April 19, 2018

“The shot that Bill Russell says no one has been able to stop in 20 years,” Dick Stockton said of a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sky hook over Moses Malone.

“The unstoppable one,” Brent Musburger simply uttered upon Abdul-Jabbar receiving the ball in the post.

Those were only a couple of the phrases which announcers used while observing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar perform his signature sky hook during the 1982-83 NBA playoffs. Matter of fact, if one searches for more information on the subject, he will find plenty of material where this shot is called “unstoppable”, “unguardable” or any other word that expresses the inevitability of its success.

However, precise data about the actual efficiency of Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook hasn’t been (publicly, at least) available. With its heyday about three decades ago, we also don’t have anything such as play-by-play data to dig deep and calculate this. All in all, the sky hook is an extinct — we’ve pinned all hopes on you, Ivica Zubac — and mythical weapon which was once used by one of the game’s greatest and most unique players.

How often did he really make them?

Well, what if one tried to chart at least some of the great center’s sky hooks? It would be difficult to collect and then plow through footage of more extended periods of his career. Yet going through a full postseason is doable. Moreover, the prevalence of the post game in the 1980’s was such that there are plenty of shot attempts to chart from a 15 game sample.

The available resources at hand made it so that the 1982-83 Los Angeles Lakers playoff campaign was chosen for this task and it is obvious that there are reasons not to call this exercise in any way conclusive. For starters, Kareem’s Field Goal Percentage (.568) during this stretch is admittedly higher than the percentage for his whole playoff career (.533). Yet it goes both ways. He faced Hall of Fame centers in Artis Gilmore and Moses Malone for 10 out of 15 games during this stretch. The number of field goal attempts he took per 36 minutes (17.6) almost catapulted to numbers he reached in Milwaukee. He was freaking 35 years old and the oldest player in that year’s playoffs, per Basketball-Reference (not that Kareem was about to slow down, of course).

The bottom line is that no approach would be perfect, yet it still provides us with some fascinating data.

For those who immediately want to jump to the good stuff, you can see an uncut version of all of Jabbar’s sky hooks from the 1982-83 postseason here:

As you can see in the table below, Kareem was good for a neat 50 percent on his sky hooks and produced 1.06 points per possession when he attempted one.

Lakers, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 1982-83 playoffs sky hooks.

For those interested, all of Abdul-Jabbar’s post ups were also charted and the numbers for them can be found in the following table.

Lakers, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 1982-83 playoffs post ups.

Now, let’s explore all of this in some of its specifics to break it down.

Los Angeles’s conference semifinals bout — back then the first two seeds would instantly qualify for the second round — against Portland makes it pretty clear that Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook wasn’t a field goal attempt that the defense could just live with. Give him a close one-on-one look at it and Captain Roger Murdock will make it more often than not.

Heck, he can even hit you with a lefty hook:

The reason for his staggering efficiency against the Trail Blazers (63 percent on sky hooks, 1.39 points per possession) seems to come from his size advantage over the 6-10 and 220 Wayne Cooper. While Cooper was a competent starting center, the 7-2 Abdul-Jabbar (if we even believe that measurement) could get good position down low and just shoot right over him. It’s as if poor Coop was stuck behind an impenetrable wall:

Moreover, as obvious as it might sound, Kareem knew quite well how to get buckets. If you watch the footage, take note of how deliberate his movement is. He was the master of a sudden duck in with which he also seals off the man defending him.

That can also be highlighted in this misdirection play that the Lakers would run for Abdul-Jabbar post ups. One second he has his hands on knees, next thing you know he has both feet in the paint and is sealing you off.

This Pat Riley play also exploits the illegal defense rules from that day. The rules made it so that it basically was a one-on-one game before a catch was ever made. Even if a defender recognized that the other Lakers are a part of a decoy, he technically couldn’t do much anything it. The following two sentences from that time’s NBA rulebook are especially important in this regard:

Player without ball may not be double-teamed from weak side. If offensive player is above the top of the circle, defender must come to a position above foul line.

Those restrictions somewhat prevented teams from ever fronting a dominant post player as you couldn’t offer any help from the back to intercept the lob pass. That being said, Portland did at times overplay Kareem to some encouraging results.

This is how it looks if Kurt Rambis steps outside the 3-point line and takes his defender with him.

Even if Rambis couldn’t punish you as a shooter, not stepping above the foul line would be playing illegal defense.

