Einstein and MacGyver Fix the NBA Tanking Problem

Back in September 2011, I published two articles aimed at solving the NBA’s contract dispute with the NBPA (the players’ union). I called them “Einstein and MacGyver Fix the NBA Lockout” (parts I and II).  Einstein’s the genius who said (roughly) “the thinking that got us to where we are today is not the thinking that will get us to where we want to be tomorrow.”   MacGyver is well-known to millions of TV viewers as the secret agent who could create solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems using duct tape, a Swiss Army knife, and whatever else happened to be lying around.  They had some pretty good takes on how to end the lockout, some of which would still make basketball better today.  If it’s possible to fix the NBA’s tanking problem (and it is), these two are the ones to do it.

What is Tanking?

This is when a team feels they need to rebuild using the draft and then build their team in such a way as to ensure losing a lot of games. They do this because the best way to get a great pick in the NBA Draft is to have a lot of ping pong balls in the annual NBA Draft Lottery.  And the only way to get more ping pong balls is to lose more games than other teams.  The team that loses the most games has the greatest chance of winning the lottery, although, oddly enough, they rarely do.  No one thinks players are missing shots intentionally in order to lose games.  But if the team has average players and no stars, the chances that they’re going to win are minimized.  A “draft lottery reform” proposal set to be voted on by the NBA Board of Governors late this week is supposed to make it a little less attractive to be terrible but it’s certainly not enough to dissuade teams from doing their worst when they think it’s in their best interest.

Do Teams Really Tank?

Not according to the NBA League Office as late as a few years ago. But after Sam Hinkie’s “the Process” in Philadelphia, even NBA executives now admit what everyone else has been saying for a long time: teams intentionally lose to improve their odds in the lottery.

Problems vs. Symptoms

Tanking is not just a problem. It’s a symptom of a bigger problem.  We often focus on fixing symptoms because those are what gets our attention.  A trip to the cold and flu section of your local pharmacy will provide proof of that.  But fixing the symptom doesn’t fix the underlying problem.  And the proposed lottery reforms that will be voted on later this week don’t fix the underlying problem, either.

What is the bigger underlying problem that tanking is a symptom of? Easy.  That actual problem is that the only way to get more ping pong balls in the NBA lottery is to lose more games.  The worse you are, the greater your chances of winning.  And that, in today’s NBA, is wrong, wrong, wrong.  It teaches players to lose, causes financial damage throughout the league, and provides a bad example to young fans.

If a restaurant isn’t making enough money, would you recommend that they start selling dog food instead of high-quality steaks for a few years until they decide to sell high-quality steaks again and regain their competitiveness and their customers? Of course not.  But that, in effect, is what getting more ping pong balls if the quality of the team is lower promotes.

If a student gets a lot of Fs on tests but gets a couple of As at the end of the year, would you reward them for the Fs and then punish them for the As? Of course not.  But that, in effect, is what happened to Derek Fisher at the end of the 2014-2015 season when winning a couple of games cost the Knicks last place as the Timberwolves ended up with the worst record and the most ping pong balls.  Coincidentally, Jeff Hornacek’s 2016-2017 Knicks won their last game, sending them into a tie with (you guessed it) the Timberwolves for the 6th worst record.  As was inevitable for the Knicks, the T-Wolves won the coin toss and “earned” the better pick in the draft than the Knicks received.

Should We Do Away With the Lottery?

No. The lottery concept, which came about after a lot of experimenting, is fine.  As Winston Churchill is reported to have said in 1947 “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”  Likewise, the lottery is better than what came before it and better than any of the alternatives that I’ve seen promoted to date.

How Do We Fix the Problem?

Here’s where Einstein and MacGyver are at their very best. If, as Einstein said, the thinking that got us to where we are today isn’t the thinking that will get us to where we want to be tomorrow, can new thinking help us change the lottery in such a way to make it work better for everyone and eliminate teams losing – and losing big – to win more ping pong balls?  The answer is “yes”.

How do we fix it? Here’s where MacGyver comes in.  Unlike when the lottery was established over 25 years ago, we now have Advanced Analytics lying around.  MacGyver loves to use what’s lying around to solve problems, so here goes:

The way to fix the lottery process and stop teams from tanking is to give out ping pong balls for playing well, not for playing badly.

How Would That Work?

Using a number of advanced analytics formulas, it would be possible to determine how one team’s players should do against another team’s players in a particular game. Let’s say that the “tanking” team (I’m using the term here to identify who needs the lottery pick) is expected to be a 15-point underdog to one of the Conference leaders.  But the final score either shows the tanking team winning, losing by 5, losing by 10, losing by 15, or losing by 20 or more.  What would happen?

