Can’t anyone here make a free shot?


Nov 23

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When the Bulls were dominating the NBA in the 1990s and winning six championships, one of the rare flaws in their game was free throw shooting.

Routinely, especially during the first three championships, the Bulls’ free throw shooting was below the league average every season. Later, after Michael Jordan’s return, the free throw shooting improved some, though well below the best teams and more in the middle of the league.

Bulls managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf never considered himself a basketball savant, so he didn’t talk about the triangle offense or the defense angles when trapping. But he’d sometimes ask coach Phil Jackson about the free throw shooting. With all the talent, and all that practice, why weren’t they better?

Phil would smile that condescending smile that signals sort of a pat on the head, and then patiently explain to Reinsdorf it’s always what little guys who can’t play ask.

When they were kids, they couldn’t do much else to get into a game but shoot a free throw.

OK, but if you are the best basketball players in the world, how come you can’t make a free throw?

Perhaps Jackson figured it out, for as the Bulls play the Lakers in Los Angeles Tuesday, they’ll be facing perhaps without Taj Gibson who is day-to-day with a foot sprain a 12-2 Lakers team that shoots 81.6  percent from the free throw line, second best in the NBA. 

The Bulls? Well, they still stink. And way worse than when Jackson was coaching them.

Off to an excellent 7-4 start without Carlos Boozer, the Bulls shoot a woeful 69.5 percent from the free throw line, second poorest in the NBA to the Orlando Magic. And Orlando has an excuse with Dwight Howard, a notoriously poor free throw shooter.

Heck, even the Pistons with Ben Wallace shoot better from the free throw line than the Bulls.

There’s a lot of complaining among the Bulls about a supposed inequity in free throws, especially for Derrick Rose. But continuing to miss free throws at that rate is going to cost games given the small margin in the NBA between victory and defeat.

The main culprits at this point given they shoot a lot of free throws are Luol Deng at 70.3 percent and Taj Gibson at 61.5 percent. Rose at 73.8 percent has improved in his career, but should be better.

The problem, in part, is the players with the ball the most. None are great free throw shooters.

Deng’s career average is a decent 76.7 percent. Rose was 77.6 percent his first two seasons. Gibson was 64.6 percent as a rookie. Joakim Noah is shooting 72.1 percent this season and 70.7 percent on his career. Though the way he shoots them we’re still surprised he makes any.

And it won’t help much when Boozer returns as he’s a career 72.8 percent.

“Derrick has improved,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who doesn’t seem to have any good answers, either. “Joakim has improved from the past, but hasn’t shot well lately (four of nine on this trip). Lu’s got to shoot better than he has been.

“Those are things we have to improve on,” said Thibodeau. “They shoot them all the time. They spend quite a bit of time doing that, but practice is different than the shot in a game.

“Omer (Asik),” Thibodeau said after a long pause and trying to think of something positive, “is up to 55.”

Actually, the Bulls do practice free throw shooting an extraordinary amount of time, which may be even more worrisome.

“We shoot them more than any team I’ve been with,” says Kyle Korver, who is at 84.6 percent, second to C.J. Watson’s 91.7 percent. “We shoot and count how long it takes to get to 50 made, 100 made, how many shots. We record it and keep records.”

Korver is a professional shooter, an 88 percent career free throw shooter and one of the league’s best on threes.

I asked him if he serves at all as a de facto shooting coach. He says he’ll offer a tip occasionally, but is reluctant.

“You can’t make adjustments in the game,” says Korver. “In practice, I might say something to different guys, but you miss a couple of shots in the game you don’t want to hear someone telling you.”

I figured there’s no one better to ask about shooting on the Bulls, so I asked Korver what he does.

“In practice, you shoot so many it’s easy to get into a rhythm,” said Korver. “In a game, you don’t have that rhythm, you haven’t shot 12, 20 in a row. The trick in practice is to think about every single free throw and not just get up 100. Have a set routine so in the game you’re thinking about that and not just shooting free throws.”

So what does Korver look at?

“Just over the front of the rim,” says Korver. “It’s the only thing my parents ever taught me about basketball. They always just let me play. But my mom said, ‘You aim for the front of the rim, you hit the front of the rim. You look at the back, you hit the back. You look over the front of the rim, swish.’”

Exsqueeze me.

Sorry, I just got one of those airport pat downs and am thinking of becoming a TSA agent and am somewhat distracted.

Yes, mom Korver gives shooting lessons.

“She (Laine) played six-on-six basketball in high school in Iowa,” Korver explained. “She averaged 43 points a game, had a 74-point game. She played two years in college (Central in hometown Pella, Ia.) My dad played there. We’ve got basketball in the family.”

Kyle grew up a Lakers’ fan in L.A. before his family settled in Iowa when he was 12. His brothers, Kaleb, Klayton and Kirk from a Christian family with dad a pastor, all have played college basketball or are playing. And, yes, Kyle has heard many times he supposedly resembles actor Ashton Kutcher.

I hear the same about myself often as well.

It bothers both of us.

Though Korver is an excellent free throw shooter, he says it does require concentration because, in part, it looks so easy. Fifteen feet, no one defending you. He says one of his keys is keeping his elbow straight pointed down and when it flares out he knows he is getting lazy. Also, he says he concentrates on shooting upward.

He says he does study other top free throw shooters and then practice something he’ll notice, like if they’ll exaggerate their wrist action.

“You can get bored shooting 500 every day,” he says. “So I work on something (to be perfect), to keep it fresh.”

It’s like the never ending quest for a perfect golf swing.

So I asked him also about the thing that bugs me most watching NBA guys shoot free throws. You are supposed to get into a rhythm and stick with it, but every time someone makes or misses they seemingly have to slap hands or fists with teammates.

When did that start? It seemed it used to be if you missed someone on your team yelled at you to concentrate and make the next one. It’s like all these hug fests after games. Do they need that much reassurance?

“I always wanted to stay right there and not move if I made the first,” says Korver. “Then a couple of years ago I got in the habit of going forward. So I don’t think about it now. But I am a person if someone misses, it’s ‘C’mon.’ You missed a shot, don’t give them a high five. We used to have in school two claps if you made and one if you missed. You wanted those two claps.”

The Bulls haven’t earned much of that applause from the line yet. It will come back to get them if it doesn’t change.

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