Blame Riley for Shaq's free-throw woes
In one sense, Shaquille O'Neal's free-throw woes are indeed mental: His
coach has a mental block that prevents him from understanding that
repetition alone is not the answer.
Shaq's problems at the stripe are 100 percent physical. A gifted,
graceful athlete with a keen sense of rhythm away from the basketball
court, Shaq nevertheless is a robotic, fundamentally flawed klutz at the
line who can't even keep the ball from sliding in his shooting hand as
he's about to release it. He was that way his last season with the Los
Angeles Lakers, and he's been that way his two seasons with the Miami
In Miami, the person most responsible for Shaq descending ever deeper
into the depths of free throw (FT) despair is Pat Riley.
At the time of Shaq's arrival Riley was president of the Heat, and Riley
may have had some basis for his belief that he, coach Stan Van Gundy and
the rest of the staff could help Shaq at the stripe. Here's how Riley
expressed that belief on July 29, 2004, in response to my letter
explaining how I could help the Diesel (who had just shot .a dismal .490
for the Lakers after having shot a career-best .622 the season before):
The Heat "have an excellent team of assistant coaches and trainers who
have developed their own system, which they are anxious to apply to Mr.
O'Neal. These techniques have proven to be very successful, and we are
expecting the same outcome with Mr. O'Neal."
Alas, "Mr. O'Neal" proceded to stink out the joint in the 2004-05
pre-season. And the first few weeks of the regular season. And
December, January and February. By the All-Star break, it should have
been crystal clear to Riley that the "system" and "techniques" of his
"excellent" staff were having no observable positive effect.
Applying the philosophy "If it's broke, don't fix it," Riley, Van Gundy
and staff helped Shaq shoot a career-low .461. But the good thing about
Shaq is that he "makes them when they count": In the 2005 playoffs his
percentage skyrocketed all the way to .472.
Riley took the coaching reins from Van Gundy early this season, and Shaq
continued to fire bricks with the same basic delivery from last season,
finishing up at .469.
It's worse than you think
Those putrid numbers don't begin to tell the story, for Shaq's arrival
in Miami coincided with the NBA's new "zero tolerance" policy for FT
lane violators. This has amounted to a de facto, league-approved
subsidy to the Heat and Shaq, whose pause-at-the-top release disrupts
the timing of rebounders, who see Shaq just a few times over 82 games.
A competently run league would explore practical remedies - such as
requiring refs to remind rebounders to "Wait for the pause at the top"
every time a delayed-release shooter like Shaq or Elton Brand attempts a
live free-throw. Alas, it seems that NBA refs prefer to play "Gotcha!"
with anxious rebounders.
I don't get to see many Heat regular-season games, but I've seen enough
to know that it's not unusual for Shaq to have two or three misses wiped
off the books in a single contest. I'd be shocked if he didn't average
at least one do-over per game. If that conservative one-per-game
estimate is right and we include those uncounted misses, Shaq has
actually been a 42-percent shooter as a member of the Heat.
This postseason, he's cruising along at a .400 clip (36 for 90) after 12
games, as Riley continues to wait patiently for the "system" and
"techniques" to take hold.
What accounts for Riley's unending patience? My hunch is that he's
confused on two key points.
First, because of the infinite variety of shooting styles among good FT
shooters, Riley may well believe that any style can be made to work if
the player will only put in the time. And if it doesn't work, that
simply means that the player - be he Wilt, Ben Wallace or Shaq - simply
The logical flaw here is that Shaq has been far more effective in two
chunks of his career, each with a distinctive style that differs
significantly from his Heat style, which features 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.
Long ago Shaq had a fairly conventional stroke that produced consecutive
seasons of .628, .615 and .592; that's his last two years of college and
his NBA debut. (I didn't see him in college, but a few months ago I saw
the 1993 NBA All-Star Game. Rookie Shaq shot the ball like a normal
person. His mechanics could have used some fine tuning, but he had a
smooth delivery that produced a nice arc and backspin.) Things went
steadily downhill until he began to turn things around in 2000-01 with
the help of a 1970s LSU sharpshooter named Ed Palubinskas.
Using an old-school one-handed stroke (something that was fairly common up to the
mid-1960s) and a bizarre fingertip grip, Shaq had some very good
stretches in the three-year period he worked off and on with Ed,
including that .622 mark in 2002-03 and postseasons of 62 and 65
This suggests that how Shaq shoots is a factor in how well he shoots.