If the tanking team was projected to lose by 15 and then loses by 15(ish), they get no more ping pong balls but don’t lose any, either. If they actually win the game, maybe they get 5 ping pong balls.  Losing by 5 instead of 15 might get them 2 ping pong balls and losing by 10 instead of 15 gets 1 them ping pong ball.  Maybe we take a ping pong ball away from them if they lose by 20 or more in this example.

We therefore reward play that is better than expected and penalize play that is worse than expected. There is no incentive to play badly.  In fact, there is a deterrent.  But play better than expected and the team will be rewarded for it.  It’s not just about winning and losing (and losing big) anymore.  “Good job, good effort” will actually win ping pong balls.  Ping pong balls would be awarded on a game-by-game basis and could be awarded to all teams throughout the season, not just those who aren’t in the top half of the league.  Non-tanking teams that aren’t eligible for the lottery might use those earned ping pong balls to help determine their seeding for the NBA Draft, as well.

Could a Tanking Team Make the Playoffs?

You bet. They’d probably pick up a whole bunch of extra ping pong balls along the way.  And if they’d been identified as a “tanking” team at the beginning of the season, they could not only be in the playoffs but be in the draft lottery as well.

Would There Be Any Checks and Balances?

Absolutely. One thought that Einstein passed along was to create a game simulation program and feed in all the stats based on how the players have played so far that season and then re-run the simulation multiple times after the game using actual time played and who different personnel played against.  This would not only provide more accuracy but would be interesting for the fans, as well.

Running the simulation multiple times (and averaging out the results) while reflecting exactly what happened in the game (players, opponents, and minutes) would also eliminate the possibility that a star player is listed as unavailable before the game so the expectation is that the team will lose big and then ends up playing and earning the team more ping pong balls by beating the line.

Can We Start Awarding Ping Pong Balls for Good Play This Season?

Probably not. We need to define what constitutes a “tanking” team (as well as coming up with a better name for them than “the tanking teams”).  We need to decide if tanking teams are just those who announce they are tanking or if being rated below a certain metric automatically makes a team a tanking team.   The NBA needs to keep the level of play up across the league, even when a team doesn’t realize they’re not looking so good.

We might be able to use what Las Vegas uses to determine point spread but we still need to identify which of the advanced analytics measurements make sense to utilize for this process and maybe develop some new analytics measurements, as well. We need to write and test the game simulation modules.  We need to agree on what different levels of good play will earn for a team and what different levels of bad play will cost them.  We need to find – and plug – the loopholes in this system so that teams have no incentives to keep their better players off the court (whether to earn more ping pong balls or to help the other team earn more ping pong balls) and have no incentives to play their best players too many minutes.

We want teams to play as well as they can for each of their 82 regular season games and still give them a chance to rebuild when they need to.  This is the way to do it.

Getting Started

The best way to get started on this is to create a working group to develop the solution. I’m guessing that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver would head it up.  We’d want input from NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts as well as from NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum, Executive VP of Basketball Operations Kiki VanDeWeghe, and Senior VP of Basketball Strategy and Analytics Evan Wasch.

We’d also want a couple of analytics-heavy GMs like Daryl Morey and John Hollinger to weigh in.  We’d certainly want Dean Oliver to participate and I’d suggest Andre Alvarez, as well (Dre did an analysis of my NBA work and I know him to be someone who is great at finding holes in someone’s arguments and proposing ways to fill in those holes).  Maybe Daryl can recruit a team from Sloan to help with the modeling and simulation.

I know the NBA is sponsoring a Hack-a-Thon and maybe some of the participants will have some ideas.

From the media, ESPN’s Kevin Pelton has a great grasp of analytics and already uses them to predict wins and losses over a season.  FiveThirtyEight’s Chris Herring would be a good addition to the team, too.  Of course, there are other analytics experts, as well as top thinkers in other categories, that we might want to add to the working group.

Einstein and MacGyver are, unfortunately, unavailable but have suggested that I add my name to the list of those who should be in the working group.  I’m a long time IT guy who specializes in problem-solving, has developed two unique programs that have succeeded at the NBA level, and have written game simulations.  On a group of intellectual heavies like the ones I’m proposing, I can at least be the guy who goes out for coffee.

Once the team is assembled, we’d start by defining the objective and the known issues that have to be addressed for this solution to be a success. Our goal would be to have a working model ready early enough so it can be presented to the NBA’s Competition Committee in enough time to be implemented for the 2018-2019 season.

What Are Your Thoughts?

