Basketball is, on it’s surface, a simple game. Put the ball in the hoop on one end, try to stop the other team from putting the ball in the hoop on the other end. Manage to put the ball in your hoop more than the other team and you win. Of course, basketball at the NBA level has never been more complex, with (in some cases) complex offensive systems, and increasingly complex defensive schemes being designed to thwart them. Teams use analytics to determine where they can get statistical advantages with positioning on either end of the floor against specific teams/players. As technology has gotten better, so has our ability to understand and in turn play the game.
And yet, in spite of all of this, teams are now resorting to intentionally fouling bad free throw shooters as a strategy more than ever. Why? That’s a really good question. In these playoffs, the strategy has been employed against Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, even finals MVP Andre Iguodala. But the primary victim of the hack-a-whoever strategy was Deandre Jordan, a roughly 40% free throw shooter this season. On the surface, the strategy makes some sense. Jordan is a bad free throw shooter and a great defender. If he misses his free throws, then the Clippers, one of the league’s top offenses, score fewer points. Perhaps even more valuable however, is the potential for the Clipper’s to respond by taking him out of the game. But it’s really not that cut and dry. While former Clipper skipper Vinny Del Negro would typically yank DJ at the first sign of this strategy, Doc Rivers has been less likely to do so. It’s been well documented that the Clippers record in games where Hack-a-DJ has been employed is stellar, and the reason for this is two-fold. First, the Clippers are already winning quite often when teams resort to it. But second, and more importantly, is the fact that statistically, the strategy just isn’t all that effective. Converting free throws at 40%, plus potential offensive rebounds, plus the fact that opposing teams can’t get run-outs for easy scores, usually equals a pretty minuscule effect on the outcome of a game. The strategy typically takes both teams out of rhythm. Plus if you employ the strategy at Staples Center, two made free throws by DJ will make the place erupt.
Coaches can and do have very different ideas about basketball strategy, and intentionally fouling bad free throw shooters of course can work. The problem with the hack-a-whoever strategy goes beyond whether or not it is effective or smart, and the reason is that the NBA is more than just basketball. It’s entertainment. The league has already taken a number of steps to ensure that the entertainment value of its games is not affected by coaching strategies or plays that could diminish the fan experience. Take the league’s breakaway foul rule for example. The penalty for depriving the fans of a dunk is two free throws AND the ball back. That’s right. Stop Lebron James from tomahawking on an undefended goal and you get the same penalty as you would for horse collar tackling him and wrestling him to the ground. The league fined the Spurs $250,000(!) for resting it’s “star players,” even though the Spurs always still compete and quite often manage to win those games anyway. Years ago the league changed the hand checking rules to give offensive players an advantage and promote scoring. Why? Because the NBA is entertainment. What’s good for the fans is good for business, and nothing happening in basketball right now is worse for the fans than teams intentionally fouling players off the ball as a “strategy.” And it’s not just established fans the NBA has to worry about. NBA basketball is a global product that is constantly expanding into new markets. A great deal of Americans may think soccer is slow and boring, but in countries where people have grown up watching 90 minute commercial free soccer games, stoppages and slowdowns in play are a real drawback. Hell, college basketball suffers from this problem already in this country, and the NCAA is beginning to address the issue with rule changes.
This issue has been widely discussed during these playoffs, and many people believe the NBA should and will change this rule next season. But not everyone, apparently. In a radio interview recently, Adam Silver said that youth coaches on social media have begged him not to change the rule, because they want kids to have to learn to make their free throws. My response would be that if you have a child who plays for one of these coaches, take your kids away from them immediately, as they are not fit to supervise young children. I don’t think I have strayed too far outside the box when I suggest that maybe we should teach kids how to play defense first instead of intentionally fouling a player and hoping that they are bad enough to give you a competitive advantage. Second, why would you not have to make free throws if this rule goes away? Terrible youth coaches of America: Please teach your kids to make their free throws anyway. You have my word that they will still be very much a part of the game. One last thing, terrible youth coaches who I don’t believe actually exist: TEAMS HAVE BEEN DOING THIS SINCE BEFORE DEANDRE JORDAN WAS BORN AND IT DIDN’T MAKE HIM A BETTER FREE THROW SHOOTER. Honest to God did Greg Popovich and Marc Jackson make fake twitter accounts and write tweets to Adam Silver? This is the only thing that makes any sense. Guess what, there will always 7 footers in the NBA who suck at free throws. I for one don’t care to see them try 40 times a night. Neither does my wife. I was lucky enough to marry a girl who loves to watch NBA games with me, but when hack-a-whoever starts, she quickly loses interest and would rather watch something else, a sentiment I completely understand.
I get the argument made by Reggie Miller and others that “if you just make your free throws, they won’t intentionally foul you.” But this argument ignores the core problem. Fans don’t want to see Deandre Jordan, Dwight Howard, or Andre Iguodala on the bench, and they shouldn’t have to. They also shouldn’t have to suffer through 40 minute quarters with them on the floor. In the same breath Reggie argued that “if you couldn’t play defense, the coach wouldn’t let you play, the same should be true for a bad free throw shooter”. The ironic part about that argument is that the opposing coach almost always brings in his worst players to take the intentional fouls. I propose a more realistic solution than the “just don’t suck at shooting free throws” suggestion by those opposed to the rule change. Let’s all just play defense. For the record, if you want to intentionally foul a player who has the ball, I am totally ok with it. That’s where the “well you gotta make your free throws” argument holds water. But intentionally fouling players off the ball in the backcourt is shameful. Nothing could be worse to teach to young players, and nothing is worse to watch for fans.