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.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Downhill shooter: Duncan once again fragile and frozen at the stripe
Tim Duncan shot .725 from the stripe this season, a little better than his adequate-for-a-center career mark of .687. But he has always looked vulnerable, as if he were one bad miss from starting another horrid streak, banging line-drive low fades off the front rim and, occasionally, off the back.

Well, the playoffs are here and once more he’s gone cold. The Spurs survived his 17 for 35 performance vs. the Mavs, including 1 for 7 in Thursday night’s clincher. I think he can stink up the joint in the second round and survive, but he’ll need to shoot well at the stripe to lead the Spurs to victory over the likely Western Conference Finals opponent, the Lakers.

Duncan isn’t tall enough to shoot a “downhill” free throw to a ten-foot high basket, but he comes mighty close. That leaves little margin for error, which tends to magnify little flaws that can creep in. A few misses and he starts to press, which in his case means focusing more intently, which adds to the tension in his body, which leads to even less fluidity and arc, which leads to more misses.

I can’t imagine him and the Spurs attempting a makeover at this critical juncture; more than likely, they’ll do what they’ve done in the past: hope the slump will vanish as mysteriously as it arrived.

His career .687 mark has not been characterized by consistent mediocrity; rather, he’s been on one long free-throw roller coaster. The main reason is that his approach to this unguarded 15-foot shot is in conflict with his very essence. Duncan is a laid-back, casually attired, easy-going, graceful, highly coordinated native of the Virgin Islands. The one and only season (2001-02) where he had a routine and delivery befitting such a man he shot .799 in the regular season and .822 in the playoffs — both career highs.

As I've pointed out to various Spurs staffers (to no avail), that routine had a rhythm and a flow — qualities that have rarely appeared in the various deliveries he has since employed. For the last several years he has opted for a five-second staring contest with the rim, followed by an abrupt lifting of his dangling arms into a quick, single-motion shot. It’s unpleasant to watch even when it’s working, as it did this season prior to the All-Star break. (He shot .750 before and .667 after.)

Maybe he’ll recapture his early season stare-and-fling groove. For the long haul, however, he’d be better off if his slump continued, for it just might make him face the music. Or better yet, listen to it. Something lilting; you know, with rhythm and flow.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Silly Goose: How Dwight Howard’s willingness to be coached ruined his shooting stroke
Back on March 23 I was interviewed by Tim Keown of the bi-weekly ESPN The Magazine for a piece he’s doing on who is most likely to lose a game or series in the NBA playoffs by failing at the free-throw line. It was a very pleasant chat, and I’ll know some time in May if any of my words of wisdom make it into his story.

Now that Shaq is 38 and an offensive afterthought, the likeliest candidate is Orlando’s Dwight Howard. As I told Keown, as a rookie right out of high school Howard had a respectable free-throw stroke and shot 70 percent or better in three separate months that season. He hasn’t had a single 70-percent month since, and he’s now put six seasons in the books. Instead of improving on his .671 rookie mark, Howard has put together five seasons of percentages between .586 and .595, despite the advantage of many more per-game attempts.

Howard’s problem is that he’s coachable. Beginning with his second season, Howard has allowed a succession of mostly clueless coaches to monkey with his shot. It started with Randy Ayers and Mark Bryant, who were assistants under Brian Hill. These are the guys who took credit for introducing to Howard the one feature that has had the most to do with his consistent ineptitude at the stripe and his failure to develop a short- to mid-range jumpshot that he can fire instantaneously in both planned and spontaneous situations. That feature is the gooseneck follow-through.

If I ever get the chance to deprogram Howard, the first thing I will explain to him is that your shooting style should determine what your follow-through looks like, and that even within a given style different types of shots will produce different follow-throughs. Some styles don’t lend themselves to a gooseneck follow-through, and if you try to impose the gooseneck you’ll distort or short-circuit your natural stroke and very likely won’t be pleased with the results.

Howard has gone through a variety of shooting styles over the years. Here, for instance, is my analysis of his late-2008 stroke, and in a column leading up to the 2008 playoffs I explained where he had gone wrong and how he could recapture his rookie form. This season he has utilized what I call a “little boy’s” technique, where you release the ball from a fairly low head-high position or even lower. (Kids shoot this way because the low release allows them to generate sufficient power to get the ball all the way to the basket.) Some tall guys have shot well this way, including Hall of Famers Magic Johnson and Jerry Lucas. On the current NBA scene, we have Matt Bonner launching his shoulder-fired moon shots from deep while also shooting accurately inside the arc and at the stripe. None of these guys were or are gooseneckers. It’s not a coincidence.