This is a great blog for you to throw in your two cents in the Comments section. Let’s hear the ideas before we attempt to implement the solution, not afterward when people normally ask “why didn’t you think of this?”.  Eliminating tanking is important to the NBA, the players, the coaches, teams, and fans.  Let’s reward winning and effort and stop rewarding losing and pathetic play.  Let’s do this right!

Thanks!

To Einstein and MacGyver for once again being so inspirational. And to you for taking the time to read this.

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Proof that Mental Performance is Vital to NBA Success

During the 1998-1999 and 1999-2000 NBA seasons, I worked with Allan Houston of the New York Knicks, first to break him out of a long shooting slump (1 regular season game  session in ’98-’99) and then to help him become a first-time NBA All-Star (30 regular season game sessions in ’99-’00).

The #Analytics movement in basketball was still years away, but I kept track of game-by-game results to provide as much quantifiable evidence that my “mental zone” program could greatly improve game performance on a night-by-night basis.

I recently approached Andres Alvarez (@NerdNumbers) of BoxScoreGeeks.com and asked him to crunch the numbers using statistical categories in frequent use today but unavailable way back when .  Dre posted his results this morning.  It’s definitely worth a read to see what can be done to greatly improve performance without PEDs.

Spoiler alert: every time Allan played a game on my program, there was a 40+% chance that the game would rank as one of the Top 100 regular season games of his 839 game NBA career.

Time to Retire the Granny Free Throw

Time to Retire the “Granny” Free Throw

(originally published at the late, great Hickory-High.com in August, 2013)

It’s seems like it’s free throw week here at Hickory-High.com.  Ian Levy and I discussed them as part of his inaugural podcast that he released this past Monday.  On Wednesday, Ian posted an article I’d written (with substantial input from him) which presented ideas on the controversial and suddenly hot topic of eliminating free throws from the game.  In it, reasons for NOT eliminating them were presented, as well as an idea that would help to speed up the process without hurting shooters’ chances for making the shot.

Before the “eliminate free throw” controversy got hot, however, Ian and I had discussed Ethan Sherwood Strauss’ open letter to the Detroit Pistons’ Andre Drummond  posted on ESPN.com last Friday.  In it, Ethan implored Drummond, a very poor free throw shooter, to adopt the “granny” method for shooting free throws.  This underhand method was used with great success by NBA sharpshooter Rick Barry during his illustrious career.  Barry is often interviewed about it and suggests it as an alternative for many chronically-bad free throw shooters.

Drummond is already on record, in response to Strauss’ letter, stating that he won’t shoot free throws underhand.  I believe that’s a wise decision for him.  For reasons that I’ll list below, I’m suggesting that the idea of shooting the “granny” be retired for good, at least as a suggested solution to chronically-bad free throw shooting.

Here’s an example of NBA All-Stars Rick Barry and Jamaal Wilkes shooting free throws in a video hosted by the great Boston Celtics Head Coach Red Auerbach. One big thing here is what both Barry and Auerbach say at the end: use what works for you.  Another big thing is that Barry demonstrates how to shoot the underhand free throw.  All this actually helps me make my case.

A major reason that people push the “granny” is that Rick Barry was so successful with it. This is actually a great qualitative reason not to use it.  The fact that Barry, one of the greatest shooters in NBA history, could hit a particular type of shot is not news.  We’d be hard pressed to think of a particular type of shot that he couldn’t hit and hit at a high percentage.  As we’ll see below, the “granny” is a much more difficult shot to execute than a typical free throw.  It was an easy shot for Rick Barry because, well, he’s Rick Barry.  He was named as one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history.  100 years from now, he’ll still be one of the greatest shooters to have ever played the game.  His shooting ‘touch’ was incredible.  So there’s no “if Rick Barry could hit it, anyone can hit it” argument to be made.

Why is the “granny” a harder shot to hit than a traditional free throw? Mainly because there are 4 pairs of opposing body parts that must stay in sync with each other throughout the entire shot or the shot will be off.  They are the left and right legs, the left and right arms, the left and right wrists, and the left and right hands.  Not only does the entire body have to flow – as it also does in a successful one-handed set shot free throw – but the left and right sides have to work in parallel as well.

As you can see in the video, Barry’s body is centered on the basket with his feet an equal distance to the right and left of the “dot” that is put in the middle of the free throw line with a nail. This puts his head, and the ball, directly in line with the basket at 90 degrees from the backboard.  He bends his knees and then begins moving upward.  His arms, fully extended with his hands below his waist, begin to move upward.  As they approach full extension above his head at about 45 degrees from his torso, he cocks his wrists and, as he hits full extension, releases the ball from both hands with a lot of backspin.

