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If Shaq Had Been Perfect

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Much has been written in the wake of Shaquille O’Neal’s retirement from professional basketball this past week. Shaq retires as one of the most beloved and well-known basketball players of all time. He was, of course, also one of the most dominant, as any number of statistical measures attest. Among other things, Shaq was part of 4 NBA Championship teams, won 3 NBA Finals MVP, was named to the All-NBA First Team 14 times, and ended his career 5th on the NBA All-Time Career Scoring list. Shaq had a truly great career, deserving of respect and commemoration alongside those of the Hall of Fame centers he admired: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, and Wilt Chamberlain.

I share in this general feeling of admiration for Shaq’s accomplishments, both on and off the court, and for the sense of humor and genuine humanity with which he carried himself in the brightest of spotlights for so many years. It’s this very humanity of Shaq, despite his larger than life physical stature, accomplishments, and persona, that struck me as I listened to his 22 minute press conference. In particular, I was struck by the fact that Shaq is “very very upset with himself” and has regrets for not living up to his potential.

These regrets surfaced at several different points during the press conference always in relation to his free throw shooting. Despite the tongue in cheek quality of some of the comments, it’s clear that Shaq believes he could have been a better free throw shooter and regrets not having put forward his best effort in this area. During the press conference, Shaq mentioned his poor free throw shooting several times in relation to his disappointment at not having reached 30,000 career points, not having surpassed Wilt Chamberlain (who is above Shaq on the list with 31,419, about 3,000 more than Shaq), and not having reached the 2nd spot on the list, just behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

I was touched by these regrets. I think too much about my own brief basketball career and what I could’ve done differently, what I would’ve done differently given what I know now. And beyond this, I think about my own life at large and how retrospect furnishes me with a critical understanding of past decisions that I’d now make differently if I had them to do over again. So I was moved by the scene of this giant of a man -- beloved by millions, with great accomplishments in his field behind him, retiring from his profession a success, and poised to enjoy still a long life with many opportunities in front of him – nonetheless emphasizing, with perhaps a self-protective touch of self-deprecating humor, his regrets, his failure to live up to his potential.

I am no statistical whiz, but Shaq’s moving “what if’s” concerning his free throw shooting woes led me to crunch some numbers. My question was simple, what if Shaq had been a better free throw shooter, all other things being equal? What if he had made half the shots he’d missed? But also, what if he shot free throws as well as the scorers ahead of him on the list Kareem, Karl Malone, and Michael Jordan (Shaq’s career free throw percentage is better than Wilt’s)? What if Shaq had just shot as well as the NBA average? What if he shot for his career as well as he did in his best free throw shooting season? What would percentage would it have taken him to surpass 30,000 points? To surpass those ahead of him on the all time points list? And, just for fun, what if Shaq were the best free throw shooter of all time?
What if?

FT %
Additional pts from FTs
Total Points
Career Scoring Rank
Shaq’s Actual Career
Shaq’s single season best
Required for Shaq to reach 30,000 points
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Career FT %
Karl Malone’s Career FT %
2011 NBA Average FT %
If Shaq had made half the FT’s he missed
Required for Shaq to pass Wilt Chamberlain for 4th on All Time Scoring List
Michael Jordan Career FT %
Required for Shaq to pass Michael Jordan for 3rd on All Time Scoring list
If Shaq were the best FT shooter of all time
If Shaq were perfect
Required for Shaq to pass Karl Malone for 2nd on All Time Scoring List
Required for Shaq to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for 1st on All Time Scoring List

I don’t want to just restate these findings in narrative form. But I’d like to share what’s most striking to me. Look first at the bottom of the table.  Perhaps the most striking figure of all for me: If Shaq had been a perfect free throw shooter, hitting every one of his 11, 252 attempts, he would still only be third on the all time scoring list. In fact, he would still be over 3,000 points behind Karl Malone and 4,400 points behind Kareem. As the bottom two rows show, Shaq would have had to hit an implausible 127 % of his free throws to surpass Malone’s career scoring mark and an even more daunting 140 % of his free throws to have ended his career as the NBA’s all time leading scorer. That’s a tall order, even for Superman.

Toward the other end of the spectrum, I’m struck by how little an impact seemingly significant changes in his free throw percentage make to Shaq’s overall point totals and so to his standing on the all time scoring list and, in relation to that, to his assessment history is likely to make of his career. A 10 % spike in his career percentage (which would about match what he shot in his best season) would only net him an additional 1000 points or so and would still leave him short of the 30,000 mark. Shaq was right that if he’d made half of his misses, he’d have hit the 30,000 mark (and more), but he still would have been short of passing Wilt on the scoring list. Shaq would have had to improve his percentage by 25 % (which is to say by around half of what it was) just to pass Wilt Chamberlain by 1 point for 4th place on the list. Anything short of that, and Shaq stays in 5th place.

