HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Dwight Howard was asked the other night for his favorite all-time Laker. It didn’t take him long to pick Wilt Chamberlain.
Good choice. So, too, would have been Shaquille O’Neal. Fortunately, he didn’t say Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The Lakers’ lineage at the center position is mind-blowing and the newest one certainly bears some similarities to those past Laker greats. One glaring blemish, however, particularly mirrors Wilt and Shaq: Howard is horrible from the free-throw line, that unguarded real estate that legendary Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn, for obvious reasons, called the charity stripe.
It’s amazing how many points great scorers, yet putrid foul shooters, leave at the free-throw line. Howard, despite the patient work of coaches such as Lakers assistant Chuck Person, still flicks straight-legged efforts from above his head that more often than not clang off the rim — or in the case of last week’s game against Brooklyn, laughably never draw iron — at a confounding rate.
Howard, in his eighth season, is actually getting worse. A career 58.5-percent foul shooter, he’s made just 72-of-145 free throws this season (including 3-of-14 in a loss to Dallas and 7-of-19 in a slim win against the Nets) for 49.7 percent. Last season he posted a career-low 49.1 percent. For now, Howard has at least made more free throws in his career than he’s missed (3,438-2,434). Both Shaq and Wilt cut it remarkably close.
Shaq, a 52.7-percent career free throw shooter, made just 618 more free throws (5,935) than he missed (5,317). Wilt, a 51.1-percent foul shooter made just 252 more (6,057) than he missed (5,805).
Kareem serves as the Lakers’ legacy benchmark. The game’s all-time leading scorer helped himself at the charity stripe, banking 72.1 percent of his free throws. Of his 38,387 total points, 6,712 (17.5 percent) came at the free throw line. Had Kareem suffered at Dwight’s 58.5 rate over his 20-year career, the goggled-one would have left approximately an additional 1,262 points at the line.
And had that been the case, Kareem’s scoring record would stand at around 37,125 points, or less than 200 points more than No. 2 Karl Malone. And had that been the case, would Malone have pushed for the scoring title in a 20th season following the knee injury that derailed his one-and-done title chase with the Lakers in 2003-04?
Amazingly, of the four players in the NBA’s 30,000-point club (Kobe Bryant, with 29,860 points, will soon make it five), two are Lakers centers — No. 1 Abdul-Jabbar and No. 4 Wilt.
Shaq, had he matched Kareem’s 72.1-percent free-throw rate over his 19 seasons, would have placed three Lakers centers among five 30,000-point scorers. Shaq finished his career with 28,596 points. At Kareem’s free-throw rate, he’d have around 30,781 points and would still be ahead of pal Kobe at No. 5 for just a bit longer.
As for Wilt with 31,419 points, he would be No. 3 with around 33,917 points had he shot free throws as well as his successor. It would have given him some 1,900 more points than the current all-time No. 3 scorer, Michael Jordan.
For the record, Jordan shot 83.5 percent from the free-throw line.
And now back to Howard. He hasn’t produced the massive scoring totals through his first eight seasons like Wilt, Kareem and Shaq, so at his current career scoring average of 18.4 points a game, reaching 30,000 will take many more highly productive seasons. Still, whenever Kobe retires, and assuming Howard remains with the Lakers long-term, his attempts and scoring could soar. There is little doubt that Howard, who turns 27 in less than two weeks, will one day rank as at least a top-15 scorer.
He enters Tuesday game against Indiana with 11,687 career points, already having left about 745 points at the free throw line when extrapolated to Kareem’s 72.1 percent. If Howard stays at his current career average of 58.5 percent — and remember he’s getting worse — as opposed to matching Kareem’s career percentage over the next 10 seasons, he would leave more than 1,000 additional points at the free-throw line.
In the short term, that’s a lot of potential bricks that can alter ballgames and even ruin championship runs. In the long-term, it means spots on the NBA’s all-time scoring list might never be attained because of points left at the line.