How I'll (again) help Shaq at the stripe
Shaquille O’Neal’s free-throw delivery is, in one respect, comparable to a figure skater’s quadruple toe loop: it has a high degree of difficulty. Shaq “sticks the landing” at a .463 clip as he heads for a third consecutive sub-50 percent season. Sorry as that mark is, it would be considerably lower if refs didn’t award him countless do-overs when antsy rebounders step into the lane too soon, which suggests a new nickname for the Diesel: “Mulligan.”
As hoop fans know, there is an endless variety of styles among the NBA’s legions of good free-throw shooters – different postures, stances, grips, release points, tempos and motions. What these distinctive stylists have in common is that they make the FT look easy. They’ve got a rhythmic, repeatable stroke that automatically produces a shot that travels about 15 feet in a reasonably straight line with backspin and at least a little arc. They shoot 78 or 81 or 86 percent, even though they may only average one, two or three attempts per game.
There’s no reason why Shaq can’t turn the free throw into an easier shot. A career .529 “marksman,” he won’t necessarily get to 78 percent, but he can develop a technically-sound, rhythmic and repeatable delivery that will enable him to shoot 60 to 70 percent down the homestretch and in the playoffs.
As I show below, over the course of his long career he’s already had two dependable, albeit completely different deliveries. For reasons best known to Shaq, he abandoned both.
The second abandonment came in 2003-04, and by the spring of 2004 his form had deteriorated so badly that I wrote a column on what was wrong and how to get back on track. The playoffs were already underway, and I shared my analysis with Laker general manager Mitch Kupchak, who replied via e-mail that I had struck a chord with him and Phil Jackson.
In Game 3 vs. the Spurs (the series that made Derek Fisher famous), Shaq began to pull out of a month-long 30-percent stretch and would shoot an-adequate-for-Shaq 48 percent for the remainder of the playoffs. During the Lakers-Wolves Western Conference finals, Tim Brown of the Los Angeles Times e-mailed to say, “I think you might have struck a long-distance nerve with Shaq. He mentioned something about an article written by a ‘Hans’ someone recently, and how some of your ideas had actually sunk in.”
That was my 15 seconds of near-fame, and though Shaq benefited by modestly improving the sequence and timing of his delivery – I suggested he focus on the process and getting that right rather than worrying about the result – other technical flaws I mentioned didn’t get corrected then or the following season in Miami.
But this is no time to fret about the past. Here’s how Shaq and I will develop the third respectable free-throw stroke of his career:
Step One begins at the end of a Miami Heat practice, when players separate to shoot their daily quota of free throws. Shaq won’t be shooting this time. Instead, he and I will stroll around the gym, paying five-minute visits to Udonis Haslem, Jason Williams, Jason Kapono, James Posey, Dwyane Wade and Earl Barron. Each is a good or very good FT shooter, and each succeeds in his own unique way.
Shaq and I will be on a mission to learn how they’ve turned the free throw into an easy shot. We’ll talk to them, one at a time, about their routine, how it has evolved, and what it contributes to their FT success. We’ll observe a few attempts from three angles: profile, facing and behind. We’ll have each guy show how he grips the ball and
We’ll have each guy freeze in mid-delivery at the point where he has brought the ball into shooting position and is set to begin the forward motion of his stroke. We’ll look at him at that juncture from the profile and facing angles to get a sense of where the ball is in relation to his head and his shooting hand. We’ll see that each of these guys has a release point that makes it very easy to achieve directional accuracy and a normal backspin ball rotation. It’s not something they have to sweat over or concentrate on; it just happens. It’s a consequence of good mechanics.
At each stop, I’ll have Shaq try a few shots using our model’s approach, then we’ll have our model try a few using Shaq’s approach.
What do I mean by “Shaq’s approach?" I mean his distinctive blend of scant rhythm, poor mechanics, a challenging release point (a few inches above the center-rear of his head), the ball sliding in his shooting hand as he bends his knees, and a stroke initiated by a simultaneous, herky-jerky lerch of hands and legs.
I feel quite confident that Haslem, Williams et al. will come away mightily impressed that Shaq is able to shoot above 40 percent with that delivery – and that they’ll decline all offers to swap deliveries.
From Step One, Shaq will have learned two important lessons: There are many ways to be a good FT shooter, and his current way is not one of them.
For Step Two, I’ll show him the dramatic differences between how he shoots the ball today and how he shot it in the two periods when he had decent success.
He shot .592 percent as a rookie with a smooth, conventional-looking delivery that, with a bit of fine-tuning, could have been the foundation for a 70-percent free-throw career. (I saw that delivery recently when the cable channel ESPN Classic aired the 1993 All-Star Game. Not only did sleek, young Shaq look good at the stripe, he nailed a 16-foot pull-up jumper – and no one looked surprised!)
Unfortunately, he changed his style a season or two later, and over the next several years his form deteriorated and his percentage fell. He hit rock bottom in the 2000 Finals, nearly costing his team the title by going 36 for 93 (39 percent), an average of 6 for 15.5 per game.
Shaq sought help the next season, and his work with shooting coach Ed Palubinskas produced a compact, one-handed stroke featuring an odd, perched-on-the-fingertips grip. Things got worse before they got better, but Shaq closed the 2000-01 season on a 16-game, 68-percent rush. He shot a so-so .555 the following season but raised that to a sizzling 65 percent in the playoffs. There would have been no Laker “threepeat” if Shaq hadn’t outdueled Sacramento’s C-Webb and Vlade Divac at the stripe in the seven-game donnybrook for the 2002 Western Conference crown. You heard me right: Shaq won it at the line. In 2002-03, the last season he worked with Palubinskas, Shaq shot a career-high .622.
In 2003-04 Shaq struck out on his own, literally and figuratively. He changed the way he initiated his stroke, went back to shooting with two hands rather than one, and his release point began a slow migration in a southeasterly direction toward its present destination, which is a whopping two feet from whence it came. It had been above, in front of and to the right of his head. By spring 2004 it was a tad lower and directly in front of his head. It has since moved much farther from the basket, so that it’s a few inches above the back of his head. This makes for a longer stroke (which isn’t necessarily bad) and, along with other factors, contributes to the ball-sliding-in-his-shooting-hand feature (which is definitely bad).
For Step Three, Shaq and I will fashion his new delivery, which will combine 1993’s fluidity and arms-legs synchronization with 2002’s release point, albeit without that funky grip. He’ll no longer have to hope he “finds a rhythm” at some point in the game, because we’re going to infuse rhythm into his routine and delivery so it’s always there.
Shaq’s gonna have it all – arc, rotation, distance control, directional accuracy, rhythm and sound mechanics — wrapped up in a low-maintenance, professional-looking package. Most importantly, he’ll have a percentage that tells the world his improved look is no mirage. At least until he decides to scrap it and start over.
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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