The Whiteboard: Would average free-throw shooting change Shaq’s legacy?

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NBA Reddit is great for a good many things, but especially as a collection place for hypotheticals that make you shift your perception just a touch. For example, asking what Shaq’s legacy would look like if he’d been an 80 percent free-throw shooter (he finished his career at 52.7 percent).

What if Shaq could actually make free throws?

During Shaq’s seasons in the NBA, league-average free throw percentage went as low as 72.8 percent (in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season). But eliminating that outlier, it never went below 73.4 percent or higher than 75.9 percent. So 75 percent seems like a more reasonable target for this wild hypothetical.

So, assuming all else being equal, hitting 75 percent of his free throws would have allowed Shaq to score an extra 2,504 points over the course of his career. That’s enough to move him from 10th to eighth on the all-time scoring list, leapfrogging both Julius Erving and Moses Malone and leaving him just 300 points behind Wilt Chamberlain. Maybe in that case Shaq hangs on for one more year? Being a 75 percent free-throw shooter would also tack a full two points onto his career scoring average, bringing it to 25.7 (with 10.9 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.3 blocks). His career true-shooting percentage would also leap from 58.6 to 63.7 percent.

However, that’s looking at the effects dispersed across his entire career, including the seasons where he was aging out of utility. If we focus on just his prime (we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and include his Orlando years since he basically arrived in the NBA fully-formed) the effects feel even more significant.

In his four seasons in Orlando, his scoring average would have jumped from 27.2 to 29.2 with a true-shooting increase from 58.8 to 63.3 percent. So that’s 29.2 points, 12.5 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.8 blocks per game over the first four years of his career, on a true shooting percentage that would make Stephen Curry blush. In Los Angeles, he would have averaged a similar 29.4 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.5 blocks per game on a 63.2 true-shooting percentage.

A big part of Shaq’s legacy is also wrapped up in the postseason. Knocking down 75 percent of his free throws would have netted him an additional 570 points in the playoffs, moving him ahead of both Kobe Bryant and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and leaving Michael Jordan and LeBron James as the only players in NBA history to score more postseason points. But my favorite Shaq what-if is his 61 point game against the Clippers on Mar. 6. In that game, he missed nine free throws which could have given him an even 70.

Shaq has a career full of big numbers and reliably hitting his free throws would certainly inflate them — even if it would inevitably make sure that all else was not equal. If Shaq could hit free throws he probably would have gotten far fewer of them as teams adjusted, dragging down some of the back-of-the-envelope projections above.

But numbers don’t necessarily define Shaq’s career in the way they do for other NBA legends — Kareem’s career points record, Kobe’s 81, Jordan’s 63 and 6-0, Wilt’s 100 and averaging 50-25 for an entire season. What defined Shaq’s career was his raw, balletic power. Physically, he may have been the most dominant player in NBA history and the only thing that, really, offered any opponents any hope was this one area of lacking skill.

Even if a coach was unwilling to fully lean into a hack-a-Shaq, putting him on the line was always there as a defensive strategy. It was the one place where his advantage was marginalized and I can’t really imagine how much scarier he would have been if he hadn’t offered opponents that one ray of hope.

It may also just change how the average fan saw Shaq. He was often seen as a genetic-lottery winner who didn’t respect his gifts. He often came into camp out of shape and he never addressed this one obvious weakness through practice and focus. That line of reasoning is a fallacy — just because you or I could make 75 percent of our free throws in our driveways doesn’t mean we could in the middle of an NBA game. And the fact that Shaq couldn’t wasn’t a reflection of how much he cared or didn’t care, or how much work he did or did not put into trying to address it. But if you remove that flawed perception from his legacy — that he didn’t develop enough skill to match his physical talent — maybe he’s part of the GOAT conversation?

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