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.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Hakeem teaches Dwight how to travel
See below for two updates
In his ongoing instructional series, Hakeem Olajuwon teaches Dwight Howard how to travel before taking a righthanded jumphook in a video posted at The Dream's youtube channel July 11.

Earlier in Howard's career, another Hall of Famer, Patrick Ewing, taught him the same traveling sequence from the left side of the block! There's even an official NBA video of the session, posted in March 2009. You can count the steps in the video's opening seconds, as the clueless Ewing praises Howard for his "great footwork."

As I noted last December, the NBA also produced an official "ihoops" video with Raymond Felton on how to dribble that was actually a how-to-illegally-palm-while-assuming-correctly-that-the-refs-won't-call-it video. Could there possibly be a more incompetently run league — not from a business standpoint, but a playing-and-officiating standpoint — than the NBA?

Ewing also taught Howard how to set obvious, blatant, bone-crushing moving screens, as I wrote about in 2009 and 2011. That would seem to be counterproductive, given that these are fouls and the importance of a key player such as Howard avoiding foul trouble. But it's counterproductive only if these obvious fouls are called. If they're not, the team's drivers and three-point shooters benefit greatly from the moving picks, which generally are more effective than legal ones because they trip up the defender or stop him dead in his tracks, as the defender has no time to react to the late movement of the picker. That's why Stan and Jeff Van Gundy are so in love with moving picks and like to have Ewing around to teach them (just as Billy Martin appreciated Art Fowler's ability to teach pitchers how to illegally doctor the baseball).

My theory is refs are even more unlikely than usual to call moving picks (or traveling) when the perpetrator is coached by a Hall of Famer. Some refs may assume that Howard is a terrific, legal screener simply because he's tutored by an all-time great who surely knows how to set a proper screen. Did I mention NBA refs are gullible?

My advice to Howard going forward is to eliminate opportunities for refs to blow the whistle by (1) not traveling and (2) by setting passive, stationary screens before your teammate starts dribbling or cutting in your general direction. It's your teammate's job to direct his defender into your stationary path. It is not your job to move at the last second into the defender's path. That's what football blockers do to pass rushers. Psst: Basketball isn't football. Spread the word throughout the NBA. The league could use a reminder.

UPDATE: Henry Abbott of ESPN's TrueHoop blog — one of the few hoop writers interested in this important matter — asks, "Looks like two steps after the gather to me, right?" In other words, not a travel.

That's not how I see it. I see three steps after the gather. Of course, that depends on how you define "gather" and how lenient you care to be with players determined to have more legal steps for themselves than players in previous eras. What follows is an expanded, edited-for-clarity version of two replies I sent Henry.

This is how a player used to have to shoot a righty jumphook: that first step with the left foot would be his pivot foot, then he'd step with his right and shoot. Hakeem is taking two additional steps (a left followed by a right) after the initial left and right. This is all from a virtual standstill.

If Hakeem/Dwight had opted to shoot a running one hander off of one foot after that same catch and dribble, he would have had to shoot it after the second step with the left foot or before. Even modern NBA refs would be stunned into blowing the whistle if Hakeem/Dwight would have shot it off his right foot — the last step in the video sequence. You shoot a running righthander with a right-hand dribble off the left foot — or the prior right foot to disrupt the defender's timing, as Steve Nash will do. You don't get to take an extra step and shoot it off the right.

My view is that Hakeem's first step (left) is the gather step, which would allow him two more steps: a right and a left. This makes for the standard look of a running layup or an on-the-move hook shot off of one foot — from any decade. The righthander's dribble is opposite the left foot, after which he takes a step with his right and then his left, off of which he elevates. Kareem dribbling across the lane is going to shoot his skyhook off his left foot. Not just because it feels natural, but because he knows he is legally out of steps. One more step and Richie Powers calls traveling.

If you are driving for a layup, you are taking your last righthanded dribble opposite your left foot. After that you get your two steps, and you elevate off that second one, your left (assuming you're a righty).

Now you could get cute and bounce your last dribble out in front of you, so that you have a late gather. You could claim that this entitles you to an extra step. (To be clear, that is not what is going on with Hakeem/Dwight/Patrick.) If I ran the NBA I'd say this: "You're within the letter of the law but you're violating its spirit. We're calling it a travel. Every time. If necessary, we'll redefine 'gather step' so it means 'foot opposite the last dribble,' irrespective of the precise split-second you secure the ball." I fleshed out my views on this matter last December in The James Harden triple-step travel and other adventures in NBA counting.

To me, Hakeem and Dwight are committing obvious travels — even if they were shooting on-the-run shots. But in both videos, they're shooting dribble-in-place jumping shots (a jumphook in Hakeem's video and a fadeaway jumper in the Ewing one), which if anything should mean less leeway with regard to steps, not more. I much prefer the version of b-ball where that initial step — in that circumstance — was seen as a planting-the-pivot-foot step. Wilt, Elvin Hayes, Willis Reed et al., didn't take that step, and then jump and land, and then jump and shoot. Even if they had, they'd still be taking one fewer step than Hakeem and Dwight!

What Wilt and company did when shooting one-dribble jumpers in and around the paint (or Wilt's jump finger-roll, which he shot off of two feet like the modern jumphook) is take that plant step (the foot opposite the dribble), then another, then elevate — or pump fake with the plant step operating as the pivot foot. This was the case whether they began facing the basket or, like Hakeem/Dwight, with their back to the basket. They didn't use that second foot as the pivot because they assumed they'd be whistled for traveling.

That's the game I grew up watching, and I think the way traveling was officiated then made more sense and made for a better game. Wilt didn't feel deprived because he wasn't allowed to leap off his plant foot, land on two feet, and then use one of them as a pivot foot, a la affirmative-action beneficiary Shaq. There was no leaping after the dribble and landing, then going up for the shot. If you leapt after the dribble, you had to get rid of the ball by shooting or passing before you touched down. Someone might want to ask Rod Thorn, who played in Wilt's era and has just replaced Stu Jackson (Good riddance!) as the NBA's president of basketball operations, which era's traveling rules make for a better game. Regardless, I still maintain that even under today's rules, Hakeem and Dwight are clearly traveling in the practice videos linked above.

UPDATE 2: If you care to see how a righthanded jumphooker uses that first step (left foot) to plant his pivot foot, then stepping with the right and elevating, allow me to introduce you to Hakeem Olajuwon and Dwight Howard. From 1:20 to 2:20 of the video that's just what they do. You'll also see Howard demonstrate a nifty, counter-move, as he uses that planted left foot as his pivot foot. He pumpfakes, then steps through with his right foot and elevates. No need for all those extra steps displayed in the other video.

One caveat: On the counter-move, unlike each of the jumphooks they execute flawlessly, Howard may have begun his move by hopping off of both feet rather than stepping with just the left. It's better to do that little hop while the pass is coming to you (that seemed to be Howard's intention), so your feet are on the floor when the ball arrives. Then you can explode into your stepping move. That removes the risk of a travel call for picking up both feet before dribbling.


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