In the final game of the regular season, Shaquille O'Neal converted all 13 of his free-throw attempts. That performance was the culmination of a 16-game stretch where Shaq drained 166 of 245 free throws, or 67.8 percent. On average, he stepped to the stripe 15 times per game and knocked down 10, which is exactly what he did in the first game of the playoffs—not bad for a career 53-percent free-throw shooter who had plummeted to 40 percent earlier this season.
Forty percent works out to 6 for 15, so Shaq and the Lakers are now, on average, four points per game better than they were early this season. (Not that they're four points better each and every game: Shaq went four-for-nine from the line in Game 2 against Portland. But he stepped up and made seven of 10 free throws in Game 3.)
Shaq owes that dramatic improvement to legendary Aussie Olympian sharpshooter and instructor Ed Palubinskas, who played for LSU, Shaq's alma mater, in the 1970s. Assuming the cure is permanent, this is a good time to assess the validity of the many explanations offered over the years by coaches, commentators, and Shaq himself to explain or rationalize the kryptonite that has plagued Superman for most of his nine pro seasons.
1. Shaq has a bad right wrist. A childhood injury limits his flexibility and prevents a crisp snap of the wrist à la Reggie Miller. But Shaq's wrist hasn't become any more flexible as his shooting has improved.
2. Shaq's huge hands are too big for the ball. It's like an average-size guy trying to shoot a softball. But there's no evidence Shaq's hands have shrunk in the weeks his free-throw percentage has skyrocketed. Big hands never prevented Dr. J, Arvydis Sabonis, Loren Woods, Bob Lanier, or Bill Laimbeer from nailing free throws. Artis Gilmore and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, giants who rarely fired a 15-footer from the field, managed to drain more than 70 percent of their attempts.
3. Shaq makes free throws in practice. Why can't he make them in games? Everyone shoots a higher percentage in practice: Karl Malone, a career 76-percent free-throw shooter, doesn't end his warm-up until he sinks 30 in a row. Yet in 16 seasons Malone has never sunk 30 straight in league competition. The percentage you shoot while spending a relaxed 20 minutes at the line as an assistant tosses you the ball is no indication of what you'll shoot in the game. If you run and bang for 15 minutes, then shoot two free throws, then repeat that running-banging-shooting process four times for a total of 10 attempts, you might get a better idea of what your game percentage will be.
4. Shaq doesn't practice enough in the off-season. He's too busy making movies and recording rap CDs. Wrong. Shaq practices plenty. How do you think he ingrained all those bad habits? The old bromide "practice makes perfect" is only true if it's perfect practice. The world is full of lousy golfers who whack hundreds of balls at the driving range each week and have nothing to show for their efforts but calluses.
5. "I make them when they count." If someone conducts a study, we'll likely discover that Shaq's crunch-time free-throw percentage is close to his career percentage. More to the point, free-throw attempts in the first quarter count. So, when the new-and-improved Shaq goes 5 for 7 in the first quarter, he contributes five points to the Laker cause—and all of them carry over to the fourth quarter and count toward the final score.
6. "I make them when I concentrate and miss them when I don't." Shaq says it, but I doubt he believes it. This explanation paints Shaq as mentally lazy and unprofessional, a slacker who frittered away thousands of points just so his brain could remain unstrained. Besides, it's the bricklayers, not the 90 percenters, who really bear down at the line. That's because the latter are good shooters with an easily repeatable routine and a fundamentally sound stroke. What's to think about? As for the bricklayer, the poor guy is reminding himself to keep his elbow in, bend his knees, follow through and, last but not least, relax! The reason he's thinking about all this stuff is that he's a lousy shooter with a flawed delivery. He lacks the muscle-memory perfection that brings the peace of mind that makes relaxation possible.
7. "Shaq will always be a work in progress at the line." This one comes from NBC commentator cum Washington Wizards coach Doug Collins. But in fact, for his first five seasons Shaq was a work in regress: He got steadily worse. Shaq entered the NBA with a personal shooting coach, Buzz Braman, and over the years he has worked with Magic Johnson, Dennis Scott (during the 2000 playoffs, when he shot a cool 39 percent in the championship series), and others. Shaq has always had a routine. He was never a fickle bricklayer who changed game to game or week to week. A few times in his career Shaq emerged with an overhauled delivery, and he'd give it a long-term trial. The problem is nothing worked.
8. Shaq will never improve until he learns to use his legs properlyand to release the ball in front of his head rather than behind it. The old Shaq initiated his stroke by straightening out his flexed knees while bringing the ball back into shooting position in the manner of a dart thrower. That would be fine for drilling a target, but it's ill-suited for lofting a ball into a 10-foot-high cylinder. The new Shaq brings the ball up into shooting position, maintaining a nice "L" alignment of upper arm and forearm, then initiates the stroke by bending his flexed knees downward four to six inches. As his knees unbend, his right hand follows through toward the target. He finally has an arc on his shot—many of his makes are now swishes.
The most recent all-star before Shaq to fix his release point was Chris Webber, who transformed a slow, decelerating free-throw stroke with a release point behind his head to a crisp, confident stroke with a release point in front of his head. The result was the greatest single-season improvement in NBA history—from 45 percent in 1998-99 to 75 percent in 1999-2000. This season, Webber shot 70 percent from the line.
As for Shaq, he still doesn't have the most graceful or rhythmic delivery on the planet. In effect, he does in two steps what most good shooters do in one. Virtually all good shooters have a synchronized, arms-come-up-as-knees-bend-down release. But the Palubinskas-Shaq method has produced a crisp, compact release that works.
Shaq's success has exposed a host of critics and rationalizers—including Shaq himself—as clueless. The guy has always had what it takes to be respectable from the charity stripe. He just needed the right instructor.