Eliminate Hack-a-Shaq?

     Over the past few weeks the NBA has seen a surge in intentional fouls on poor free-throw shooters, particularly the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan and Rocket’s Josh Smith and Joey Dorsey.  In the last couple of seasons, the league has also seen players such as Dwight Howard, Andre Drummond, Omer Asik, and Rajon Rondo be fouled due to their poor performance at the charity stripe.  This strategy is far from new, previously being used against Hall-of-Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Dennis Rodman, and Shaquille O’Neal, it’s frequent use against the latter giving the strategy its nickname, “Hack-a-Shaq.”  However, there has been a recent surge in support of instituting NBA rule changes to prevent the practice.  NBA Commissioner Adam Silver recently stated that there would be serious talks at upcoming league meetings about potentially eliminating the strategy from the game.  Despite what others might think, I have to disagree with those who believe the procedure should be banned.

     Before debating the merits of the technique and its effect on the game, I want to make one point abundantly clear: nobody likes Hack-a-Shaq, or Hack-a-Howard, or Hack-a-Whoever.  Even Greg Popovich, the San Antonio Spurs coach who utilizes the tactic more than any other coach in the league says he hates having to do so.  By intentionally fouling the same player repeatedly, the game just becomes a long, drawn out free-throw battle, and while the free-throw is essential to the sport, it is not exactly the most exciting thing to watch.  Anyone who has seen a team try to make a comeback in the last minute of a game and resort to intentional fouling whoever has the ball on the opposing team can tell you that.  Although, there is something strangely amusing about watching a super athlete make a pedestrian activity look like a herculean task.   
     However, that does not mean the NBA should take away a fundamental principle of the game.  The free-throw is the most basic shot in the game, and one where most players can shoot a very high percentage.  After all, they are called free-throws.  Players are supposed to make them.  However, when he numbers of struggling free-throw shooters are examined, it is not that hard to see why the strategy is used.
     The NBA average for points per possession (the average amount of points a team scores when they have possession of the ball) is 1.03.  That is the equivalent of a free-throw shooter making 51.5 percent of his attempts, since if he has a 51.5 percent chance on each attempt, .515+.515=1.03.  So using this logic, any player shooting under this percentage from the line should be intentionally fouled, because in the long run a team would allow fewer points in a game by simply fouling that player rather than playing defense (the average free-throw shooter, however, shot exactly 75 percent this season).  When it is considered that DeAndre Jordan shot an abysmal 39.7 percent on what should be freebies, and that the Clippers led the league in points per possession at 1.098, every time DeAndre Jordan shoots two free-throws, the team loses an average of .304 points over what they could have gained, which over an entire game would absolutely destroy the Clippers.  For other players the gap is not so severe, but it is still either profitable over the long run or close enough that when trailing late or when that player is struggling it can be implemented.
     This may be a somewhat flawed piece of reasoning, since as John Ezekowitz wrote about for FiveThirtyEight in this article: http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/intentionally-fouling-deandre-jordan-is-futile/, I’m not accounting for things such as expected points from half-court possessions, offensive rebounds, and being set on the defensive end in the very general calculation I used above.  However, this article is from last season, and Jordan’s free-throw percentage dropped over three points from the 2013-14 season to the current one.  Also, if we do not rely on all the qualifications that have to be made for the strategy to be statistically ineffective, and just take at face value that Jordan will shoot two free-throws and the other team will get the ball (which happens a large majority of the time), far more often than not it would be profitable to foul Jordan.  Finally, Ezekowitz’s numbers fail to address one important concept: time.
     The most frequent scenario for the implementation of Hack-a-Shaq is late in the fourth quarter of games, when a team is trailing, but not by an insurmountable margin.  In these situations, the biggest factor working against a team’s comeback effort is the clock.  It becomes very difficult for teams to reduce deficits when their opponents are using at least 20 seconds on the shot clock, much longer than an average possession (usually around 14 or 15 seconds but that varies slightly depending on the team), in obvious efforts to milk the clock.  What the Hack-a-Shaq strategy provides is an efficient way to stop the clock, maximizing possessions for the rest of the game and therefore providing longer for a team to make a potential comeback.  It also eliminates the opposing team’s ability to make three-pointers, and by fouling a poor free-throw shooter, there isn’t a huge risk of them making the majority of their free-throws like there would be if another player was shooting.
# ft’s made out of 10
50% ft shooter
80% ft shooter
     If a good free-throw shooter (I chose an 80 percent free-throw shooter for this example), who would most likely receive the ball to be fouled in a late game situation shot 10 free throws, he would make at least seven of those attempts over 87 percent of the time.  However, a very poor shooter who only makes half his attempts would make seven or more only 17 percent of the time.  In fact, this shooter makes five or fewer shots 62 percent of the time, while the same number is just over three percent for an 80 percent shooter.
