SI.com will periodically panels its basketball experts during the 2015 NBA playoffs and ask them a pressing question about the league. Today's topic, a favorite of Gregg Popovich's.
The Hack-a-Shaq strategy—the act of intentionally fouling a poor free-throw shooter to send him to the line—is becoming more a more frequently used tactic around the league. Shaquille O'Neal, maybe the most infamous free-throw shooter in history, was the original target, but several others have followed in recent years, including Rockets center Dwight Howard.
The most recent high-profile target is Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, the Defensive Player of the Year candidate who also happens to be a downright dreadful (39.7% this season) free-throw shooter. With more coaches turning to the strategy and more games being bogged down by poor shooters making repeated trips to the stripe, we asked our experts..
What should the NBA do about the Hack-a-Shaq strategy?
Lee Jenkins: Allow teams to turn down the free throws. The NBA is amid another golden age of offense with teams that play fast, space the floor, and shoot from deep. Nothing can slow the game down— except, perhaps, an interminable procession to the free-throw line. The intentional fouls are embarrassing for everybody involved, from the coaches who order them to the players who administer them to the suspect shooters who have to swallow their pride and sink one of two. The NBA can eradicate the epidemic by giving the team that incurred the intentional foul possession of the ball plus the two free throws. Then, we’ll get fewer DeAndre Jordan free throws and more DeAndre Jordan lobs, which are a lot more fun to watch.
Phil Taylor: Absolutely nothing. Why should the league legislate players' weaknesses out of the game? The responsibility for changing the intentional fouling strategy belongs to poor free throw shooters like Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan who are the targets of it. Get better at the line, and opposing teams won't do it anymore. Otherwise, coaches of bad shooters have to do a cost-benefit analysis: In any given situation, is it worth it to keep a foul-line bricklayer in the game in order to take advantage of his other skills, or is it better to take him out? That sort of strategic choice is interesting, even if watching Howard, Jordan, et al get repeatedly grabbed is not. I get that the Hack-A-Whomever is boring, but it's almost always brief. We can live through the occasional lulls. If the goal is to have fewer stoppages down the stretch, reduce the number of timeouts allotted each team. That would be a much better move than protecting bad free throw shooters.
Ben Golliver: Make the NBA's TV partners step up. I don't view intentional fouling as a serious enough issue to remedy in the rule book. However, I think the league and its television partners can flip a perceived negative into a positive by doing a more comprehensive job of covering the strategic nuances during its in-game broadcasts, particularly during the playoffs and Finals.
In my opinion, watching Hack-a-Shaq play out in person during a playoff game is can be pretty dramatic and fairly captivating, even if it drags. (Yes, there's less drama on a Tuesday night in November.) In fact, DeAndre Jordan's ability to stave off the intentional fouling strategy during the second quarter of Game 1 was a key moment in the Clippers' win over the Spurs. Clippers coach Doc Rivers was downright giddy afterwards, and coach Gregg Popovich was repeatedly conferring with his staff to determine whether to keep fouling. The crowd encouraged Jordan by chanting his name and cheered when San Antonio eventually gave up on picking on him.
The television product just doesn't translate. Not at all. Not even close. What absolutely no one wants: bored broadcasters groaning, "Here we go, again." Also what no one wants: broadcasters turning to the same old tired stories. "It wouldn't be a strategy if he could make them," or "You should see him shoot in practice." All of that is bad television, and it's especially mundane because the viewing audience has been through it so many times before.
In a better world, the broadcasts would kick into high gear whenever a coach decided to go to this strategy. The viewing audience would be fed all of the relevant statistics at play, not just the targeted player's poor free-throw shooting. Let's see the team's points per possession for the season, for a relevant stretch run, for the playoffs, for the game, and for the particular lineup that's on the floor compared side-by-side to the player's expected points from the free-throw stripe. That will help the viewer understand exactly why the coach is making his call. Let's see both teams' records this season and throughout the coaches' career when they are intentionally fouling or being intentionally fouled. Let's have a simple graphic that shows "pros and cons" of removing the player in favor of available substitutes so the viewer can fully understand what the targeted coach is thinking. While all of this is happening, let's keep cycling through visual shots of both coaches, both benches, the shooter, the shooter's relevant family members in the stands, and other diehard fans so that the chess match is covered inside and out.
Rob Mahoney: Allow a coach to decline free throws while in the bonus. No team should be systemically punished by an intended advantage. If it makes more situational sense for a team to take a sideline inbound rather than free throws for a non-shooting foul, they should have that option. Otherwise, fouled teams are locked into an artificial game of the opponent’s creation—one that bears little resemblance to actual basketball and strips down all of its aesthetic value. As it stands, “hacking” teams are simply taking advantage of the rules as written. Change it and you root out the motivation for intentional fouling in the first place.
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Matt Dollinger: Award three free throws. If an intentional foul triggered three free throws, we could potentially take care of two widespread problems at once. The first would be the immediate demise of the Hack-a-Shaq strategy. Sending a 50% shooter to the line three times is the equivalent of sending a 75% shooter to the line two times. You wouldn't go out of your way to do the latter and it likely wouldn't help you make up any ground. The second reason, and added bonus, is the new rule could make the end of games a more tolerable viewing experience. While opponents are currently motivated to foul while down due to the strategy's empirical success, sending a player to the line three times is a much harsher punishment and might dissuade the tactic. If the NBA wants to get rid of smart coaches gaming the system, it'll need to increase the intentional foul penalties and put some sand on the scales.
Jeremy Woo: Let it happen. The strategy might be painful to watch, but it's still not proven to work every time, and thus not quite the interminable cheat code many make it out to be. In what other realm of sports would we be talking about changing an in-game rule solely because maybe 10-15 players happen to be impossibly horrendous at a particular, (note:heavily-practiced) skill? I don't love the effect it has on the pace of the game, but from a mind-game standpoint it's occasionally fascinating. So until somebody proves that intentional fouling always favors the perpetrators, let the coaches scheme how they want, and keep the onus on the (extremely well-paid) athletes to spend a little extra time in the gym.