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.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Stan Van Gundy still doesn't get it
During a recent game, Piston TV analyst Greg Kelser paraphrased coach Stan Van Gundy on how and why he expects Josh Smith to pull out of his shooting slump: As Josh keeps working at it before and after practice, and sees that ball go through the net hundreds of times, he'll have his confidence back because he knows his shot is back. At that point, it's bye-bye slump. (That's me paraphrasing Greg paraphrasing Stan.)

Alas, in Josh's case it's bunk. Here's the story on Josh: He's great around the basket and pretty good from roughly 4 to 8 feet with his assortment of running one-handers and jump hooks. When he's 15 or more feet away, from which distances he must rely on a different type of shot — a jumper or set shot — he's a lousy shooter. That's been the case for a very long time. A good stretch for Josh would be mediocre by the standard of an average NBA starting forward. That won't change unless he changes his shot, which entails some risk as he could easily go from bad to worse. But change is the only possibility of him getting better.

The same holds for the free-throw line, where Josh is even worse than with the J. That's because of the nature of the shot, where you have a few moments to collect your thoughts, then go through your routine and execute the stroke exactly as you've been taught (assuming you're shooting in a manner you've been taught, rather than shooting your own natural, self-taught way). The following is a small point in the overall scheme of things, but there seems to be a tad more naturalness to some of Josh's outside shots, coming as they do in the flow of a fast-paced game. Not so with the free throw, where he's relying exclusively on the technique he's been taught, which I call "shooting backwards." That is where the problem lies.

Unfortunately, Josh has gotten nothing but positive feedback from his coaches, year in and year out, who tell him his shot looks fine, so he stays the course. But what if these coaches don't know what they're talking about? What if they've been making the same mistake Stan the Van made in Orlando, where for five long years he mistook Dwight Howard's ability to consistently make 80 out of 100 free throws after practice to mean there couldn't possibly be anything wrong with his stroke?

Stan never figured out that shooting one free throw after another in a relaxed setting while an assistant coach feeds you the ball bears scant resemblance to in-game free throws. It's nearly impossible not to get into a groove, as countless in-game bricklayers, from Wilt Chamberlain to Ben Wallace, can attest. Player and coach get fooled into thinking nothing is wrong with the stroke (which for the mid-period of Wilt's career was a granny-style underhanded shot), that it's just a matter of transporting that practice delivery to the bright lights of the arena.

Nor did Stan wonder why anyone with an allegedly fine stroke was petrified of shooting open jumpers in a game. Stan, of course, didn't want Dwight taking such shots, given his well-known disdain for mid-range jumpshots even by certifiably good shooters, when the payoff is so much greater (too great, as I first argued in 2004) beyond the arc. That disdain, while understandable, is short-sighted. It limits the development and versatility of talented young players, particularly big men, who never find out how good they could have been. Or how valuable to their team. The Lakers have their last two titles because mid-range and low-post maestro Pau Gasol had the versatility to excel alongside strictly-center Andrew Bynum or in place of him. For 18 seasons — including five championships — Tim Duncan has provided the Spurs with that same frontcourt flexibility.

Dwight had (and has) the quickness to defend power forwards at an elite level, so if he had had a mid-range game he could have played as many minutes with gifted big man Marcin Gortat as with "stretch four" Rashard Lewis, thus creating all sorts of headaches for Orlando's opponents while allowing Gortat to bloom on the court rather than rot on the bench. Locking up Gortat in the summer of 2009 for five prime years (age 25 to 29) and a modest $32 million was a masterstroke by GM Otis Smith. That should have set the stage for the Magic's greatest era, but it was a waste because of Dwight's limited game and Stan's trey-happy tunnel vision. The problem repeated itself last season in Houston, as no-shot Dwight paired poorly with no-shot Omer Asik, leading to the latter's off-season exit.

By taking open shots in games you might improve steadily (e.g., Gortat, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, Moses Malone, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Darryl Dawkins, Marc Gasol and many more) or find that you're consistently lousy. If the latter, at least you know where you stand. So you stop firing away in games while you tinker with your shot after practice on your own or with a competent coach, to see if a minor change or two will get you on a promising track that's worth trying in games. If tinkering doesn't work, then it's time for a ground-up makeover. If that doesn't work, perhaps another approach will, as there are lots of ways to be a good shooter. Just don't stick indefinitely with something that's definitely not working. At some point you may have to face the fact that you're destined to be a limited player and make the best of it. But that sad day should wait till you're 30 or so. In the meantime, you've been an effective though limited player for many years while giving yourself every opportunity to be something better without sabotaging your team in the process.

Stan's repeating his Dwight mistake of yesteryear with Andre Drummond today, stunting his growth in this critical developmental stage, all to get a few more trey attempts for Caron Butler, Kyle Singler and Brandon Jennings on a team going nowhere in 2014-15. It's shocking that the Pistons' president of basketball operations, whose chief concern is the long-term big picture, would allow the coach to take this short-sighted approach. Oh, that's right: the president is the coach. Of course, he's following the foolish footprints of previous prez Joe Dumars (who at least had the good sense to draft Andre) and coaches Lawrence Frank, Maurice Cheeks and John Loyer, who despite not having Stan's philosophical aversion to mid-range shots also discouraged Andre in his first two seasons from shooting beyond eight feet.

Getting back to Josh, until he faces the unpleasant truth that he has spent the prime years of his career achieving 70 percent of his potential because of poor coaching and, perhaps, his own stubbornness, he's not likely to improve. How he shoots explains why he shoots so poorly.