Barry did this to perfection, time and time again. But what would have happened if either of his legs pushed up harder or faster than the other?  His body would have gone off to the opposite side of the faster/stronger leg and that momentum would have been imparted to the ball.  What would have happened if one of his arms moved faster than the other?  Not only would the ball most likely have headed in the opposite direction from the faster arm, this would have begun to impart some side spin on the ball, as well.

Let’s say Barry’s legs and arms worked in parallel (and, for him, they did). What if one of his wrists cocked back more than the other?  What if one of them moved forward faster than the other?  Or imparted more of a backspin than the other?  What if one of his hands released the ball a fraction of a second earlier than the other?  You guessed it: the ball would have moved off toward the opposite side with some side spin imparted.

As we look at the shot in three-dimensions, we can notice that the term “it’s not rocket science” does not apply. To some degree, it is.  And, like launching a probe to land on the moon, exactly where any incorrect angles are encountered has a big impact on the success of the launch and the ability to eventually land the probe on the moon.  Be perfect until it’s almost to the moon and then be off by a few degrees and it would miss the moon by a few hundred miles – possibly a small enough amount to save the mission with a last-second fuel burn (or, in our free throw example, a fortunate bounce).  Be off by those same few degrees as the launch begins and the probe would miss the moon by thousands of miles.  Be on track for the entire mission, as Barry often was, and the probe lands safely on target and the basketball nestles softly in the net.

Today’s player isn’t used to making the type of motion that Barry demonstrated so easily, so there’s no existing muscle memory that can be tapped into. Almost every shot that today’s player takes is based on a dominant hand and a support hand.  If you’ve ever seen a jump shooter leave his support hand on the ball too long, you’ve seen exactly the kind of side spin I’m talking about.  Do this to the probe and it goes spinning out of control (see ‘Space: 1999’ on IMDB for a similar example.  It was the premise for the entire series.)

Today’s typical set shot free throw requires leg, arm, hand and wrist coordination, too. But, except for the two legs, it’s just one arm, one wrist, one hand.  There’s no coordination between opposing sides.  Assuming the player gets his support hand off the ball prior to the release, it’s just a matter of getting his strong side appendages to work in sync.

Many of today’s players are substantially stronger and more coordinated when they shoot with their dominant hand than with their other hand. The idea that, while trying to coordinate both sides, one side might move faster or stronger – or weaker or slower – is easily in the realm of probability.  It’s the rule, not the exception to the rule.  And even if a player learns how to coordinate both sides shooting the “granny” while healthy, what happens when he plays with an injury to his non-jump shooting arm or his non-dominant leg?  The injury itself could easily cause enough damage to the coordination and fluidity to throw off the shot significantly.  The impact of a non-dominant-side injury to a one-handed set shot?  Potentially none at all.

As Ian and I discussed in the podcast, fixing terrible free throw shooting is a lot easier than most people realize. As we also discussed, many of the techniques I’ve used successfully with my clients have involved changing their pre-shot routines or shot itself to make it more like what THEY do elsewhere on the floor and less like forcing them into the “perfect L” that’s described in many books on free throw shooting.  Remember what Auerbach and Barry said: “use what works for you”.  Unless someone has grown up with the “granny” shot, trying to change them to it because they’re missing when they shoot a set shot adds a level of complexity that isn’t really needed, won’t easily be adapted to, and is nothing like what they shoot the other 80% of the time on the floor.

In the video, Red Auerbach pointed out that “forty years ago”, everyone shot free throws by using the “granny”. But his video was probably shot in the mid-1970s.  So that means they shot them that way during the 1930s.  While the free throw hasn’t evolved at the same pace as the field goal – everyone would be shooting one-handed jump shots from the free throw line if it had – it’s evolved well beyond what was comfortable for players to shoot eighty years ago.  And, let’s face it, if everyone had shot free throws in the 1930s as well as Barry shot them in the 1970s, I wouldn’t be writing this article.  Everyone would have been shooting the “granny” for decades.

To date, the only person other than Barry whom I’ve seen shoot the “granny” was Ollie in ‘Hoosiers’.  It was an inspirational moment and one not likely to ever be duplicated – at least with that style of shot – by anyone playing the game today or in the future.  It’s time to give “granny” a rest.

It’s Time for a Kinder, Gentler Hack-a-Shaq

Although there are many arguments on both sides of the “should Hack-a-Shaq be allowed in the NBA?” question, currently it is the law of the land. Regardless of which side of that argument you’re on, all of us (okay, most of us) don’t want to see a player get injured because someone tried to put him on the free throw line.  Shaquille O’Neal, the inspiration for the term “Hack-a-Shaq”, had his thumb broken when he was intentionally fouled while playing for the Orlando Magic.  So the idea that a bad free throw shooter can get injured and miss games being intentionally fouled is based on history.

