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Why Shaq Can't Shoot

 


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/ Apr. 16, 2005

Shaquille O'Neal returned to action Thursday night and missed eight of 11 free-throw attempts in most every way imaginable. It was ugly even by his standard for this season, his worst ever (46 percent) at the stripe.

Shaq at the line is the perfect marriage of poor mechanics and no rhythm. And here's the rub: any schmo can develop good mechanics, and Shaq has as much rhythm and coordination as any center in the game. But he doesn't know how to infuse rhythm into his routine. He doesn't know how to coordinate his arms and legs in a synchronized delivery. He doesn't know how to identify and correct the glaring technical flaws in the mechanics of his stroke. If that weren't bad enough, he's stuck with an organization, the Miami Heat, that apparently doesn't employ a single soul who can help him with any of this.

If you watched Thursday night's Miami-Philadelphia game, you may have noticed a beefy Sixer who's nearly as big as Shaq. Backup center Marc Jackson doesn't have Shaq's reflexes, quickness, hops and footwork, which helps explain why he's a backup. But he does have a simple, rhythmic, repeatable and fundamentally sound free-throw delivery.

Jackson is shooting 82 percent at the line this season. The Sixers would not have scored an important overtime win over the Heat if Jackson had not gone 12 for 12.

Because of Jackson's sound mechanics - in particular, the relationship of the ball to his shooting hand when he initiates the forward part of his stroke - he is guaranteed to shoot a shot with backspin (as opposed to Shaq's sidespin) that, give or take a few inches, will go directly toward the intended target. Shaq, on the other hand, has no idea when or why his shot will veer dramatically left or right.

Jackson's fine distance control is mostly the product of his rhythmic, always-on-the-beat delivery. Shaq is not rhythmically challenged. In an interview last October, he boasted to CNN's Carlos Watson about his prowess on the dance floor and the rhythm advantage he has on the court over his lumbering NBA foes. As he spoke, file footage of Shaq as a young, award-winning breakdancer drove home the point.

The dance clip demonstrated Shaq's ability to take a natural gift - his rhythm - and work long and hard to turn it into art. He's done the same on the court, where his dazzling, lightning-quick footwork and an array of moves and countermoves (supplemented, alas, by a fair amount of illegal bulldozing that many refs let slide) have made him one of the greatest low-post scorers of all time. But the poor guy doesn't have a clue how to incorporate that sense of rhythm and timing into his free-throw delivery.

Some apologists for Shaq say he can't shoot because his hands are too big - as if he were the only guy in the NBA with big hands! Yao Ming, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Shawn Bradley are much taller than Shaq and presumably have hands just as big or bigger. All can shoot. Bradley's not much of a player, but he displayed his fine free-throw form Thursday night as Dallas defeated Portland. Big hands and long arms haven't prevented Bradley (and countless other big guys, including bangers) from developing a simple, compact and rhythmic stroke - despite his inability to compete with Shaq on the dance floor.

The deliveries of Jackson and Bradley are as different as night and day; free-throw shooting is very much an individualized thing. But despite their stylistic differences, they get the ball in a position at the top of their upswing that makes it very easy for them to deliver an accurate, properly rotating shot. Shaq gets into a position that makes it quite difficult. If this were the Olympics, Jackson and Bradley's strokes would be assigned a "degree of difficulty" of 1.2; Shaq's would be 8.3.

Early in the 2004 playoffs, I sent to Laker GM Mitch Kupchak my thoughts on how Shaq could iron out his rhythm, sequencing and mechanical flaws that had led to a month-long 30-percent stretch. Mitch passed the advice to Phil who passed it to Shaq, who apparently paid some heed to the stuff on sequencing, though not on mechanics. It coincided with modest improvement - from 30 percent to 50 - which helped the Lakers get by the Spurs and Timberwolves. (Phil mentions me and recounts a smidgen of the advice on pp. 205-06 of The Last Season. Some of the points I made appear in this May 2004 essay.

As the Lakers advanced deeper into the playoffs I followed up with additional analysis on the mechanical flaws that produce the sidespin and directional inconsistency, and just how incredibly easy it would be to fix those flaws. Kupchak again passed the advice on, but it was never applied.

The Heat have had the offseason, training camp, the exhibition season and the regular season to do something about Shaq's fixable flaws. One can only conclude that Pat Riley and the entire Heat staff - who undoubtedly are hard working, well meaning and, on most hoop topics, quite knowledgeable - simply don't have a clue what to do.

Will it cost the Heat the title? As a Kings and Suns fan, that's fine by me. Just the same, I'm always available to help a bricklayer in need.

Dennis Hans is an unlicensed shooting guru with hopes of making an instructional video called "Different Strokes for Different Folks: Finding the Free-Throw Rhythm and Form That's Right For You." He's taught basic ed to prisoners, mass comm and American foreign policy to collegians, and swing dancing to klutzy acquaintances. His essays have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and InsideHoops.com, among other outlets. He can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu.







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