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Shaq's free-throw fix is in 2002 tape
by Dennis Hans / May 6, 2004

If Shaquille O’Neal doesn’t recapture the free-throw magic he had in the 2002 playoffs, the Los Angeles Lakers have scant chance of beating the San Antonio Spurs. If he does, anything can happen.

Shaq’s 2002 success was the result of an unorthodox free-throw method taught to him in late 2000 by Ed Palubinskas, a sharpshooting former Aussie Olympian and LSU grad who had worked with Shaq back in his college days. It took several months for Shaq to get the hang of it, but he closed out the 2000-01 season on the hottest free-throw streak of his career, and he was gold in the 2002 playoffs as he led the Lakers to their third consecutive NBA title. Shaq shot well the following season, but this season it all went horribly wrong — 49 percent in the regular season, a putrid 28 percent so far in the playoffs.

It appears that Shaq neglected the b-ball equivalent of oil changes, tune-ups and tire rotations that would have kept his stroke sound. Flaws crept in over time, and rather than call in his ace mechanic (Palubinskas), Shaq apparently made adjustments on his own. But the changes he made only took him farther away from what his unorthodox stroke must look and feel like if it is to work.

I just reviewed Shaq’s free-throw form from the 2002 playoffs, when he was in the greatest groove of his career. Here are the differences between then and now:

- In 2002, Shaq was very precise in the placement of his shooting-hand fingers on the ball. Granted, the fingertip grip, with his shooting hand more to the side ball than directly under it, looked bizarre (or, if you prefer, “revolutionary”). He had a deliberate, two-step delivery, slowly raising his hands into shooting position, then
withdrawing his guide hand, then initiating the stroke not with his shooting arm but with a smooth, downward bend of his flexed knees. That leg action set the stage for a compact, smoothly accelerating, one-handed stroke.

From a profile angle, he released the ball from in front of and well above his head. From a facing angle, you could see that his release point was a tad off-center, above his ear as opposed to above his nose. (You’ll see great shooters with either release point, and some even farther off center. If it works, it’s right.) Shaq’s right-of-center release point, coupled with the off-center grip, made it easy for him to keep his shooting elbow under his shooting hand. The initiating leg action coupled with the quiet shooting hand helped to produce what Shaq hadn’t had in ages: an arc. Many of his 2002 makes were swishes, and his ball flight looked nearly as good as Kobe’s.

- In 2004, Shaq is less precise in his finger placement, and while he retains the bizarro fingertip grip, it appears that his alignment is more under the ball than off to the side. While that may sound like an improvement, you can’t necessarily plug a conventional feature into an unconventional delivery and expect it to work. Unlike in 2002, Shaq now keeps the guide hand on the ball as he shoots, and the facing camera reveals that his shooting elbow is flaring out — a consequence of his release point having drifted leftward, nearly dead center in front of and above his head.

The release point has also drifted southward; it’s not as high above his head as before. Those changes leave Shaq in an awkward position from where to begin his forward stroke towards the basket. Although he is able to get the ball traveling at the hoop in a reasonably straight line (I’m talking direction, not arc), the release is abrupt and ugly, and the ball often spins sideways. In contrast, his 2002 arm motion looks infinitely more comfortable and free.

The current Shaq resembles a golfer who has gotten himself into a horrible position at the top of his swing, which then requires adjustments on the downswing, which make it exceedingly difficult to make solid contact on a consistent basis.

Another serious problem is that Shaq has lost much of the rhythm and smoothness of his leg action. Whereas in 2002 the stroke began with a smooth, downward bend of his knees, now he has a simultaneous, herky-jerky movement of hands and legs. That has had a disastrous effect on his distance control — the prime reason his percentage has plummeted. It has also cost him a bit of his arc; his shot isn’t as soft as in 2002.

If I were Shaq I’d get Ed Palubinskas to L.A. pronto. If he’s not available, I’d be happy to help — but only if Shaq agrees to use my advice only against the Spurs. If the Lakers advance to a showdown with my Sacramento Kings, Shaq must revert to the pathetic form he’s currently displaying.

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

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