A simple rule change in one situation can help to avoid injury to a player being targeted because of being FT%-challenged (how’s that for PC?). It could actually be implemented immediately.  And if the NBA doesn’t do it now, they’ll end up doing it after a player gets seriously injured and his insurance company comes calling to the Association asking why they should pay for the injured player’s salary when the injury was caused by a bad rule and could easily have been prevented with some common sense.  Maybe the insurance company will try to recover money by suing the player who caused the injury.  Maybe they’ll sue his team.  If you don’t think that could happen at some point, you need to read more about insurance companies.

On Christmas Day, Cleveland’s Matthew Dellavedova was instructed to intentionally foul Golden State’s Andre Iguodala as the Cavs tried to make a last minute run to come from behind at the end of regulation.  The way Dellavedova fouled Iguodala, jumping on his back as soon as LeBron James released his free throw, was legal according to the current rules.  As you can see in the video, it was also very dangerous.

AI is listed at 6’6” and 207 pounds while Dellavedova is listed at 6’4” and 198 pounds.  We’re lucky that Iguodala isn’t being treated for a separated shoulder or a back injury.  AI had almost 200 pounds of shorter player land on his back and shoulder while he was jumping up and both gravity and Dellavedova were pulling him down.  If, instead, the Cavs tried to do that to Andrew Bogut, who has a history of injuries and was recently dealing with back spasms, we’d be very lucky if this very legal tactic didn’t cause a significant injury to the Warriors’ center.

And it’s not all fun and games for the guy doing the fouling. Dellavedova could have fallen off AI (or been thrown off) and gotten hurt after landing on the hardwood floor after more than a 6-foot drop.  The potential for injury to both players on this type of play is significant.

This isn’t the only time this type of mugging has occurred in 2015. As Jeff Van Gundy said in the video, J.J. Redick did it earlier this season.  And in last year’s playoffs, Chris Paul tried to mount Dwight Howard after a missed Clipper free throw in what I thought was the launch of “NBA After Dark”.

Intentionally fouling off a free throw is currently dangerous. Since big men tend to be the favorite targets for Hack-a-Shaq, you’ve got a player close to the backboard looking to rebound from a standstill, he’s going to be jumping, and he’s looking at the rim, not the person who intends to foul him.  Unlike the Hack-a-Shaq tactics of fouling away from the ball with the clock running (where the defender tends to just wrap his arms around the designated Shaq) or when the bad free throw shooter is trying to score a field goal (where he knows he’s a target, can prepare for it, and is protected by flagrant foul rules), intentionally fouling after a missed free throw puts the player being fouled at a greater risk for injury.

What can be done? Since Hack-a-Shaq is a strategy or a tactic (depending on your definitions) and coaches are responsible for coming up with strategies and tactics, let’s have the coach who wants to have the player fouled tell the referee that he intends to have designated fouler so-and-so foul designated Hack-a-Shaqee so-and-so if the free throw is missed.  Then, the following happens:

  1. The shooter hits the free throw and play resumes as normal. If the coach wants to employ Hack-a-Shaq, the much safer “wrap your arms around him” tactic can be used once the ball has been inbounded.
  2. The shooter misses the free throw and the defensive team comes down with the rebound. At that point, the ref blows the whistle and calls a foul on the designated fouler, who should have been lined up right next to the designated Hack-a-Shaqee prior to the free throw being released. The designated fouler would not have actually fouled the designated Hack-a-Shaqee but, since the coach had already told the ref who would be doing the fouling, the foul would be assessed appropriately.
  3. The shooter misses the free throw and the offensive team retains possession. At that point, the game continues and no Hack-a-Shaq foul is called.

We see coaches tell refs their strategies and tactics in other sports and other situations. Many times, a coach will tell a ref that if thus-and-such happens, he plans to call time out.  This eliminates the potential for the clock to wind down because the ref doesn’t hear the coach screaming for a timeout at the end of a play.

Making this minor rule change will help to protect the NBA’s players from injury while they keep trying to become better free throw shooters. And since this type of dangerous fouling only happens when the clock is stopped and a team is lining up for a free throw, it’s entirely in the ref’s control.  That means that the NBA can make the rule change now.

Let’s make this a kinder, gentler Hack-a-Shaq, before someone gets seriously hurt.