Shaq’s free throw shooting certainly always seemed a shame; a disappointment to his teams’ fans no doubt and a source of schadenfreude for fans of his opponents. To me, for whom free throw shooting was always the easiest part of the game, it seemed like an incomprehensible waste. After all, other big men have been good or at least decent free throw shooters. And judging from his retirement presser it seems to be something that bothers Shaq, at least to the degree that anything bothers him.

But looking at the numbers I wind up feeling a little differently about it. I feel like it doesn’t make much difference, that each free throw he missed wasn’t as consequential and significant as it seemed to me when he missed it. After all, if he’d shot a bit better it wouldn’t make much difference from the vantage point of all time scoring lists or how future fans might evaluate him. And, in order to really have achieved the sort of dominance that would set him completely apart even from the other all time greats, Shaq would have had to be perfect, or better.

And so perhaps there are lessons here for myself.  First, my mistakes may not seem so consequential down the road, from a more expansive point of view, as they did when I was closer to having just made them.  Second, it would have been impossible to really fulfill my own expectations because this would have required perfection or beyond.   And third,  that really only examining these regrets, sizing them up, weighing them in the balance sheet of various hypothetical alternatives in a clear way can release those first two lessons.  Perhaps entertaining my regrets with good humor I can coexist with them in such a way that I don’t spend my future trying to dodge the awareness that I am imperfect.  Maybe, like with Shaq's free throws, I can acknowledge that I haven't done some things I wish I had, that I have done some things I wish I hadn't, and that this is neither nothing, nor catastrophic, but rather just part of my being human, like Superman, like everyone.  And perhaps I can bear this perspective going forward, like Shaq, with a joke or an easy laugh.  Sometimes I can.


nwaber,  June 5, 2011 at 12:25 AM  

One important factor to consider in the "what if Shaq were a Nash-esque freethrow shooter?" question is the fact that he would not have had the opportunity to miss those 5000+ missed freethrows. If Shaq's freethrow percentage were significantly stronger than his fieldgoal percentage, hack-a-Shaq defense would not have been invented. It would have been a big defensive step backwards. I'm sure he still would have shot a hell of a lot of free throws, but his trips to the stripe would have been far less frequent. It may be the blurry and apocryphal lenses of hindsight, but I seem to remember teams in the late 90's packing the roster with spare bigs just to have an extra 6 fouls to throw at Shaq late in the game.

That said, my proposed inverse relationship between Shaq's freethrow prowess and his trips to the line may also be flawed. Clearly, Karl Malone was no slouch at the stripe, and he took close to 2000 more shots there than Shaq. How much of this is due to the perfection of the Malone/Stockton pick and roll is unclear. I can only imagine the consternation of a point guard getting stuck switching off onto Malone, and having to stop him on his way to the rim. And defenses couldn't really cheat much on that play. After all, the threat of Shaq dropping a 16 footer off a neglected p/r switch was pretty low, but Malone could punish a lazy defense with his midrange jump shot.

Perhaps most telling about Shaq's regrets, however, are the issues surrounding why he regrets missing his FTs. Only #5 on the scoring list? Boohoo. His name doesn't even appear on the wikipedia article on NBA players with the most rings. It would be interesting to compare on a game-by-game basis, Shaq's freethrow misses and the margins of victory for successful playoff opponents. For example, in the 95 finals vs.Houston (4-0 sweep for the Rockets), two of the four games were decided by 3 and 2 points, respectively. I'll bet Shaq missed more than 5 freethrows over the course of those two games. There's another ring. How about those seasons where the Lakers got bounced by the Spurs? LA could have had a 5-peat! Kids, practice your free throw shooting! Those were costly misses.

Benjamin June 5, 2011 at 3:42 AM  

It's interesting to try on the varying lenses through which we view sport and sporting achievements, though the (arguably) more interesting exercise is to sieve these (partly) subjective findings through a series of similarly rendered lenses (two athletes, their remembrances related to their sporting achievements, the ways in which they believed or wished they could or should have improved) and juxtaposing these, searching out coterminous points of agreement, much the same as you've done (at least in part) here.

I played my share of playground ball and always lamented my inability to consistently go left. In light of some of my other real-world achievements, this seems a niggardly and nonsensical construction, but I can't help but wonder what might have been had I the drive and determination necessary to have worked on this aspect of my game. I've no idea how dramatically this would or wouldn't have changed my life, my playground winning percentage or my aggregate game, but there it is. And so it goes.

Shaq, for all his failings, was quite a specimen. I got the sense he never took his talent as seriously as the viewing audience, concerned as we were with the historical import of his brand of talent and ability. He seemed to slough off our expectations; indeed, to succeed despite their weight. Watching a seven-footer bring the ball up on the break and cross a less agile and sure-footed center up like a guard, whoa nelly. This was the stuff of dreams.

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