Friday, October 06, 2006

Shaq's Most Notable Stat Category

Let me preface this post by writing that I have great respect for the work of David Friedman at 20-Second Timeout and Henry Abbott at True Hoop, but they touched a nerve with these posts on Shaq’s poor free-throw shooting:

I understand why people fixate on his poor FT shooting - the common man can’t understand why such a seemingly superhuman athlete can’t master the one basketball skill that even the most schlubby non-athlete can execute. But I think it tends to underestimate Shaq’s standing as an all-time great player unfairly.

Shaq turned in what I consider to be the most physically dominating performances I have ever seen, in the Finals from 2000-02. I have never seen anyone more physically unguardable. No one. He’s a four-time champion, possibly one of top dozen players of all time, very good passer and teammate. Yet I feel like most people discuss what he can’t do – shoot FTs – more than the many things he has done.

More than that, I believe the FT fixation to be poor basketball analysis, as it is decidedly *not* his most notable and aberrant stat category. That would be his Field-Goal Percentage.

Last year, at age 33/34, he shot at even .600 from the floor, substantially higher than Eddy Curry at no. 2 (.563) and Tony Parker at no. 3 (.548). Even if you evaluate via Adjusted FG%, which gives an advantage to 3-pt shooters by basically crediting each 3 as 1.5 shots made, Shaq was *still* the league leader by .017 over Steve Nash (.600-.583), even though he didn’t make a single three all season!

In his heyday, the difference was even more pronounced.
In ’01-02, there was a difference of (.053) between Shaq (.579) and the next best shooter (Elton Brand, .527).
To explain just how big a gulf that is, going .053 down from Brand takes you to No. 31 on the list!

So Shaq has been a dominant field-goal shooter, leading the league eight of the last nine seasons (finishing 2nd the other time), and leading the no. 2 finisher by a margin of more than .030 six times. Why is this important? Because no statistic correlates with winning more closely than field-goal percentage!

In the great old “Basketball Scoreboard” annuals of stat analysis that STATS Inc. used to publish, in 1994-95, examined the “winningest stat categories” – namely, the winning percentage when one team had an advantage over the other in each stat category – for the previous three seasons (probably in need of an update given how 3-pt FG shooting has changed the game, but still…).

Here is what they came up with:

Higher FG% .788
More FGM .773
More AST .733
More REB .687
More FTM .656
More FTA .644
Higher FT% .556
More FGA .453

Not only does nothing compare to FG efficiency, and not only does the importance of FG% dwarf that of FT%, but look closely: even having More FTM and More FTA correlates decidedly more closely with winning than FT%. Forgetting FG%, just the fact that Shaq has drawn a lot of fouls (and presumably gotten other teams in foul trouble) is more important than the fact that he can’t make them!

All I’m saying is that, if there were a basketball equivalent of those stupid “Man Law” commercials, it would be that anytime someone complains about Shaq’s poor FT shooting, it should be duly noted as well that he is the most dominant field-goal shooter of the era, and that that is a much, much more important stat.


Deep breath. OK, I understand that part of the particular issue with Shaq was the fact that he was so dismissive of Rick Barry’s suggestion that he try underhanded FTs. I would say the following:

1) There’s no evidence that it would help him, and I don’t think it would. Wilt Chamberlain (.511 career FT) and Bill Russell (.561; Shaq is .528) both tried underhanded at different points in their career, to no avail.

2) I would imagine that part of the reason Shaq is extra-dismissive of the idea is simply because of how abrasive and utterly annoying Rick Barry is. Do you remember when Barry “coached” the guy who shot one of those million-dollar three-pointers at the Final Four? He stood like two inches behind the guy and barked instructions while the guy was trying to shoot. Does Rick want Shaq to improve or does he merely want to show the world how right Rick is?

Bottom line is that players have weaknesses, even great players (see: Chamberlain, Russell, above), and I just wish we could spend more time figuring out just how great a player Shaq has been – how high does he rank on the all-time list? were his Finals performances the most dominant displays of basketball ever seen? – rather than fixating on his one main flaw.

It's one of those things that cracks me up about the perception about how bad the NBA has supposedly been in the post-Jordan era when, in fact, we've been witness to one of the most uniquely dominant players in the history of the sport. As certain as I am that I will never again see a player as great as Michael Jordan, I am equally certain that I will never again see a player with the combination of power, size, agility and coordination that Shaq has had.


At 1:05 PM, Anonymous Henry Abbott said...

I hear you. Fair enough. I know what you're saying.

I suppose I take it for granted that we all know Shaquille O'Neal is the most dominant in-the-paint scorer of, well, a very long time. I also happen to really like the guy.

I'm not suggesting that Rick Barry could fix everything, or even anything. I'm saying that we have proof positive Shaq would sooner look macho then try everything possible to improve the weakest part of his game. That strikes me as wrong-headed and silly.

At 12:29 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I would just add that not only is Shaq unwilling to work on his weakest area but he completely disrespected Barry, a Hall of Famer and Top 50 Player, by saying, in essence, that Barry's resume is worthless. This goes right in line with the link I provided that discusses Shaq cussing out Tex Winter.

I realize that Shaq is a dominant player and I have written about that; I interviewed a number of players and coaches for my article comparing Wilt and Shaq. My article last year about whether or not Shaq is overpaid turned out to be quite prescient: I said that purely on the basis of his current production he's overpaid, but if he contributes to a title run then it is money well spent for the Heat.

I also realize that Wilt and Russell's free throw percentages were just about as bad as Shaq's. What I find interesting is that Shaq's comments regarding Barry and Winter are basically ignored by most media outlets, but if another player--call him "Kobe"--had said such things it would probably lead Sportscenter and be the basis for an Outside the Lines Special.

A final point: you neglected to mention that Wilt was at least as dominant during his era in the field goal percentage category as Shaq has been; Wilt also caught a lot more grief about his free throw shooting than Russell did for his, probably because Russell won 11 titles to Wilt's two.

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