Cavs’ Dellevedova Needs to Keep Up With the (Caffeine) Joneses

Cavalier’s guard Matthew Dellevedova, who’s made a name for himself during this year’s NBA playoffs based on his hustle and intangibles, needs to go back to the future before Tuesday night’s NBA Finals game 6 in Cleveland.  What he’s got to go back to is his ritual of drinking coffee before a game.  Although he stopped taking it for a good reason, in fixing one problem (dehydration) by giving up coffee (a diuretic), a couple of additional problems have been introduced, problems that Delle and the Cavs can’t afford to deal with if they want to win game 6 and go back to Oakland for a game 7 against the Golden State Warriors.

Delle had to be taken to the hospital after game 3.  He had severe cramps and was so dehydrated that he needed to be put on an IV.  As I, along with many others, learned before game 4, Delle has a ritual of drinking coffee before the game but didn’t drink it before game 4 or 5 to avoid getting dehydrated again (diuretics cause the body to eliminate water).  His combined shooting in those two games was 5-for-23 (22%) from the floor and 3-for-14 (21%) from behind the 3-point line.

There are both mental and physical problems with eliminating coffee as a pre-game ritual.  From the mental standpoint, if an athlete has a pre-performance ritual and believes that it’s important, it is.  Look at the example of a baseball player who believes he has a pair of lucky socks that help him hit well (this is not farfetched if you’ve watched baseball over the years).  One day, the player forgets to bring those socks.  He’s at the plate against a pitcher who throws a 95 mile per hour fastball and, instead of being totally focused on the pitch, a part of his brain is focusing on the fact that he’s not wearing the lucky socks.  How do you think he’s going to do at the plate?

So even if Delle’s ritual was just about lucky socks, it’d be important for him to either continue with the ritual or work with someone like me to change his belief that the socks were lucky and an important part of his success.  As a general rule, never take something away without first replacing its benefit.  In the case of a general ritual, that belief that the ritual contributes to the athlete’s success must be replaced with some other belief that will allow the athlete to succeed at the high level.

However, Delle’s ritual isn’t about socks, it’s about caffeine.  Caffeine is known it improve mental focus.  It’s known for elevating blood sugar, which increases energy.  And Delle is getting big minutes in the NBA playoffs because he’s an effort player.  He needs all the energy he can muster to play the minutes that he’s playing and to try to limit Steph Curry’s offense.  The latter isn’t something that has been done with great success on a consistent basis this season but Delle has done a nice job on him at times during the series.

In game 5, Delle looked a half-step slow to me.  He didn’t play at the speed he often plays at; walked at times when he would normal run full out; and he kept an additional step back on defense so he wouldn’t get beaten to the basket.  Give Curry an extra foot of space to get off his shot and you can expect him to go for the 37 points (57%) he went for in leading GSW to the game 5 win.

If Delle needs to drink additional water before and during the game, so be it.  But changing a ritual mid-Finals is not a good idea and changing it by eliminating a brain/body stimulant is worse.  The NBA is a level of sports where tenths, or sometimes hundredths, of a second is the difference between a play being successful and being a failure.  Delle needs to be at his hustling best in game 6 if the Cavs are going to win.  Going back to his pre-game coffee ritual will help him do just that.

My @WojYahooNBA Moment Shows NBA Free Throw Shooting Can Be Fixed

Before Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) became a nationally-known NBA writer with an uncanny ability to announce NBA Draft picks before the teams doing the picking announce them, he covered the New York Knicks as the beat writer for the Bergen Record.  Woj covered them during the ’98-’99 lockout season, the same season that I worked with Knicks’ backup center Chris Dudley on his free throw (FT) shooting.  Chris was notorious for his poor FT shooting and would be interviewed any time he made two in a row in a game.  So it’s no surprise that Chris made national news that season when, after we put in an adjustment the night I saw him miss two against the Bulls on national television, he had a made-FT streak that spanned four games, easily the best of his career.

At that time, “social media” meant having a drink with a reporter, so not many people saw Woj’s article.  I’m posting it below because, with some of the horrible free throw shooting seen in the NBA over the past few seasons, it’s time to get it fixed.

In addition to being able to tell that it was the first time I was ever interviewed (yikes!), you can see what is actually possible as far as fixing bad free throw shooting.  There’s no reason that anyone in the NBA has to shoot less than 70% from the free throw line.  But I can guarantee that if people try to fix it with the same methods that have failed for the past four decades, it’s not going to get any better.  This article, as well as my FT quotes page, shows that I know what I’m talking about.

Thanks to Woj for writing it and thanks to Chris Dudley for being a great client and for the great thing he said to then-mega agent David Falk about me that’s at the end of the article.