     If you were an NBA coach, why would you not intentionally foul one of these shooters off-ball instead of having the ball inbounded to a strong shooter?  If the situation is that desperate – just seconds remaining in a game and down a few points, it makes perfect sense because the discrepancy between a 50 percent shooter and 80 or even higher percent shooter far outweighs the odds of getting a steal off an inbound play and allowing an opposing team to try to get the ball to one of their best shooters.
     Now, if there are a few minutes left in the game, and you are looking to make a comeback, the strategy still makes sense.  The reasoning behind intentional fouling in these scenarios is that sending one of these atrocious foul shooters to the line is a rough equivalent of just playing defense.  Sure, they will have lucky streaks of shooting a high percentage and cold streaks shooting even worse than their normal percentage, but so do normal NBA teams.
     However, what people fail to realize is that the success of the Hack-a-Shaq strategy depends in part on how well the free-throw shooter performs, but more so on the offense of the team fouling.  If a team intentionally fouls and allows around one point per possession, they need to score far more than one point per possession in order to trim the deficit, especially with the time constraints associated with the strategy.  This is the reason why teams using Hack-a-Shaq do not end up winning games the majority of the time.  A struggling offense is not suddenly going to get stronger just by committing fouls on the other team.  It takes a very strong offensive effort to come back.  Hack-a-Shaq is far from a fool-proof idea, and that is yet another reason why it should not be taken out of the game.  There is a decent argument to be made that it is not an optimal strategy, at least on many occasions, and it is a big risk basically asking for the other team to score points rather than deciding to play defense.  Yet everyone still seems to feel it should not be implemented.
     One final reason that I would urge the NBA to keep the idea of Hack-a-Shaq in the game is because while yes it might be boring for some when it occurs, the technique is used far too infrequently.  Not many players are bad enough from the line to warrant the use of the strategy.  The players listed in the opening paragraph essentially make an exhaustive list of all players who are affected.  So already, not many games have the potential of seeing the strategy.  Even in the games containing these players, Hack-a-Shaq is not used the majority of the time.  Either the scenario does not call for it, the player in question is good enough from the line that there is not a huge advantage from sending them there, or that a team is against utilizing the technique.  There is not a huge need for the NBA to revamp the whole way it deals with intentional fouls just for a few isolated instances per season.  And by the way, if a team does not want to be affected by these intentional fouls, they do not have to be.
     There are a few methods to prevent the strategy from being used.  The first is obviously, to make more free-throws.  It is ridiculous to think that some professional basketball players, who make a living off playing the game, struggle so much with an unguarded, set shot from a distance of fifteen feet away, nearly 10 feet inside the three-point line.  If someone is as bad as Jordan, they deserve to suffer from their lack of skill.  If the “Hack-a-Shaq” strategy were outlawed, the NBA would just be giving bad shooters a cop-out for not having practicing an elemental part of the game.  It creates an unfair advantage towards these poor free-throw shooters by allowing them to play to their strengths on the court while not having to worry about their weaknesses.
     If they continue to struggle, teams always have the option of benching players if they become a liability.  No matter how great one might be at other aspects of the game, they can be a burden by simply being on the court.  DeAndre Jordan is one of the league’s best defensive players, yet he greatly contributed to his team’s overtime loss in the playoffs to the Spurs on April 22 by shooting just 6-of-17 from the stripe.  With just one more make, the Clippers could have won the game in regulation, and potentially have a commanding 3-1 series lead over the defending champs instead of being tied 2-2.  At one point during a recent Rockets-Spurs matchup, the Rockets actually intentionally fouled the Spurs just to reach a stoppage in play so they could sub out Josh Smith.  In the college game, Duke frequently pulled Jahlil Okafor, a 51 percent shooter from the line, in late game situations, despite him being the Wooden Award runner-up for best college basketball player last season.  It did not matter to Coach K that Okafor was an incredible defender and strong rebounder.  What was important was that the other team was going to foul Okafor, and a poor showing at the line could have cost Duke a few games.
     The fact of the matter is that teams with struggling foul shooters have every right and ample opportunities to remove these players from the game, which would render the strategy useless.  And let’s not forget that since the team with the best points per possession is the Clippers at 1.098 (the NBA average is 1.03 for the record), any shooter who can manage 55 percent from the line is basically immune from being intentionally fouled except for the aforementioned final seconds of a tight contest.  This is of course because his expected points value for a pair of free-throws (1.1) is higher than any team’s typical offensive output, and that doesn’t even account for the additional variables presented by Ezekowitz.  Anyone that fails to hit 55 percent of their foul shots has no one to blame but themselves for that deficiency, and have to be willing to either improve or face being hacked it their opponents see fit.
     The NBA would be foolish to eliminate Hack-a-Shaq, giving an unfair advantage to some players by not making them suffer from their weaknesses as a player.  The strategy is not always successful, and teams should have the strategic freedom to opt to give opponents chances at free points if they believe it will help them win basketball games.  However, only time will tell if the NBA agrees.

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