By Ben Golliver
Lakers center Dwight Howard might be shooting 46.9 percent from the free throw line, more than 11 points below his abysmal 58.4 percent career average, but he doesn't want to hear the tips and tricks on how to get his numbers up.
"Listen, he was just suggesting some things, but it's not something that we've already talked about or anybody else has suggested," Howard said. "My mind cannot get clouded with everybody telling me how to shoot a free throw. I just have to go up there and shoot it my way and not get caught up in what everybody else is saying, because that's when I miss."
Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, meanwhile, is urging Howard to keep on plugging away.
"I think it's just facing the issue and dealing with it and taking it on head first," Bryant said. "'This is something that I have to conquer. This is something that I have to master.' And I think he will."
Howard, whether he wants to admit it or not, has reached a crisis point. He's currently shooting the lowest percentage of his career and regularly dealing with the "Hack a Howard" strategy late in games because of it. In 19 games with the Lakers, he's had just one stellar shooting night, when he made 15 of 19 attempts at the line in a road loss to the Blazers on Halloween. Otherwise, he's hit half of his attempts eight times and less than half of his attempts seven times, including a 3-for-14 on opening night against the Mavericks and 3-for-12 during a recent loss to the Pacers.
The bad news for Howard, who is still just 26-years-old, is that the big men best known for their poor foul shooting didn't display significant, sustained improvement over the course of their career. Generally speaking, very poor foul shooters remained very poor throughout their lengthy careers. Take a look.
Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain, for example, peaked at 61.3 percent at age 25; he hit rock bottom at 38 percent at age 31. Shaquille O'Neal was up and down throughout his career, topping out at 62.2 percent at age 28 before bottoming out at 42.2 percent two years later. Ben Wallace improved over the course of his career, if only because he entered the league as a sub-40 percent shooter in his first three seasons; he was back down below 41 percent for the final three seasons of his career and never topped 50 percent along the way. Chris Dudley, the man who has been synonymous with poor free throw shooting, put up his best percentages in his first season (56.3 percent at age 22) and his last season with a registered attempt (53.3 percent on just 15 attempts at age 37 with the Blazers) and was below 54 percent for the rest of his career and every season in which he attempted at least 72 free throws.
Howard currently leads the NBA in attempts per game so, no matter what Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni says, this is going to be an ongoing issue throughout the season. The Los Angeles Times reports that D'Antoni is doing his best to defend his All-Star center from criticism amid the endless late-game "Hack a Howard" strategies.
Lakers Coach Mike D'Antoni was incredulous when a reporter relayed a question from Lakers fans who wondered why D'Antoni didn't remove Howard from the game.
"Because they have no clue what they're talking about," D'Antoni said. "It's pretty simple. You don't do that to a guy and he made his foul shots. He's not the reason that our defense breaks down. He's not the reason that stuff happens. He's got to work through this.
This is, at best, a feeble smokescreen by D'Antoni. Certainly Howard contributes in a variety of ways. He's one of the league's most valuable and effective players, on both ends of the court. With 11.1 attempts per game, though, Howard's current 46.9 conversion rate is leaving 3.6 points per game on the table every night when compared to an 80 percent free throw shooter. There's just no denying the game-influencing power of those lost points. Compared to the available alternatives at center, especially with Pau Gasol injured, riding Howard is a no-brainer coaching decision. But the freebie misses represent a massive sacrifice. This issue will dog Howard for the rest of his career, as it did the four players included on the chart, unless he is capable of transforming his conversion rate in a manner that none of them were able to achieve. O'Neal, Howard's longtime critic and adversary, ironically offers Howard the greatest ray of hope: O'Neal's free throw woes didn't stop him from winning four titles. Howard can also take heart in knowing that he hit 67.1 percent of his free throws as a rookie, a better rate than any of the players mentioned here managed at any point in their respective careers. That's not exactly good, but it's significantly better than 46.9 percent. Unwinding the mind games to get back to that level is much easier said than done.