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, August 05, 2015

John Lucas is the latest — and perhaps the first — to make a mess of DeAndre's "stroke"
Why does former player John Lucas think it important that DeAndre Jordan made (allegedly) 1,000 free throws in his gym? One presumes DeAndre hit a pretty good percentage, but that doesn't matter either — unless he's trying to challenge Dwight Howard for the 2015-16 Free Throw Differential award. This honors the player with the greatest gap between his practice FT percentage and the percentage he shoots in games. Dwight routinely makes more than 80 percent of his tens of thousands practice free throws each season, while shooting quite a bit lower on the 35 or so per week that count.

Perhaps one of these years it will dawn on Dwight that making 80 out of 100 in ten relaxing minutes is not equal to making 8 of 10 over the course of a rambunctious, 150-minute NBA game, but don't count on it. As long as he equates the two, he'll keep scratching his head and wondering what mental block or some such other nonsense accounts for him being a career .573 (regular season) and .551 (playoffs) free-throw shooter. He needs to look at how he shoots. If there was nothing wrong with his stroke then he'd have something that translates to the jumpshot. He doesn't, not now and not at any point in his pro career.

On July 7 Lucas posted a pair of photos of him working with DeAndre. In the first he's helping DeAndre achieve what Lucas regards as the ideal position from which to begin the forward phase of his stroke, which we'll call Point A. The second features DeAndre's Lucas-approved shooting hand finishing pose (Point B).

I can't envision DeAndre getting from Point A to Point B in any kind of natural, fluid way — that is, in a way that's easily repeatable under game conditions. The problem with Point A is that it doesn't take into account DeAndre's exceptionally long arms. Could Robert Parish, Bill Cartwright or James Edwards, to name three similarly built centers, shoot well from that position? Not likely. And even if any of the three could, what would be the point of a fairly low release point that, if transferred to the jumpshot, would be easy to block? Those three gents were exceptional shooters from 10 to 15 feet, including when closely guarded by tall fellows. If DeAndre were ever given permission to shoot from that range, that release point would only work when wide open or guarded by a much shorter foe.

The problem with Point B is that it looks forced. It's a sign of shooting backwards, a concept I introduced in 2012. Instead of allowing your shooting motion to determine the finish of your stroke, you put the cart before the horse by pre-determining the finishing position. The stroke becomes merely the means of arriving at the presumably all-important destination, where the fingers and wrist of the shooting hand are arranged just so, and the arm is at a precisely elevated angle. All very "scientific" — in a middle-school, C- science project kind of way.

From those photos it looks as if Lucas is following in the failed footsteps of Bob Thate, who in the summer of 2012 gave a gung-ho DeAndre a head-to-toe free-throw makeover. DeAndre had just shot a miserable .525 from the line in the 2011-12 regular season, or, if you tend to look on the bright side, an encouraging, career-high .525. Anyway, the drastic changes — including scrapping DeAndre's high release point — were implemented in the summer and road-tested in October when the Clippers and Heat toured China. At one point in the preseason DeAndre was 8 for 31! For the 2012-13 regular season DeAndre shot .386. In the playoffs he was 2 for 9, as a spooked Vinny Del Negro foolishly limited his immensely talented center to a mere 24 minutes per game, meaning he kept him on the pine for long stretches even when the Clippers weren't in the free-throw bonus where the foe could employ the odious Hack-a-DeAndre strategy.

At the same time Thate was setting DeAndre back, he was doing some good for Blake Griffin, and would continue to do so in the following seasons. Blake is now a solid mid-range shooter and a nearly average free-throw shooter, so Thate has earned his salary. However, as golf fans and pro golfers know, a swing coach may be a good fit for one player but a bad fit for another. The same holds for shooting coaches. If both parties understand this before teaming up, it's easier to part ways with no hard feelings once it's clear that what this particular coach is offering isn't working and likely never will, at least for you. If that coach says, "Just stick with it for a few more seasons, and sooner or later everything will click," direct him to the nearest looney bin.

In Ramona Shelburne and Tim MacMahon's terrific report on DeAndre's free-agent saga, we learn that Lucas has been advising and tutoring DeAndre, off and on, since the latter was in 9th grade. So it's quite possible that Lucas shares much of the responsibility for more than a decade of shooting ineptitude. DeAndre is way too coordinated to be a dreadful free-throw shooter who isn't even given the opportunity to shoot in games beyond five feet. Alas, these days many tall guys are in the same boat. Unless they're very good shooters from the get-go, they're relegated on offense to setting picks (usually uncalled illegal ones) to get teammates open for treys and rolling to the rim for alley-oops.

As I've argued since 2004, the payoff for the trey is too great, which leads to a variety of negative consequences for the game in general and big guys in particular. At the time I advocated reducing the payoff to 2.5 points. With the dramatic increase in trey attempts in recent years with little or no drop in accuracy, 2.5 points is too much to have the desired effect. My current preference is to reduce the payoff to somewhere 2.2 and 2.33, while also giving teams the freedom to opt out of the trey by playing all home games — regular season and playoffs — on a court without an arc.

Good-shooting big men inside the arc (e.g., the Gasol brothers, Al Horford, Dirk Nowitzki and Anthony Davis) don't get their just due from the current scoring system, which explains Alvin Gentry's desire to extend Davis's range to the corner trey, which will simultaneously lower his percentage while boosting his "efficiency." Big guys who are average and mediocre shooters aren't encouraged to improve — or even to shoot — especially if they play for one of the growing number of analytics-oriented organizations.

DeMarcus Cousins loves to shoot from 15 to 18 feet, but at this point is merely respectable from that range. Look for fireworks between him and George Karl, an early analytics enthusiast who was the first to push the "layups, threes and free throws" offensive philosophy currently championed by the Houston Rockets. Karl won't look kindly on Cousins jacking up a 40-percent 17-footer when he could kick it out to a teammate who shoots a putrid 30 percent from beyond the arc. It's not good for the game to have the latter significantly more efficient (the equivalent of sinking an outstanding 45 percent from 17 feet) than the former.

Another unfortunate figure in DeAndre's career is the agent Dan Fegan. Let's set aside any role Fegan may have played in selling DeAndre on Dallas. Either L.A. or Dallas would have been a fine destination, with the Mavs being somewhat more likely to help DeAndre develop shooting skills and give him the latitude to apply those skills in actual games, and the Clippers much more likely to contend for titles over the length of the contract while keeping him in an offensive straitjacket. For years Fegan and his team failed miserably to get Dwight Howard the help he needs, thus leaving him at the mercy of coaching staffs in Orlando, L.A. and Houston who either didn't want him shooting beyond 6 feet or weren't able to help him develop a jumper worth firing. (It didn't help that Dwight was so protective of his field goal percentage that he'd rarely shoot from mid-range even when the defense invited him to. The constant prodding of assistant coaches Patrick Ewing and Dan D'Antoni made little difference.)

Granted, it shouldn't be the agent's responsibility to coach his client or find appropriate tutors. But when his client's own highly paid coaches and staffs aren't up to the task, and the client hasn't been able to develop a functional stroke on his own, the agent has to step up. He needs to get his client to listen to some fresh thinking, to give new ideas a try. Otherwise he's likely to end his career with a whole lot of regrets, wondering how good he — and his teams — could have been if only he had expanded his game.