Antoine back where "volume shooting" began
It took a while, but in his second go-round with the Boston Celtics, infamous “volume shooter” Antoine Walker has finally hit his stride: In each of the last five games in which he’s played at least 31 minutes (through Tuesday’s big win at Philadelphia), he jacked up at least 20 field goal attempts, never making more than eight.
Prior to reacquiring their dynamic, inspirational, multi-skilled and scatter-shot power forward, the Celtics were a ho-hum 27-28. They’ve since gone 15-7 and are poised to win the Atlantic Division and make some noise in the playoffs.
Walker has endured much valid criticism throughout his career for his poor shot selection and shooting percentages, and particularly for his damning self-designation as a “volume shooter,” which only calls attention to his inefficiency as a scorer. So why do so many Beantowners continue to embrace him? Perhaps it’s because they remember the days when Celtics glory and volume shooting went hand in hand. Beginning in the 1950s, a “shoot first and ask questions later” philosophy fueled Red Auerbach’s championship formula.
OLD JACK CITY
The Celtics led the league in field goal attempts (FGA), often by a considerable margin, every season from 1956-57 to 1964-65. In that nine-year span, they captured eight NBA crowns. If Bill Russell hadn’t sprained his ankle in the 1958 Finals, the Celts almost certainly would have gone nine for nine.
The following chart compares the Celtics FGA with the league average for those seasons. Keep in mind that what passes for an uptempo team today, the Phoenix Suns, averages a paltry 85.6 FGA.
Now that’s volume shooting!
To make Antoine feel even better, let’s look at FG percentage for those same nine seasons, comparing Boston to both the league average and the team that led the league.
Note that the Celtics finished lower than the league average in FG percentage in each of the last five seasons – all of which culminated in a title.
THE ORIGINAL ANTOINE, OR "I LOVE TOMMY!"
If you’re wondering how the Beantown Volume Shooters could jack up so many shots and shoot such a low percentage without Walker, allow me to introduce you to the original ’Toine.
Exactly 40 years before Walker first arrived in Boston, another gunning power forward began his Celtic career. Tommy Heinsohn played just nine seasons, which happen to match the ones under discussion. Like Antoine today, he had more skills and coordination than most of his power-forward contemporaries. He earned Rookie of the Year honors in 1957 and was second-team all-NBA from 1961 to 1964. Also like Antoine, he had a weakness for one particular shot that looked pretty when it went in but nevertheless dragged down his FG percentage. Antoine’s albatross is the off-the-dribble pull-up trey. (In contrast, he does fine when his feet are set for an open, catch-and-shoot trey.) Tommy could never resist the 18-foot running hook.
In Antoine’s defense, the bonus point for each successful trey transforms each of his low-percentage (.325 career) long-distance heaves into a reasonably efficient attempt – the equivalent of a .488 shot from two-point range (which is why the trey’s value should be reduced to 2.5 points). That’s a far better per-shot payoff than Tommy got on his running hooks.
A look at the career numbers of our volume-shooting duo shows that they are indeed two peas in the same pod.
Heinsohn played 654 games over his nine seasons. He averaged 18.6 points and 8.8 rebounds. From the floor, his average night was 7.3 for 18.0, for a percentage of .405.
Walker, now in his ninth season, has played 682 games. Over that span he’s averaged 19.9 points and 8.7 rebounds. Convert his treys to deuces and his scoring average falls to 18.3 – a near match of Heinsohn’s 18.6. From the floor, Antoine has averaged 7.7 for 18.6, for a percentage of .414.
From that comparison we should not conclude that Heinsohn was every bit the gunner Walker is, for one additional factor reveals the identity of the real quick-draw artist. Heinsohn jacked up his 18 shots playing a measly 29.4 minutes per game. Give him Antoine’s career average of 38.8 minutes and his FGA rise to 23.8. Imagine the hell Antoine would catch if he averaged 24 FGA! Then again, if he had played in Tommy’s day, no
TEACHING AN OLD 'TOINE NEW TRICKS
These days, the Celtics are run by two pretty sharp cookies, Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers, whose winning formula is based on a moderately uptempo and efficient style, rather than a mad, 48-minute volume-shooting dash. Doc has told Antoine that a quality trey attempt every now and then is fine, but he wants to see him down low or driving and dishing, getting himself and his teammates easy shots and lots of free throws.
The trey message has gotten through, as Antoine is jacking up just 3.3 per game in 19 games as a Celtic, far below his career average of 5.0 and his career high (2001-02) of 8.0. His FGA are down slightly to 16.1, but that’s mostly a reflection of averaging fewer minutes (35.1). His FG percentage is improved but still poor at .438, and at the stripe (an area where I can help) he’s bricking away at a .557 rate.
'TOINE DOMINO EFFECT
With those abysmal numbers, how on earth does he help the Celts?
In addition to all the feel-good towel-waving, cheerleading and confidence-building of young teammates, Walker dramatically improves Boston in specific ways: He’s a far-better all-around power forward than slow-footed, foul-prone Raef LaFrentz, the former starter at the 4, who moves over to his more natural center position, where he’s perhaps a modest upgrade on Mark Blount. Blount goes from being a mediocre starting center playing 28 minutes to a standout backup center playing 20 or so high-energy minutes with no worries about foul trouble. Paul Pierce becomes a much better (and happier) small forward playing alongside a great passer who helps him get easy baskets and lifts the leadership burden from his shoulders. Gary Payton now has another pair of great hands to pass the ball to and a guy who can make the outlet pass and fill a lane and finish on the break.
Antoine’s domino effect is similar to Shaq’s in Miami, rippling through the entire roster, albeit with less overall impact. That’s more than enough reason for Celtic announcer Tommy Heinsohn to transfer his affection for the departed “Waltah” McCarty to his fellow volume shooter and let loose with those three magical words: “I love Antoine!"
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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