Hack-a-Shaq Is Here to Stay

There is nothing more tediously boring and ugly than a fourth quarter of a close game between the Clippers and whomever when a genius coach decides the game suddenly needs Hack-a-Shaq.  DeAndre Jordan is repeatedly fouled, sent to the free throw line, makes one out of two free throws, or makes no free throws, or because of an act of God who has mercy, makes both. And then 30 seconds later, when the Clippers have the ball again, it repeats itself and we are punished. DeAndre Jordan is back at the line, a morose look on his face, scared because this is the last place he wants to be. He knows he is going to fail. We know he is going to fail. Why go through the charade?

Because it is basketball and free throws are part of the game.

Contrary to popular belief, this strategy that was named Hack-a-Shaq by Don Nelson who made it en vogue when he popularized it against Shaquille O’Neal didn’t originate with the seven footer O’Neal. Wilt Chamberlain, a 51.1% free throw shooter was routinely fouled because that was the only way to stop him from scoring. Wilt was a behemoth of a man, an unmovable object who couldn’t be controlled when he was near the rim so the best strategy was to foul him. The NBA took note of the optics, added the rule about not fouling in the last two minutes and it was dormant for awhile until the genius of Don Nelson used it against Dennis Rodman here and there. It became famous when Nelson¬†added¬†it as a consistent and routine strategy against the Lakers and O’Neal. Nelson¬†was unapologetic about it. In fact, whenever he called it, Nelson had a lopsided grin on his face. Even O’Neal took it in stride. O’Neal loved it when he drilled both free throws. Then he tossed a glare at Nelson as if to say: don’t think this gimmick can stop me. Or as O’Neal frequently noted:

“I make my free throws when it counts.”

That can’t be said for Jordan and Dwight Howard. They are the two players who are the recipient of Hack-a-Shaq in todays NBA orbit, responsible¬†for dragging an interesting game to a mind bending halt. The incessant march to the line is like an¬†uncontrollable¬†brain bleed.

Dwight Howard is a career 57% free throw shooter. His low was in his last year with the Magic (2011-12) when he shot 49%. His high was his rookie year (2004-05), 67%, a decade ago. Too late for bad habits to suddenly dissolve.

Worse than Howard- yes it seems impossible- is DeAndre Jordan whose mutilation of the rim is cover your eyes horrific. Jordan is a 41% career free throw shooter. HIs low was in his second NBA season (2009-10) when he made 37% of his free throws. His high was in his fourth NBA season (2011-12) when he amazingly made half of his free throws, 52%. Last season he hit only 39%.

Coaches love Hack-a-Shaq, particularly youth coaches who impress upon their young players that free throw shooting is an important part of the game that you have to practice and then master. Analytic guys are devoted to Hack-a-Shaq for math reasons. A 50% free throw shooter is only going to make one shot. That is one point. Advantage to the team who does the fouling. It works if you prepare to get the offensive rebound.

General Managers¬†support Hack-a-Shaq. They see it as a very simplistic form of defense. It stops momentum, slows the game down, demoralizes the team whose pathetic free throw shooter can’t march up to the line and make a shot when he is not guarded.

And NBA Commissioner¬†Adam Silver doesn’t believe it really matters in the grand scheme of things. He had this to say this morning on ESPN’s Mike and Mike:

“The analytics say if a guy is less than a 50% free throw shooter it pays to do it because it scores approximately one point per possession so if a guy can’t hit one out of two free throws, they think it works. So it’s bad from an aesthetic standpoint and an entertainment standpoint for fans. But on the other hand, I hear from thousands of coaches around the world saying you cannot change this rule. What lesson does that send to kids learning the game, this is a fundamental part of the game. Kids have to be able to make free throws.

We’d largely be changing the rules for two players and two teams, DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard. They are the bulk of the instances. When you look at the minute by minute television ratings, it may be counter-intuitive but fans are not tuning out when it happens.”

No, they don’t turn the television off, they don’t turn the station. They roll their eyes and complain.

photo via Wikimedia.org