Parker's improved jumper could score him Finals MVP award
By John Hollinger
CLEVELAND -- Two years ago, the San Antonio Spurs won an NBA title. But Tony Parker wasn't necessarily happy.
Then 23 years old, the point guard had been a bit player in the deciding seventh game, as Parker's inability to connect from outside against the Pistons' mighty defense limited him to a 3-for-11, eight-point performance. The Spurs periodically sat Parker and used a combo of Brent Barry and Manu Ginobili to play the point in that series, and after Game 7, writers debated whether the Spurs would even bring Parker back the next year.
Parker has silenced his critics with his inspired play in the Finals.
The 2007 Finals couldn't be more different. The French flash is likely to be named series MVP if the Spurs close things out in Thursday's Game 4, after Parker again made a couple of big shots down the stretch to win Game 3 -- including a rare 3-pointer with a minute left to hold the Cavs at bay.
That's no accident. It's the culmination of a two-year process that saw him completely rebuild his jump shot and then torment Cleveland with the new weapon in this year's Finals.
Right after the 2005 Finals, Parker made the decision that he wanted to improve. He didn't care that he was a world champion point guard making near-max money and dating a hugely popular TV star; he was frustrated that his shaky jump shot was having such a negative impact on his game.
Enter Chip Engelland. Hired that offseason as a shooting coach by the Spurs after he'd previously plied his trade in Denver, Engelland helped rebuild Parker's jump shot piece by piece. The slingshot-like set shot that Parker entered the league with -- now gone forever -- was replaced by a smoother jumper that has repeatedly made the Cavaliers pay for going under the screen to take away his driving lanes.
For Parker, it was the right coach at the right time.
"Timing is important," Engelland said, "because when you play in the NBA, you always think you're just going to keep getting better. [But] the NBA is hard, and then you plateau, and that timing is good [for fixing a shot]."
And there was definitely some fixing to do.
"In the first few years [of Parker's career], whenever he'd shoot it, I just figured it was going to be a turnover, same as a turnover -- there's no way that's going in," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "But in the last year and a half when he shoots it, I actually think it's going to go in, so he's changed me quite a bit. But that's due to his work and Chip Engelland, who's really worked hard on him."
"Tony, even though he won a championship that year, wanted to get better," Engelland said. "That's where I give him a ton of credit. His summer time, he wanted to work at something he's not good at. That's uncomfortable."
They had to start from the bottom up, and that required Engelland to establish trust with Parker before he could start working on his jumper. Former Spurs GM and current Cavs GM Danny Ferry said Engelland's patience with players is one of his greatest assets -- that he'd focus on developing the relationship so that players would trust his advice on fixing the shot.
Parker's hard work is paying off big time for the Spurs.
"We got to know each other first," Engelland said. "We did a lot of talking with him, where he wanted to go. Tony wants to be great. So [I said] what it takes -- he has to have a consistent jump shot and his free throw has to improve.
"I think the most important thing, and this is true for every player, their shot is personal. Whether it's a 12-year-old girl or an [NBA player], it's their own shot. It's theirs, it's personal. When I talk to a player at any level ... I don't come in and disrespect their shot."
That helps him establish a rapport with his pupils, and from there he can start tweaking. One of the key examples Engelland used to help Parker come to grips with rebuilding his jumper was Tiger Woods. Parker is a huge Tiger fan, and once he learned Tiger redid his whole swing after crushing the field in the Masters for his first major victory, that made Parker far more receptive to the idea of working on his own game.
"It takes a lot of trust," Engelland said. "It's hard to want to get better at something."
An important first step was getting Parker to abandon the 3-point shot. After going 8-for-45 on that shot in the 2005 postseason, perhaps it didn't require much convincing. Parker went from taking 153 3-pointers in the 2004-05 regular season to just 36 last season and 38 this season.
Focusing on short jumpers, Engelland went to work on Parker: "We started with the basics, the very basics: balance, hand placement on the ball, follow through, what he watches, his target. He's done it great. He did a good job listening, practicing. It's not easy to do."
One of the keys was changing Parker's thumb position on the ball. Engelland said when Parker shoots a floater -- something he does as well as anyone in the league -- his thumb is in the correct position, at nearly a right angle to the rest of his hand, so that he can keep control over the ball. But on his jumper, the thumb often was close by his fingers, and as a result the ball would frequently come off the side of his hand.
Thanks to that fix and others like it, the results have been obvious, and not just in the last three games. Parker had never shot better than 33.3 percent on 3-pointers, or 75.5 percent on free throws before this season. This year those two numbers were way up -- 39.5 percent from downtown, albeit on fewer attempts, and an impressive 78.3 percent from the stripe.
Dig a little deeper, and you'll see Parker's midrange game has improved, too. His percentages on 2-pointers that aren't layups, and on 2-pointers that are outside the key, have both improved under Engelland's tutelage (see chart).
Tony Parker: Improvement by shot type
---------------- 2004-05 / 2005-06 / 2006-07 / CHANGE
Free throw % /// 65.0 // 70.7 // 78.3 // +13.3
Non-layup 2s % /// 36.8 // 39.7 // 40.8 // +4.0
2-point jumper % /// 39.3 // 41.6 // 41.2 // +1.9
2-point jumper att. /// 24 // 43 // 53 // 391 // +147
3-point % /// 27.6 // 30.6 // 39.5 // +11.9
3-point att. /// 153 // 36 // 38 // -115
And this is despite the fact that he's attempting far more of both types of shots than he used to -- something that usually brings percentages down. In 2004-05, only 21.7 percent of his shot attempts were from that distance. But with his increasing confidence in his ability to knock the shot down, that increased to 31.1 percent last season and 35.8 percent this year.
Parker's newfound consistency is turning the scouting report against him upside down. Previously, teams would dare him to shoot from outside and focus on taking away his drives to the basket. But his rebuilt shooting stroke has left opponents in a quandary.
"Against Phoenix, they tried to do the same strategy," Parker said. "They put Shawn Marion on me and he was going under, and I start knocking down shots and then they have to come out. And that's when you penetrate again, and that's when you try to get back to the basket and get some stuff going for my teammates or for myself. The whole key is to make sure I shoot with confidence."
So with Parker burning the Cavs from outside -- even throwing in a rare triple in crunch time to help hold off Cleveland -- Engelland was feeling like a proud parent after Game 3. "I'm happy for him," Engelland said. "I just like his consistency. ... He's just been solid in the playoffs. ... I think that's what coach Popovich wants -- he's so talented that he just wants for him to be consistent."
Parker isn't Engelland's only client. Engelland got his start in the business working with ex-Spurs guard Steve Kerr -- "like being the Maytag repairman," Engelland joked -- and worked with Grant Hill and several Nuggets before coming to San Antonio. Since joining the Spurs, he's also helped rebuild the jumpers of two other historically wayward shooters who have had strong playoffs -- Fabricio Oberto and Jacque Vaughn.
But his most famous client at this point is Parker, because he's shining on the league's biggest stage and brimming with confidence.
"I feel a lot more comfortable," Parker said. "I think that's what one of my limits was, you know, early in my career. I always had, like, great games and then they'd adapt, and I don't think I was shooting well enough from the outside to be consistent in a series. I think the last two years, you know, all the work I put in with Chip, I feel very comfortable and I've got a lot more confidence to knock down that shot."
He'd better get comfortable being an NBA Finals MVP, too. Because despite Parker's series-long protestations that this is Tim Duncan's team, his rebuilt jumper is about to put him in the history books alongside some of the game's greatest stars.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider.