Shaq's problem is spelled R-i-l-e-y
Shaquille O’Neal’s struggles on the basketball court stem from an unhealthy respect for authority instilled in him by his dad, the career military man Phil “Sarge” Harrison. It is preventing Shaq from making the adjustments in his game that would allow him to be consistently effective and productive in his twilight seasons.
Shaq learned at a young age to follow the orders of his own commanding officers, including his mom, Sarge and a succession of hoop coaches. Alas, his current commander, General Pat Riley, is clueless, and someone as smart as Shaq probably has figured this out by now. But just in case he hasn’t, let’s take a few minutes to examine how the sharp-dressed coach has consistently brought out the worst in his 20-million-dollar-per-year man.
A RELEVANT BUT UNFLATTERING COMPARISON
As Shaq begins his fourth season with the Heat and third under Riley, he’s the same age (35) as Wilt Chamberlain when he led the 1971-72 Lakers to the NBA crown. Shaq has played more seasons, but Wilt had played more games and many more minutes (roughly 48 thousand to Shaq’s 36). Wilt in 1971-72 averaged 42 minutes in the regular season and 47 in the playoffs. In 1972-73, his last, he averaged 43 minutes and another 47 in a long playoff run that culminated in a Laker loss to the Knicks in the Finals, where the 36-year-old averaged 22 boards and 7 blocks.
There’s no need for Shaq to play that many minutes, but the reason Wilt was able to do so, aside from his remarkable stamina, was his low fouling rate, even in his twilight years. That final season was typical: one foul every 18.5 minutes, and in the playoffs one every 16.7 minutes.
Shaq kept his fouling rate in check as a Laker, and it wasn’t bad in his first Heat season, under Stan Van Gundy. But it dramatically escalated under Riley, rendering him increasingly unreliable in the postseason, where he used to shine. Three games do not a season make, but he’s off to a rough start, averaging an astronomical one foul every 5.6 minutes.
Shaq’s gradually declining mobility, in my view, is only a small factor in his dwindling minutes and production. I still regard him as a very impressive athlete. His dance at last year’s All-Star festivities proved to me he’s got plenty of life left in his body. He’ll never be 27 again, but he retains enough quickness and agility to be a great center this season and next.
He can help his cause by dropping some weight. Even though he has met Riley’s childish body-fat requirements, he’s too thick for his own good. An extra 25 pounds of muscle is still an extra 25 pounds. He doesn’t need to lug that around. He’s a basketball player, not a nose tackle, though the way Riley has him playing defense it's easy to lose sight of that fact.
HOW TO DEPROGRAM RILEY’S ROBOT
Riley has made a significant contribution to Shaq’s three biggest problems with the Heat: injuries, foul trouble and worse-than-ever free-throw shooting. As we shall see, the first two stem from the coach’s defensive philosophy.
Riley has pulled one of the great brainwashing acts in sports history, convincing his great center that he’s actually “Shaq Doleac” – and pretty much the same type of athlete as his brother Michael. Riley has rewired Shaq’s help-defense instincts, so that the first thing Shaq does when he spots a driver is to immediately run to a spot just outside the restricted zone in the general direction of where the driver will be arriving. Once Shaq arrives he decides what type of help defense to lend. The problem, however, is that the decision has already been made for Shaq, because he’s squandered virtually all of his reaction time and room to maneuver with his mad dash to the spot. At that point all he can do is cause a Shaq Doleac-style collision and cross his fingers that the ref responds with a charge or a no-call. But all these collisions result in a fair number of fouls on Shaq, and in the games I see he’s lucky he’s not whistled for even more..
For Shaq to be a reliable 35-minute man in the regular season and 40 in the playoffs – perfectly reasonable expectations even at this stage of his career – he must undergo defensive deprogramming. Step One is to get permission from his dad to rebel against authority, i.e., Riley. Step Two is to take a two-week leave of absence and pay Bill Russell a million dollars to tutor him on the fine points of collision-free help defense. Granted, Shaq has zero chance of being even nearly as good on defense at 35 as Russell or Wilt was at that age. And Shaq faces the additional disadvantage of playing in an era where after-the-dribble traveling is legal, which enables drivers to zig-zag and double-jump in the paint, which makes it easy to put bogus fouls on big guys. (I addressed some of the other factors that make this a foul-prone era for centers in this essay last year.) But Russ is even smarter than Shaq, and the two brainiacs working together will find a way for Shaq to be a respectable help defender while cutting his defensive fouling rate by at least a third.