Here’s that “Vintage Woj” article from the Bergen Record (no longer on their site, so I can’t just link to it):

EWING FILL-IN HAS PROVEN HE’S NO DUD

June 5, 1999 Section: SPORTS Edition: All Editions Page: S1 The Record ADRIAN WOJNAROWSKI

Chris Dudley was a success story, a fourth-round pick out of the Ivy League, turned over time into a millionaire center. Long ago, this truth was lost in the eyes of fools. They believed the lousy free-throw shooting made him a failure. As soon as he walked to the line for two shots, the anticipation of air balls and bruised backboards had everyone gearing for a good laugh. He was a “SportsCenter” staple, as clich’ed as the stock car crash and the snoozing fan in the stands.

Amazingly, Dudley never let people see his frustration. He just absorbed the humiliation and hustled back on defense, refusing to react to the taunts on his misses and mock cheers on his makes. Still, this sorry saga had to make him the most tortured soul on the floor.

Everyone’s favorite punching bag is expected to be in the starting lineup for the Knicks tonight, replacing Patrick Ewing in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. He’s a $28 million insurance policy on a Hall of Fame center, an investment paying remarkable dividends in the playoffs. Slowly, there’s a growing appreciation for him, an understanding Dudley doesn’t deserve to be showered with a stooge’s shame.

All along, he never has fit people’s picture of the stereotypical NBA player. He was the third generation of his family to graduate Yale, the grandson of Guilford Dudley, an ambassador to Denmark in the Nixon and Ford administrations. For a man of privilege, Dudley, 33, has stayed a champion of the underdog.

He has committed several hundred thousand dollars to guarantee a college education for a class of 76 fourth-graders in Portland, Ore. As long as the kids get the grades, Dudley funds the free ride. Using his own affliction with the disease as a source of inspiration, he runs a summer basketball camp for children with diabetes.

Despite his struggles with something as silly as shooting free throws, Dudley never let himself become the charity case. Just maybe, his good faith will soon be rewarded.

“I think a lot of comedy writers are going to be getting some work now, because people are going to have to find something else to laugh about it,” Art Rondeau said Friday, just after leaving the practice court at Purchase College with Dudley. Rondeau is a 43-year-old computer consultant out of San Diego who, until last summer when he connected with Dudley, had been searching for a lost cause free-throw shooter to validate the theories bouncing around his brain.

He had worked with a few college players over the years, turning a 59 percent shooter into the Western Athletic Conference free throw champion in 1999. Over time, Dudley has witnessed an endless parade of gurus promising to remedy his 46 percent career free-throw shooting – prescribing everything from underhand tosses to the occult.

One day, Rondeau chased him down at a La Jolla, Calif., health club, preached his philosophies of proper balance and release, and Dudley was so intrigued with the ideas, he was willing to work with this perfect stranger.

“He’s been good for me,” Dudley said. As always, he’s much more comfortable working on his free throw troubles than discussing them. After Dudley missed five of eight to start the season, Rondeau could see on television that Dudley was reverting to his old problems. He called him, shared his thoughts, and soon started the best run of Dudley’s NBA career.

Almost immediately, Dudley connected on nine consecutive free throws. It was a snail’s streak, strung together in mid-March across several games, but it was uncharted territory for Dudley.

“And then he fell on his hip against the Lakers, hurt his hip, and then had a 2-for-12 run,” Rondeau said. “Take that early streak, and the one when he was hurt out of the equation, he’s shooting almost 80 percent for the season.”

Run that explanation by Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy and listen to him laugh. His experience with searching for saviors usually has resulted in the finding of frauds. But, hey, Van Gundy is a Yale dropout, so he’s happy to let Dudley listen to Rondeau’s advice. If Dudley’s comfortable with a computer consultant, it’s all right with Van Gundy.

While understanding Dudley’s shooting percentage has improved little from a season ago – from 44 to 47 percent – Van Gundy agrees his center’s form and frame of mind has. “His shot definitely looks better,” he said. “You haven’t seen streaks of air balls like you used to see. When he does miss, it’s softer now.”

Dudley never has made it to the conference finals as a pro, and wouldn’t it be sweet justice for him to be the starting center in the NBA Finals? Every free throw he takes the rest of these playoffs figures to be the closest watched, most scrutinized of his life. For the first time, maybe Dudley isn’t so alone on the line anymore.

After Game 3 of the Atlanta series, Dudley and Rondeau were standing in the hallway outside the Knicks dressing room. Dudley had the best playoff game of his life, scoring 14 points, grabbing 12 rebounds, prompting super agent David Falk to call out to the hero of the day: “Hey, Chris, what’s happened to you?”