Second, the fact that Shaq shoots a respectable percentage in practice
may have persuaded Riley that there's nothing fundamentally wrong with
his technique or delivery. If so, let's count Riley among the many
coaches who have yet to figure out that everyone - even Wilt and Big Ben
- shoots reasonably well in practice. That's because FTs in practice
bear only a superficial resemblance to FTs in games. You shoot the
latter one or two at a time in between intense stretches of banging and
running, and often with considerable time between trips to the line,
even for line-dweller Shaq.
The only FTs in practice that resemble
their game counterparts are the first two you shoot. As for the next
48, each becomes progressively easier because you're standing there
doing the same thing over and over. It's easy to strike a groove, but
it's a false groove. It doesn't help you with your next meaningful FTs,
which might come a day or two later mid-way through the first quarter.
The question the Heat should ask is not why Shaq made or missed this or
that FT in a recent game. Rather, they should ask: What are the
characteristics of Shaq's technique, rhythm and/or routine that explain
why, under game conditions, he shoots 42 percent?
And here are a few follow-ups:
Are these flaws fixable? How quickly can we iron out the flaws and
ingrain the corrections? Should we tackle any or all of these problems
now? Can we make a bad situation worse - that is, could Shaq plummet
from 38 percent in the first two rounds to 25 percent in the next one or
two rounds? Even if we can make the situation worse, does the
possibility of swift, dramatic improvement to 60-65 percent render it a
risk worth taking? Given that no one on our Heat staff appears to have
a clue what is wrong or how to fix it, how could we, of all people, help
Shaq? Being clueless, how can we evaluate outsiders who claim to have
Those are daunting questions as the Heat prepare for the Eastern
Conference Championship Series.
A way out of the wilderness
My advice would be to hire me, as I seem to be the only one who has
bothered to compare and contrast the various deliveries Shaq has used in
his career. I've also written a number of analyses of Shaq's
oft-changing form, beginning with a June 2000 piece for the online
edition of the Sporting News. I could help now with a quick fix -
re-connecting the muscle memory buried deep in his bones to recapture
the rhythm and form of either of his decent periods, or create a hybrid
that combines the best elements of each. I could also help over the
long haul, developing a sound, rhythmic, repeatable and low-maintenance
routine that will enable him to shoot 65-to-75 percent in his twilight
Phil Jackson, in his book The Last Season (pp 205-06), drops my name and
mentions a small portion of the advice I passed to Mitch Kupchak who
passed to Phil who passed to Shaq, which may have played a role in Shaq
pulling out of a prolonged 30-percent slump that had lasted into the
first round of the 2004 playoffs. After my advice arrived (covering,
among other things, how to recapture the proper sequence and timing of
his .622 delivery), Shaq began to look a tad better, though his release
was still a mess and his uncomfortable release point added to the degree
of difficulty. He shot 22 for 42 for the remainder of the Spurs series,
and 48 percent overall (Game 3 of the Spurs series through the Finals).
To be sure, 48 percent stinks to high heaven. Still, it's a big help to
a team when a guy who lives at the line goes from 30 to 48 percent -
about two points per game that postseason.
Other flaws I mentioned went unaddressed, including a doozy I spotted
early in the 2004 Western finals faceoff with the T-Wolves: the ball
sliding in Shaq's shooting hand. I alerted Kupchak who passed the tip
along, presumably to Jackson, but no correction was attempted.
That glaring flaw plagues Shaq to this day. Who knows, maybe Miami's
"excellent" staff considers Shaq's sliding-ball trick a key to FT
excellence and thus have encouraged him to retain it. All sarcasm
aside, this would seem to be easy to correct - but only if someone
brings it to Shaq's attention and helps him make the necessary
adjustments so he can join the rest of the b-ball universe of players
who, for some strange reason, prefer to shoot without the ball sliding
in their shooting hand.
Here are some of the pieces I've penned on Shaq at the stripe; the two
from 2004 mirror the advice I sent to Kupchak that spring:
- Why Shaq Can't Shoot (April 16, 2005)
- Shaq's free-throw odyssey (May 10, 2004)
It would be a shame if Riley's ego prevented him from getting help for
Shaq - help that could spell the difference between a loss in the
Eastern or NBA Finals and a Heat championship.
Dennis Hans's essays on basketball - including the styles, rhythms
and fundamentals of free-throw shooting - have appeared in the New York
Times, Slate and InsideHoops.com. His writings on other topics have
appeared in the Washington Post, Miami Herald, and at a host of online
outlets. Read more of his work at his weblog,
http://dennishans.blogspot.com, and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.