During that leave of absence I will work with Shaq on his free-throw shooting and a non-dislodging low-post repertoire that will cut his offensive-foul rate in half. Cutting out dislodging might lead to a field-goal percentage drop to, say, 53-to-55 percent. But the reduction in fouls and turnovers – and the individual and team confidence that grows because Shaq can be counted on to play his full quota of minutes most every night – will more than make up for that.
A POTENTIAL NEW LOW AT THE STRIPE
I’ll skip a detailed analysis of Shaq’s free-throw woes (a topic I’ve often addressed), which have dramatically worsened under Riley’s incompetent care. Now Shaq is in the worst predicament of his career, as the refs have started to call him for stepping over the line on his shot; this has already cost him two or three points in his first three games. (If the refs had done this in 2002, when Shaq was brilliant at the line against the Kings but violated the letter of the law on virtually every attempt, Sacramento would have an NBA crown.)
The past few seasons he has benefited enormously from the league’s silly obsession with lane violations by rebounders, granting Shaq enough do-overs to keep his percentage from falling below 40. Now the league has a new obsession, strictly enforcing the shooter-step-over rule that’s in dire need of wiggle room. (Shaq is not the only player who violates it. None of these guys is trying to gain an advantage. A good analogy is pitcher follow-throughs: some finished balanced on two feet, others on one, and some of the latter fall off to one side, such as the great Bob Gibson.)
Here’s a common-sense compromise: A player whose technique leads him to step across the line after he releases the ball but before it hits the rim is ineligible for an offensive rebound, even on a tip-back. If he makes the free throw, the point counts, but if he misses and he ends up with the rebound, the whistle blows and the opposing team gets the ball.
A FALSE SENSE OF INVULNERABILITY
Wilt didn’t miss a game his last three seasons, despite missing most of the preceding one after rupturing the patellar tendon in his knee. One reason for his good health in those last three is that he didn’t have a coach dressing him up in heavy-duty knee pads and telling him to go out and create as many knee-on-knee and knee-on-thigh collisions as possible and then fall backwards in the crowded paint to create even more injury opportunities for your teammates and the opposing team.
Those bulky pads that Riley insists Shaq wear have provided a false sense of invulnerability. Because Shaq in his Heat years has tried to draw charges and is always hustling to get outside the restricted line and into the path of a driver, he has made himself an injury waiting to happen. The padding actually makes him less safe, as he no longer has the healthy, common-sense fear that tells him that it can’t be good to have big, fast dudes running into his aging body.
A 2004-05 late-season Jermaine O’Neal knee to Shaq’s thigh (when Stan Van Gundy was coach), which would have been avoided if defender Shaq had taken a non-collision angle, wrecked the Heat’s title hopes. Shaq missed half of last season by causing a knee-on-knee collision with a driving Chuck Hayes. He nearly cost the Heat the 2006 title, and not just with his putrid, Riley-influenced play. In pivotal Game 3, he slid over very late to draw a bogus charging foul on Josh Howard, and when Shaq fell he crashed into the side of Dwyane Wade’s knee. It would have been poetic justice if Riley’s coaching methods had simultaneously cost the Heat the title and ended the season of its superstar, but lucky for Riley the hoop gods love Wade even more than they hate him. Wade survived, singlehandedly rallied the Heat to victory, and went on to be Finals MVP.
It’s up to Shaq. He can keep doing it the Riley way and be a free-throw bricklayer and fouling machine that, come playoff time, can’t be counted on for 28 minutes, let alone 40. (We’re assuming he hasn’t collided himself on to the injured list.) Or he can rebel, get deprogrammed and be a dynamic and reliable contributor to a legitimate title contender for at least this season and next.
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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