A few seasons back Andrei Kirilenko became one of the worst shooters in NBA history (based not on overall FG percentage, but his percentage on jumpshots), when a well-meaning but misguided off-season shooting coach persuaded him that the gooseneck was the key to shooting success and that he should hold that gooseneck high for several seconds after every shot. The result? Some of the sickliest wounded ducks the world has seen; airballs from 20, 18 and even 12 feet. No one on the Utah Jazz staff could figure out what was wrong — even after I pointed out the problem in letters to the coach and GM. Kirilenko’s offensive game deteriorated so badly that his coach and teammates, cognizant of the need to win games, gradually froze him out of the offense. This culminated in Kirilenko, a good guy with a sensitive soul, breaking down and crying after a practice during the Jazz-Rockets playoff series.

Looking at the big picture, Howard would be better off this summer scrapping his little-boy’s shot rather than trying to perfect it. That’s because it’s of almost no use as a jumpshot from the areas where Howard should operate: it’s too easy to block. As I explained a few years ago to assistant general manager Dave Twardzik, Howard needs to first develop a jump-shooting style that can be effective from eight-to-15 feet in a variety of situations, including being closely guarded by tall defenders who can jump. Such a shot won’t replace his nice repertoire of ambidextrous jumphooks, running hooks, spinning mini-push shots and (theoretically illegal) Shaq-style battering-ram dislodgings; rather, it will be a sweet addition. Sometimes the timing of a play, an expiring shot clock, or the lack of space to dribble or spin calls for a spontaneous jumper, and that needs to be in his arsenal — though “needs” may be too strong a word. If idiotic “bully ball” continues to be rewarded by Commissioner David Stern’s bumbling b-ball braintrust, Howard in most cases can use the threat or reality of dislodging to force double-teams and then pass the ball out to an open three-point shooter. (Enjoy it while you can, Orlando. When I replace Stern and assume dictatorial powers, the first two things to go will be the three-point line and all "moves," such as the ludicrous "back down," that smack of might makes right.)

Once Howard has a center-appropriate jumper, he can then build a free-throw routine and stroke based on how he releases his jumpshot. Should he have trouble translating that new stroke to the stripe, he can always revert back to his rookie form (strictly for free throws). That wouldn't be my first option, but it is possible to succeed with different shooting styles for field goals and free throws. Rick Barry and George Mikan were deadly with the underhand granny shot and Larry Brown used a two-hand set-shot for his free throws. Dwight would probably be at 75-80 percent right now if he had stuck with his rookie routine and delivery.

It’s worse than a waste of time for Howard to continue to shoot hundreds of free throws every day with his current style. All he is doing is ingraining a motion that will never translate to a workable, spontaneous jumper for a low-post center.

With Friends Like These: Mike Breen sees NBA refs as suckers to be conned
What do refs and their union leadership think when they hear Mike Breen, the play-by-play voice of the NBA on ABC and ESPN, matter-of-factly commend a player for a “good sell job” when his theatrics produce a favorable call?

One of the most difficult aspects of a ref’s job is distinguishing legal “incidental” contact from contact meriting a foul. It’s a challenge when the players are honest; it’s a monumental one when players present a distorted picture for the refs by exaggerating the force of contact, yelling for effect, flailing from self-initiated contact, or engaging in other acts of deception to trick the ref.

It’s bad enough that low-life color commentators such as Mark Jackson, Doug Collins and Reggie Miller praise this garbage. They’re supposed to be opinionated, and it’s hardly surprising that the latter two — quite possibly the all-time leaders in total career flops (Miller) and most flops per minute (Collins) — want their antics to be regarded as legitimate skills. It’s far worse when a neutral, theoretically objective play-by-play announcer — the semi-official voice of the league — offers similar praise.

I don’t know when Breen first adopted that philosophy and phrase, but here’s a typical example from the 2009 postseason. After Jeff Van Gundy said he couldn’t tell from the replay if Luis Scola flopped or Pau Gasol genuinely pushed off and thus merited the offensive foul called on him, Breen added “Good sell job by Scola.” He said this in the same tone he would say “Nice deflection by Ariza” or “Clever pass by Brooks.”

Breen is a former (youth-level) ref who presents himself as a defender and ally of referees. He is the last person on earth who should be lauding and normalizing fool-the-ref deceit for impressionable young hoopsters and their parents watching at home.

Active refs bargained away their right to free speech in their labor agreement with the league, so they can’t say what they think of Breen’s attitude. But what does Lamell J. McMorris, official spokesperson of the National Basketball Referees Association, think? What do retired refs think?