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Pistons and Spurs pay a price for ignoring shooting guru's advice
by Dennis Hans / May 24, 2003

You wouldn’t think that I, an aging backcourt ace whose shining hoop moments came years ago in mid-level recreation leagues, would have played a pivotal if indirect role in the opening game of the Mavs-Spurs series or the first two games of the Pistons-Nets. But you’d be wrong.

Some readers have seen previous essays of mine dissecting the free-throw form of various bricklayers. Those essays are part of a larger work-in-progress: a combination book-instructional video on “Different Strokes for Different Folks: Free-Throw Routines and Deliveries that Work — and Why.”

My approach is somewhat different from the shooting guru who has a particular method that he teaches. That’s a worthwhile approach, and many such gurus have proven track records. But because there’s such a wide variation in the rhythm, tempo, stance, posture, leg action and release point among NBA and WNBA free-throw sharpshooters, I decided to break down these varied deliveries in an effort to explain how and why each one works, and what particular fundamentals apply to a particular style. From that growing base of knowledge, I try to determine where a Ben Wallace or Bruce Bowen goes wrong and how he can get right.

So far, only one NBA organization has talked to me about working with their problem shooter. Prior to the 2002 training camp, I got a call from the reigning NBA Coach of the Year, Rick Carlisle, responding to an analysis I had sent him of Big Ben’s form and how to fix it. He invited me to work with Ben for the first ten days of training camp, but first he wanted to be confident that I was confident. He wanted me to put my money where my mouth was. Send a $50,000 cashier’s check to the Pistons, he said. If Ben is at 70 percent by the All-Star break, I would get my money back. Even better, the entire basketball world would hear of this new guru who had transformed a career 38 percent FT shooter, and my lucrative career would be launched.

I don’t have an agent, but even I could figure out that that wasn’t a good deal. I told Carlisle I’d have to think about it, and a few days later mailed my bold counter-offer, telling him in no uncertain terms that I wouldn’t put up a penny more than ten grand. I also wrote up a detailed curriculum for fixing Ben’s flaws. Some flaws, I explained,
could be fixed in a few minutes (feet alignment); other stuff (leg action; arms-legs synchronization; fine-tuning of Ben’s pretty-decent release) would take several days to (1) unlearn, (2) ingrain the correct method or movement, and (3) incorporate the new fundamentals seamlessly into the overall delivery. I said we’d also develop a solid mid-range jumper, which is more important to Ben’s offensive development than the free throw.

Didn’t hear back from the coach. Nevertheless, over the course of the season I mailed an occasional analysis after I’d see Ben on the tube. I also compiled two videotapes illustrating his flaws and comparing Ben’s delivery to other players who execute flawlessly those aspects that Ben has yet to get the hang of. Sent one or both to Carlisle, Wallace and Piston president Joe Dumars. Late in the regular season, whether because of my efforts or someone else’s, Ben finally got his feet aligned properly, which had the added benefit of eliminating his weird,
right-to-left weight shift. But the other flaws remain.

Fast forward to the Eastern Conference finals. In Game 1, won by the Nets on Jason Kidd’s last-second jumper, Ben shot 2 of 7 from the stripe. If he goes 5 of 7, the Pistons win. Of course, if Ben had a solid jumper the Nets’ defense had to respect, the Pistons would have won easily.

Game 2 was another heartbreaker, as the Pistons squandered a second-half 11-point lead to again lose by two. Ben was 3 of 7 at the stripe and a non-threat from the floor, aside from impressive work on the offensive boards, where he snared four of his 22 rebounds.

Ben is a conscientious, dedicated pro, and that extends to free-throw shooting. But he’s ingraining both the decent aspects of his delivery and the flaws. That stroke might work well while shooting 50 in a row at practice; most anyone can strike a groove in that setting. (Ben reportedly is up to a 70-percent success rate in practice sessions.) But in games you shoot FTs one or two at a time, 30 or 45 minutes apart, immediately after huffing and puffing and bumping and grinding. You don’t get 10 practice tries. To shoot a good percentage under game
conditions requires a sound, rhythmic, synchronized delivery and motion that routinely produces a shot that goes 15 feet, give or take a few inches. Ben’s distance margin of error is much greater: His shot goes anywhere from 13.5 to 16.5 feet.

But the good news is that all his technical flaws are correctable. He can be a 70-75 percent FT shooter with a respectable mid-range jumper. But if the Pistons want my help, they’ll have to make an offer I can’t refuse — preferably one that doesn’t involve a horse’s severed head.

Nellie’s Bump-a-Bruce shines spotlight on Bowen

In March, I taped four Bruce Bowen FT strokes off the tube, watched them repeatedly in slow motion and freeze frame, and on March 30 sent off my analysis to Bowen and assistant coach PJ Carlesimo. (I figured Carlesimo gets much less mail than head coach Popovich, so he might give the letter more attention.)

