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