court.

Part of the problem facing the O’Neal brothers is that for the past several years they’ve been permitted to dislodge their defenders, leading them (and a number of copycat dislodgers, including Dwight Howard, Yao Ming, Zydrunas and more) to logically conclude that dislodging is a legit power move. But this season many refs are calling dislodging a foul — not all the time, but enough to confuse the O’Neals, who have no idea how their pet “move” will be called from game to game or even quarter to quarter. Also, the league has forced defenders to resort to blatant flops or no-resistance semi-flops (the latter is light on the histrionics, and it usually involves the defender offering resistance to the first bump by the dislodger and no resistance to the second bump) as the only way to neutralize brute strength.

Wilt never picked up dislodging fouls because he played in an era where you weren’t allowed to butt-whack your way to the hoop. Heck, it never occurred to him to even try. (For his career, Wilt averaged a foul every 23 minutes, and most every one he committed came on defense.) Low-scoring Wes Unseld could have averaged 40 points a game if he had been allowed to pulverize opponents in the low post. But he played when such antics would have gotten him 6 fouls in the first 6 minutes.

Phil Jackson is a genius, but part of that is of the "evil genius" variety. It was under Phil in L.A. that the “double dislodge from the left block” (as I have dubbed it) became Shaq's patented — and somehow legit — go-to move. That legitimation is one of several "turns for the worse" under Stern’s tenure. I give the commish high marks for creating a level playing field where small-market teams can compete with the big cities, but as for the game on the court, Stern inherited a flowing, fast-paced game in 1984 and mostly sat on his hands as the game grew rougher, slower and uglier.

Shaq and Jermaine have plenty of legit moves, and if they had been denied dislodging rights years ago they would have adjusted and added and/or polished other elements of their low-post game. So the Lakers might still have gotten their three-peat, or at least a two-peat, but they wouldn’t have changed the game for the worse in the process.

I first wrote about the legitimation of Shaq’s dislodging in a 2002 essay on how to officiate Shaq, both for the good of the game and for Shaq himself. Now more than ever, the NBA needs to heed my advice.