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Hacker Shaq invites Hack-a-Shaq
by Dennis Hans / January 28, 2005

The letter from Miami Heat president Pat Riley, dated July 29, 2004, thanked me for my offer to help Shaquille O’Neal with his free-throw shooting, then explained why he would respectfully decline:

The Miami 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 for Mr. O’Neal.”

Halfway through Mr. O’Neal’s first season with the Heat, those techniques aren’t looking too impressive, as the Big Guinea Pig is on pace for a career low. Through 43 games, his percentage is .457.

All joshing aside, I was curious to see what the Heat staff would do with Shaq. One thing that impressed me about Riley’s Laker teams is that his players improved their skills year to year, and that even hustle-and-bang guys like Kurt Rambis and AC Green became competent scorers and solid free-throw shooters. Riley didn’t want to play four against five on offense. He expected his role players to be able to make open shots, finish around the hoop with either hand and knock down free throws. That was a big part of the successful Showtime formula.

Today, Shaq at the stripe is a mess, but what is remarkable is that he’s nearly the identical mess that he was last season, and this preseason, and this season’s first month and second month. Down in Miami, the glaringly obvious flaws continue to go undetected and uncorrected.

Shaq reminds me of a golfer who plays every day and hasn’t broken 100 in a year, yet thinks he’ll magically get better by continuing to do exactly what he’s been doing. (For you non-golfers, shooting 100 is like being a 50 percent free-throw shooter. It means you’re horrendous, though it is still possible to be even worse.) He goes to the driving range and hits balls for an hour three times a week, but still shoots between 100 and 125 every darn day. What he doesn’t do is fiddle with his grip or his swing, or ask an instructor to analyze his address, posture, grip, swing and follow through, and methodically help him fix what is wrong. Instead, our Shaq-like golfer remains outwardly confident he’ll get better doing it his own way (which, we repeat, has led to 273 consecutive rounds over 100).

There’s a word for such a golfer: hacker. You’ll find them at every driving range, beating balls and ingraining swing flaws. The difference between these hackers and Shaq is they’re not professionals. They still get their exercise and some degree of enjoyment from golf no matter what they shoot. They’re not letting anybody down if they average 119, and no city will hold a champion’s parade if they break 100.

Shaq’s average night at the line this season is 5.1 for 11.1. If he were shooting .600 (it wasn’t that long ago – 2002-03 – that he shot .622 for an entire season) on the same number of attempts, he’d convert 6.7 per game. That’s a nightly difference of 1.6 points and would raise the Heat’s average differential from +5.3 to + 6.9. If Shaq shot .700, which is still well below the league FT average, he’d shoot 7.8 for 11.1, which would add 2.7 points to the Heat’s nightly total. Granted, a .700 Shaq might get less of the Hack-a-Shaq treatment, but he’d also get more touches at crunch time, so his attempts would likely still hover around 11 per game (it was 10.8 in his .622 season).

During last year’s playoffs, I explained how and why Shaq’s rhythm and form deteriorated from its 2002-03.

Before the piece ran, I emailed some advice for Shaq via Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, who passed it on to Phil Jackson, who passed it to Shaq, which led Shaq to mention my name to L.A. reporters, which led them to email me and ask about the nature of the advice that coincided with Shaq pulling out of a prolonged 30 percent slump to go 22 for 42 in the final four games of the Spurs series.

Twenty-two for 42 does, of course, stink to high heaven. But by getting Shaq to focus more on the sequence of his delivery and to initiate his stroke with a smooth, rhythmic, downward bend of his legs (as he did in his .622 season, utilizing an unorthodox delivery and grip taught to him by Ed Palubinskas, who Shaq and the Lakers foolishly chose to let go), he was able to eliminate some of the herky-jerky quality in his release and regain some arc. That improvement – and Derek Fisher’s miracle shot – helped the Lakers topple the Spurs.

Shaq and the Lakers chose not to address other flaws I detected, despite having breaks after the Spurs series and again after beating the Wolves. Shaq’s release point was a mess, his shooting elbow stuck out sideways, and his shooting hand slid laterally on the ball as he lowered his arms into shooting position to begin the forward stroke toward the hoop. That last item was a stunner; I was flabbergasted when a TV close-up revealed it early in the Wolves series. It appeared that Shaq was so uncomfortable with his release point that he was making a sub-conscious effort to get in a better position from which to shoot.

That hand slide has become a fixture of Shaq’s FT stroke. I don’t know why the Lakers didn’t address it, though one could make a case that, in the middle of a playoff run in which he had finally gotten back to 50 percent, there was now something to lose from further tinkering. The Heat don’t have that excuse, but they do have this one: no one in the organization seems to have a clue how to fix what ails Shaq’s delivery.

Phil Jackson briefly mentions my efforts on pp. 205-06 of The Last Season. But he falsely concludes that Shaq’s sudden improvement then was a matter of luck, much like his string of nine consecutive makes back in 2000 when Portland coach Mike Dunleavy took Hack-a-Shaq to the extreme. In that playoff game, Shaq went to the line so frequently that it became like practice, and bricklayers, like most everyone else, shoot much better in practice, for the simple reason that you stand there, relaxed, and shoot a whole bunch in a row. No running and banging, no 30 or 50 minutes between trips to the line.

Over the course of his long career, Shaq has used a variety of FT styles, some of which looked pretty good but produced so-so results, others that looked lousy and produced lousy results, and one that looked very odd but got the job done at key points in his career. A 16-game 68-percent stretch to close out the 2000-01 regular season scared off the Hack-a-Shaq crowd as the Lakers proceeded to win their second consecutive title. The next season, Shaq again looked good late in the regular season, prompting me to write a column predicting that his FT shooting would be a difference-maker on the positive side. Lo and behold, his work at the stripe put the Lakers over the top against the Kings in one of the great seven-game series of all time – part of a .649 2002 postseason for the Lakers three-peat. He followed that with his .622 regular season – and a 2003 postseason of
.621.

The guy who repeatedly delivered at the line in those three years looks nothing like the guy shooting FTs today. That doesn’t mean Shaq can only have success with the Palubinskas method, but if not that he needs something. (As even casual hoop fans know, there is a rich variety of successful free-throw styles.) His current delivery – a modified, badly deteriorated version of what Palubinskas taught him – simply doesn’t work.

I call it “Shaq of Diamonds.” If you’re standing under the hoop and facing Shaq, you’ll see him take his stance, raise his hands above his head, momentarily pause, then lower his hands as his knees bend downward in preparation for the forward portion of the stroke. If you take a picture just before the forward stroke, Shaq looks like a baseball diamond. His head is the pitching mound. The ball, directly above his head, is second base. His elbows, both of which jut out at nearly 90-degree angles, represent first and third base. Home plate is less clearly defined, but would be in the center of his upper chest.

Shaq actually deserves credit for sinking 46 percent with his atrocious form. Even Ray Allen and JJ Redick would struggle with that stroke.

If Hacker Shaq is to prevent Hack-a-Shaq as the Heat pursue a title, he needs to iron out the flaws and infuse some much-needed rhythm. If the Heat coaches can’t help, he’ll have to turn elsewhere.

Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball – including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting – have appeared online at the Sporting News and Slate. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets.

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