Some of the success that Portland did have when fronting makes you wonder, though, whether the solution wasn’t turning to more of such aggressive play. Whether it is denying the feed or just amping up the fight for position, intuitively you figure that it would make Abdul-Jabbar’s life more difficult. Yet there probably is a counter argument to be made there. Wayne Cooper averaged five fouls in 30.6 minutes of play in this series due to the problems that Abdul-Jabbar presented. Now, think about how many chances there are of picking up a foul if almost every possession presents you with a battle down low. Jabbar averaged 10.5 (!!!) sky hook attempts per game in these playoffs. Joel Embiid currently leads the league in 2017-18 with 10.4 possessions in the post, period. Kareem’s 18.3 dwarf whatever touches today’s big men get on the low block.

The burden of defending the paint without excessive fouling was quite huge for the 1980’s center. Moreover, when you give up as much size as Cooper did, fighting for position with Jabbar will probably cost you a couple of fouls either way. Not to mention the fact that if Cooper went down with foul trouble, Portland was only left with a more finesse type of player in Mychal Thompson and the 6-9 Audie Norris.

As in every era, sending help always remains an option when defending superstars. Although in this case you cannot be exactly certain that Jabbar is all that bothered by it. First off, the release point for his sky hook is so high that he can almost always go to it as a fail-safe. Basketball teams might be used to sending doubles from up top, yet if Kareem’s on the right block he can always turn baseline for an undeterred hook:

Secondly, you have to remember that he was a giant who was among the smartest and most coordinated players in the league. Outside players can try and dig at the ball, yet Abdul-Jabbar can bring it up to heights where no one will reach it. There literally are possessions which look like that as Kareem patiently waits for a teammate to open up:

Finally, every player you send towards Kareem means one less body capable of rebounding the ball in a bloodbath era.

Let’s put it in context. The Los Angeles Lakers were fourth in the league in 1982-83 with a Offensive Rebound Percentage of 36.3, per Basketball-Reference. The Utah Jazz were the worst in this department having rebounded only 29.0 percent of their own misses. And then there would be this year’s Oklahoma City Thunder who lead the league at 28.1.

When there usually are three offensive players crashing the glass, you almost need all hands on deck to deal with the misses. While the following Abdul-Jabbar post up produces zero points on paper, this Kurt Rambis put back layup is a direct result of the attention he receives (the infamous Kobe Assist):

Artis Gilmore and Moses Malone did force him to take his sky hooks a bit further away from the basket, which seems like the obvious reason for a drop in its percentage. Furthermore, when you watch Kareem’s attempts in the two series against the Spurs and the 76ers, it seems like they just are a bit more contested thanks to help defenders. It’s not just hard doubling either, with the coaches mixing it up. Guards digging on the first dribble, help defenders taking a step in when the huge Laker is already in motion. Anything just to throw a couple more distractions Kareem’s way.

Looking just at the attempts themselves can also be a bit misleading. Spurs point guard Johnny Moore was especially good at not letting Jabbar get the touch in the first place. The underrated Moore would sag off Norm Nixon to take away the entry pass.

Meanwhile, Philly was good at throwing multiple help efforts at Kareem with their roster of athletic defenders. Watch the constant pressure which somewhat takes Jabbar out of his comfort zone and prevents an easy dribble into whatever move he wishes to take:

Blindsiding him like Bobby Jones did on that play — though, a situation partially created by an untimely Bob McAdoo cut —  seems like a smart thing to do once Jabbar has entered his sky hook motion. Though, gracious and ballet-like, you could call his sky hook a bit mechanic. Obviously, it can be somewhat predictable if there’s almost no chance of preventing it from happening. Yet Moses Malone had a trick in his bag where he would guess that the sky hook is coming and meet Jabbar at its release point:

It seems reasonable to ask the question whether the 44.5 percent on sky hooks (still very good!) against San Antonio and Philly is more objective than the fire he caught in the Portland series. As stated previously, this is by no means conclusive.

Yet it probably isn’t a stretch to claim that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar could take unthinkable amounts of a shot only he regularly turned to and make it at a very respectable clip. As evident in the montage, you did have to push him outside the paint, send help and do tricks like the one Moses pulled. And even then he hovered near a point per possession.

However, if you were left to your own devices, you were helpless. Low catch, fake one way, sky hook other way, BOTTOM.

Beautiful. Deadly. Efficient.

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