But did they follow up with a tutoring offer? They did not. And that is why Don Nelson had the option of the Bump-a-Bruce strategy in Game 1. Bruce did well, draining 5 of 8 following the four second-quarter intentional fouls, which works out to an outstanding 1.25 points per possession. A team that scores at that phenomenal rate might go undefeated. But the strategy worked on other levels: It slowed the game to a halt at a time when the Mavs were struggling, and it seemed to cast a pall over the Spurs. It also may have gotten more into Popovich’s head than Bowen’s, as the coach kept his defensive stopper on the bench for all but one minute of the fourth quarter, when the Mavs rallied. The good news for the Spurs is that the hoop gods routinely punish coaches (e.g., Portland’s Mike Dunleavy and Orlando’s Doc Rivers) who resort to this ignoble, albeit legal, strategy.

Bruce is the deadliest trey shooter in the game, knocking down 47 percent in the regular season. So how could he shoot a Ben-like 40 percent from the foul line? It’s a mystery that’s left him, his coaches and Spur fans scratching their heads. Scratch no more.

From treyville, Bruce reminds me of Reggie Miller, with his crisp, positive, accelerating stroke, delivered from in front of his head.

From the charity stripe, Bruce is the anti-Reggie. He’s got a long, slow stroke that is susceptible to the FT shooter’s kiss of death: deceleration. At the top of his long upswing/backswing, the ball practically sits on Bruce’s head. Whereas Reggie’s shooting forearm is well in front of his head and approximately perpendicular to the floor, Bruce’s approaches parallel. Whereas Reggie’s forearm and upper arm form a 90-degree L, Bruce’s forms about a 55-degree sideways V, or “less than” sign: <.

Some fine FT shooters, including Derek Fisher, have a release-point angle similar to Bowen’s. But Derek is more of an “arm shooter” whereas Reggie is a “wrist shooter” (as is Bruce from treyville). These terms are oversimplifications, as every shooter obviously uses both his arm and his wrist; it’s a matter of degree and emphasis. For our purposes, think “long and flowing” for an arm shooter, “crisp and compact” for a wrist shooter. Derek also has a side-of-the-head release point that makes it easy to keep his shooting hand and shooting elbow directly under the ball. It’s a fine delivery, and he can shoot my clutch FTs any day.

Bruce’s release point, as noted, is practically on top of his head. His shooting hand is not directly under the ball (it’s approximately half under and half on the side) and his elbow is often flaring out. That elbow and hand position, coupled with the long stroke, renders Bruce prone to problems. He’s like a golfer with a long, looping putting stroke. That stroke might work fine on long putts, when he can give the ball a good whack, but it’s not designed for short three-footers. Free throws are like three-foot putts.

As noted above, there’s a rich variety of styles among elite FT shooters, and some excel with a slightly flaring elbow (Shawn Marion) or a shooting hand not squarely under the ball (Arvydas Sabonis, who’s “elite” by the lower standard by which 7-footers are judged). To these shooters I say, “It’s not broken, so don’t fix it.” But Bruce’s FT stroke IS broken, and in those two aspects of technique he appears to have too much of a bad thing.

There are two possible approaches to fixing Bruce’s FT flaws:

1) If Bruce sticks with the “<” release-point angle on FTs, he’ll need to free up his arm motion. He can do this by moving his release point a bit to his right, just enough to comfortably get his shooting hand and elbow directly under the ball at the top of his upswing. From that position he’ll feel much more comfortable about just letting go, which will cure that susceptibility to decelerate. Another adjustment that would make it easier to get his shooting hand and elbow properly aligned at the completion of the upswing is to open up his stance, so that his feet and upper body face to the left of the basket, a la Kobe Bryant.

2) I think Bruce would be better off converting to a compact, Reggie Miller-style FT release-point. The thing I like about it is that players who are merely respectable jumpshooters, such as PJ Brown, Doug Christie and Sue Bird, are exceptional at the stripe with the in-front-of-the-head “L” position release. It will enable Bruce to have
the same crisp, accelerating stroke on his FT that he has on his trey and that Reggie has on all his shots. As with Option 1, Bruce may want to adjust his stance and/or release point (moving it a tad to his right) to make it easier to get his shooting hand and elbow directly under the ball at the top of his upswing.

Now here’s the tricky question: Do you try to make technical adjustments in the middle of a playoff series, where you’re playing a high-pressure game every other day? That’s up to Bruce and the Spurs. My advice is to win the next games over the Mavs, then work on it during the break before the start of the title series. I’d be happy to help, but I won’t be ponying up 50 grand.

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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