Question Everything: How to fix the NBA's intentional fouling problem
One of the NBA’s great debates last season was the place of intentional fouling and “hack-a” strategies in the game. Sending putrid free throw shooters to the stripe to keep games close, slow the pace or cut down a lead has become a viable but aesthetically-frustrating play for coaches. In the first week of the season it was clear this trend was here to stay, as the Mavericks sent defenders to foul almost-Maverick DeAndre Jordan during their loss to the Clippers.
With the odds being that Jordan, Houston’s Dwight Howard and potentially others will see frequent trips to the line this season, SI’s Jeremy Woo and Rohan Nadkarni debated the merits of intentionally fouling a struggling shooter over email. This is what happened next.
Jeremy Woo: Intentionally fouling is always a great idea, especially when you are losing by 20 to the team that stole your center.
JW: Rohan’s silence is more deafening than the greeting DeAndre will get in Dallas. I bet they play added crowd noise over the speakers.
Rohan Nadkarni: Intentional fouling is the worst. There’s a reason free throw shooting isn’t one of the skills on All-Star weekend. Nobody wants to watch it, ever. I’m all for the NBA changing the rules to make games more watchable. I’m tired of the purists who say you need to be able to hit a free throw. Entertain me, that’s all I care about. No more one-hour fourth quarters in which bricky centers step up to the line 15 times.
JW: I feel you, but changing the rules because around five guys, tops, can’t make free throws would be like banning one-hour comedy timeslots because TNT can’t consistently make a good one. It's like letting the quality of say, Franklin & Bash determine the entire course of television. (RIP that show.) The Clippers decided keeping DeAndre Jordan was worth the risk, and now they should have to deal with their investment. It was also especially amusing against Dallas last week. The NBA needs more on-court mind games. That is entertainment.
RN: The mind games are entertaining for like, one minute, before the entire game screeches to a halt because of free throws. It makes no sense. The rule also changes during the game! Explain to me why the rules are different depending on when you foul a player. That's extremely silly. The NBA itself is admitting it doesn't want to deal with the silliness with less than two minutes remaining. It's baffling to me in the pace-and-space era of basketball, when it looks like teams are actually embracing a beautiful style of play, that the League would want something as ugly as hackathons during games. The only time an intentional foul was funny was when Pop got Shaq with it as a joke that one time. That one time. Otherwise, it's a total drag.
JW: Remember in school, when you’d all get cupcakes for a kid's birthday and everyone would celebrate, except that one kid who would skip out on singing the song because he was scraping the icing into the trash? OK, that might have been me, but imagine if that kid was allowed to keep all the normal, extra sugar-loving kids from indulging just because he hated it. That is what changing the rule does. Players can go to practice instead of the club with Chandler Parsons. Maybe the issue is already fixed and being homies with Chandler was the real problem keeping DeAndre from realizing his full potential …
RN: Well maybe we can find a middle ground? I have a proposal: We limit the number of intentional fouls teams can use in a hacking situation. So instead of being able to send a DeAndre-type to the line six times before the two-minute mark, we put the limit at three. So now teams have only three opportunities to send a particular player to the line, and every foul after that the team on the receiving end can choose to take the ball out from the side. I think watching coaches try to figure out how to employ a new strategy could be even more fun. Brad Stevens would definitely figure out a way to take advantage of the system. Byron Scott undoubtedly would find a way to mess things up. And players will still have to find a balance between practice and the club.
JW: Byron Scott would try and send in Metta World Peace to commit intentional fouls only to remember the Lakers dressed Bob Sacre instead. It’s been three games and Team Free Metta must rise up. But I digress. I don’t hate your idea, but I think I figured out the loophole already: if you’re losing, have used up your three intentionals, and time is running out, what’s to keep teams from fouling a poor shooter over and over until they either force a turnover off the side-inbounds or the other team gives up and sends their guy to the line? This creates a lot more hypothetical turmoil than it’s worth. It all happens so rarely that you have to just take the punch here or watch a League Pass condensed game recap or something.
RN: Fine, how about after the third foul you get free throws and the ball back? So basically, you have three opportunities to hack, and then we revert to the under-two-minute off-the-ball rules, which (so far) has been enough of a deterrent to stop teams from continuous fouling. I feel like this adds just the right amount of complication to the game, and still gives us opportunities to laugh at the strategic decisions of Byron Scott. Who says no?
JW: I don't know man. We can't let DeAndre and Dwight win this one. I'm still complaining about the icing on my cupcakes, but the only person who can scrape it off is me.
RN: As annoying a person as Dwight Howard is, I’m afraid I would rather watch him spin and dunk on fools than shoot line-drives at the rim. More of NBA players doing cool stuff they’re good at, and less of them stepping up to the free throw line. I think we both know this is about more than just cupcakes.
JW: You're right, it's not just cupcakes. It's the dignity of the NBA we're talking about.