Shaq Does Not Need More Touches

January 4th, 2010 by John Krolik

(For recap of Bobcats-Cavs, scroll down)

One of the great things about being a Cavaliers fan is that Brian Windhorst may well be the best beat writer in basketball. (He’s got my vote.) He works hard, his insight is brilliant, he connects with fans and embraces new media, and the few times I’ve met him he’s been very cool.

So it is with gallons of respect and more than a little bit of trepidation that I say that I do not agree entirely with the premise of one of his latest posts, which is that Shaq should get more touches.

The reasoning for thinking this is very understandable, especially in a game like tonight where Shaq hit four of his five shots, the Bobcats played small for much of the game, and the Cavs experienced some offensive droughts. It makes sense that Shaq should’ve gotten more opportunities.

Furthermore, the Cavs have never been known as being a very dynamic offensive team. They’ve long searched for ways to generate offense without the ball having to start in LeBron’s hands, and Shaq is someone who can theoretically demand a double, pass out of it, and give opposing defenses another “look” so that they can’t load up on LeBron.

Finally, this is Shaq. He’s been scoring in the low post for well over a decade, he was dominant down there as recently as last year, and a prolonged slump to start the season shouldn’t mean the Cavs should give up on one of the great low-post scorers ever returning to something resembling his “true” form. I get that.

However, the evidence does not suggest that giving Shaq more touches would be an answer to the Cavs’ offensive lapses, which are less frequent than people seem to believe. (Remember, the Cavs did play one of the three best defensive teams in the league on Sunday night, and didn’t do all that badly considering the slow pace of the game.)

On an individual level, Shaq’s efficiency numbers are not promising. Shaq’s field goal percentage is just above 50%, but since he doesn’t shoot threes and his free throws are what they are, his True Shooting is an underwhelming 51.6%, which puts him 39th out of the 56 qualifying centers in the league. (League-average TS% for all players is currently 54.1%.) Shaq’s Turnover rate is also a higher-than-ideal 14.4, which puts him at 37th among centers.

Compare Shaq’s efficiency to the other players in the Cavs’ rotation:

Shaq: 51.6% TS, 14.4 TO Rate

Mo: 59.1% TS, 12.1 TO Rate

AP: 56.6% TS, 9.9 TO Rate

LBJ: 60.2% TS, 10.2 TO Rate

Hickson: 56.5% TS, 14.2 TO Rate

Varejao: 54.1% TS, 8.6 TO Rate

West: 52.4% TS, 12.4 TO Rate

Gibson: 61.1% TS, 7.1 TO Rate

Moon: 55.4% TS, 6.4 TO Rate

Big Z: 49.4% TS, 9.7 TO Rate

Larry Hughes during the 06-07 season: 48.0% TS, 10.3 TO Rate

That’s everyone, and Larry Hughes for an efficiency Mendoza line. So Shaq has a lower TS% than everyone except for Z, who gets virtually no plays run for him because he’s not a very efficient option, and a higher turnover rate than everybody else in the rotation.

I understand that Shaq’s efficiency numbers are going to be worse because Shaq generally creates his own shots instead of getting them from others, but what we are talking about is trying to create a game-plan which would give the least efficient offensive player on the Cavaliers by a fairly wide margin more possessions with which to work.

And I get the “squeaky wheel gets the grease” component of the theory, but Shaq is getting the ball a good bit when he’s in there. His 22.1 usage rate puts him 6th among centers and tied for 2nd on the Cavs with Mo Williams.

The last component of the theory would be that going to Shaq early would “open things up” later for other Cavs, either by forcing the defense to adjust or put them in the penalty. There’s definitely some validity to that, and a lack of free throws was the Cavs’ biggest offensive problem against the Bobcats. But this should be done in moderation.

(Although I will also say that the team Shaq excels against offensively, which are teams with undersized frontlines, might not be the best way to use him. The Cavs’ small-ball lineup has been deadly offensively, and Shaq has been phenomenal defending the paint against bigger players. I think the Cavs are better off countering mismatches and playing “straight-up” than they are trying to cause them with their current personnel.)

When Shaq shoots the ball 10 or more times, the Cavs are 5-6. That makes them 22-3 in games where Shaq does not shoot 10 or more times. In fact, the Cavs’ first six losses were all games that Shaq either shot 10 times in or did not play in at all.

The Cavs have lost three times when Shaq has shot less than 10 times. The first two of these losses came in December on the road against Dallas and Houston. As Shaq shot a combined 3-15 in those two losses, I would say that the problem in those games was something other than Shaq not getting enough touches.

Of the five wins when Shaq does shoot 10 or more times, four are at home, and the other was Saturday’s game at New Jersey.

The third Cavalier loss of the year when Shaq did not shoot 10 times or more came against the Bobcats on Sunday. He probably should have gotten more touches. However, I would say that using this game as proof that Shaq needs more touches overall would be somewhat premature, given all the evidence to the contrary.

I’ve sort of been the grumpy old man of the Cavs blogosphere towards Shaq this season, and I realize that. Change makes me paranoid, I really liked last year’s team, and Shaq was a big change. His struggles out of the gate did not endear him to me, especially with him looking like a fish out of water as he adjusted to the Cavs’ system.

A lot of people came into this season with the postulate that Shaq is really good and the Cavs needed to make sure they didn’t mess with his production. I came into this season with the postulate that the Cavs as currently constructed are really good and that Shaq needed to make sure he didn’t mess with their chemistry. The correct answer is likely somewhere in the middle, but that’s where I’ve been coming from this season with Shaq; as I see it, the burden of proof is on him.

I am definitely coming around on Shaq in a lot of ways. He’s fit into MB’s defensive system wonderfully and shuts down the paint. He was crucial in the Cavs’ two biggest wins of the year, road wins over Orlando and Los Angeles. He can get opposing teams in foul trouble at the beginning of quarters. The second unit looks worlds better now that he’s starting to play with them to start the 2nd quarter. And he’s starting to get more comfortable figuring out how to move without the ball and get set up with easy opportunities around the basket. I enjoy having Shaq play center for the Cavs. (And, to clarify, I enjoy having Brian Windhorst as the Cavs’ beat writer a great deal more than I do having Shaq play center for the Cavs.)

But when he’s fed the ball on the block and asked to do his thing on an island, Shaq has been woeful by the naked eye and by every conceivable statistical measure. His offense tonight was a big step in the right direction and something he’ll hopefully build on, but I don’t think it was a glimpse of a completed project the Cavs have simply failed to see.