So, Dudley smiled and nodded over to Art Rondeau, saying: “It’s him.” As usual, Dudley was trying to be generous. Just maybe, the computer consultant is right that people will have to get a laugh at someone else’s expense now. Finally, they can rub the silliness out of their eyes and see the truth they were missing all along: Chris Dudley is nobody’s stooge.

Knicks Fans Need Hardboiled Attitude at MSG

The NY Knicks lost a tough game against the Utah Jazz on Friday night. It was a disappointing loss that dropped the team to 2-8 and extended their losing streak to 7 games. Although some media “pundits” are shouting down Head Coach Derek Fisher’s efforts to find some rays of light in the darkness that so much losing tends to create, Fisher is absolutely correct to be taking the approach he’s taking. I wrote about the Knicks needing to embrace this attitude during the playoffs a few seasons ago and I believe that they need to continue to embrace this attitude now. I’ll explain briefly why that is and then tell you how Knicks fans that will be at their 1 pm game against the Denver Nuggets at MSG today can actually help them win what would, under other conditions, be considered an easily winnable game.

Friday night, the Knicks came back a couple of times when they were far behind. Sure, fans would like to see them lead from the opening tip until the final buzzer but they’re not at that point in their “triangle” evolution right now (is that “triangulation”?). So coming back at all, never mind multiple times, is a very big deal. Only a game or two before, people were upset because the team seemed to be throwing in the towel when they got behind. So making it a game against the Jazz, and actually tying the score with under 3 seconds left, is definite progress.

On top of that, remember that they were without Amar’e Stoudemire by design and then without starter Iman Shumpert seconds into the game by accident. They could have mailed it in at that point. Instead they hung in; Melo played lights out; and Pablo Prigioni, a point guard who is “pass first” almost to a fault, scored 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting and hit two very big 3s and a huge “keep hustling until the play is over” layup along the way.

Right now, while the Knicks are learning a new system under a new coach, they are like babies who are learning to walk. How many of you have kids? How many of you WERE kids? When babies are learning to walk, they bump around a lot and when they finally stand up, they wobble like Weebles who WILL fall down. Yet we praise them, we encourage them, and then one day they’re motoring around on their own two feet. We don’t yell at them for the early mistakes. If we did, and if our parents did that to us, we’d have a society of people who slither because they never learned to walk (your lawyer joke goes here…).

Now, how can the fans at MSG help the team today? Don’t wait for the Knicks to do something that makes you cheer. Instead, cheer them early and you’ll soon find that they give you something to cheer about. Think of the team like an egg, MSG like the pan, and the fans like the water. If you put a raw egg into a pan of cold water, nothing happens. But if the water boils, the egg starts to cook. So, too, will the Knicks if you bring the Garden to a rolling boil early on.

Why do you pour cold water on an egg after you remove it from the boiling water? Because once it starts to cook, it’ll keep on cooking on its own. The cold water stops that. So, too, will booing if things aren’t going as well as you’d like.

I’ve kept track of the Knicks since working with Chris Dudley and Allan Houston and have seen many examples of how the Garden crowd can help them turn things around. Unfortunately, the crowd normally waits for something to cheer about. But when that “something” comes, the fans make a very real difference. During the ’00-’01 season (if memory serves), there was a game at the Garden where the Knicks were just stinking up the joint. Play was sloppy and the team was way behind. The Knicks threw up a garbage shot and the other team grabbed the rebound and started the fast break. But the guard dribbled the ball off his leg and it started going out of bounds. Allan tripped trying to get to the ball and slid about 10 feet but managed to grab it and while staying inbounds. While sitting on the floor, Allan saw Larry Johnson all by himself under the Knicks’ basket and threw a bounce pass (one that bounced a few times, actually) to LJ. The crowd was already cheering Allan’s “seat of his pants” save and then went wild as LJ stuffed the ball home. The Knicks started to play like a team inspired, the crowd stayed with them, and the Knicks ultimately pulled out the win.

This whole “cheering” first idea gets into “vibrational energy”. Trust me, Phil Jackson knows about this. So do Kevin Love’s Uncle Mike and his cousins (the Beach Boys). They released their Good Vibrations album in 1967. Almost 50 years later, Knicks fans need to release their own “good vibrations” today at the Garden. We don’t need any Knicks players “hanging ten”, we just need them to play harmoniously, keep their energy high, and play their best basketball. Knicks fans have more to do with this than they may currently imagine.

Teams don’t turn things around easily when they’re not only learning new things but dealing with adversity. They need an assist. If you’ve got a ticket to today’s game, you have the right to sit back and wait for the Knicks to entertain you. But if you want to go home with that “we just won a game” feeling, you’ll cheer early and often and help hardboil the Knicks into victors.