Hack This: Should The NBA Change Its Rules On Intentional Fouling?

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Dwight Howard is pretty godd at putting the ball int he basket from a foot away, even with two defenders guarding him. But from 15 feet: not so good. Photo credit: Eric Draper.
Dwight Howard is pretty good at putting the ball in the basket from a foot away, even with two defenders guarding him. But from 15 feet: not so good. Photo credit: Eric Draper.

It started with Hack-a-Shaq, which has a definite euphonic resonance; then came Hack-a-Howard, a rather nice alliteration. But with the inclusion of Hack-a-Jordan, has this basketball strategy gone too far in terms of declining linguistic virtues and yawningly stifled interest in the game?

A History Of Intentional Fouling

Intentionally fouling a player is not new. In fact, it happens in many basketball games, and analogous strategies are used in other sports. A team which is behind with not enough time to catch up under normal circumstances will foul quickly when the other team gains possession of the ball to allow more possessions for catchup.

In the early days of the NBA, this practice was much more widespread because there was no 24-second clock. A team with a lead would begin to ‘ice’ the ball as early as the third period, and the only way a team behind could get possession of the ball so they might catch up was to foul.

The Greatest Foul-Fest In NBA History

On March 21, 1953, the Boston Celtics played the Syracuse Nationals in the second game of a best 2-out-of-3 playoff series that went to four overtimes.

A few of things should be noted about NBA basketball in the early 1950s:

  • A foul committed not in the act of shooting was a ONE shot foul.
  • The referees, by common agreement, would not call fouls away from the ball.
  • Teams were restricted to rosters of ten.
  • The 24-second clock would not be introduced until 1954.
  • The three-point shot was far in the future.

As the game proceeded, neither team was willing to take the chance that the other team would get a couple of baskets and get a lead, so they began trading fouls in the second quarter. From then on until the fourth overtime, except for the end of the second overtime, the game was essentially even-steven.

In the second overtime, Syracuse got ahead by two points with time running out; Bob Cousy made one of the most memorable shots in NBA history from mid-court to tie the game as the overtime ended.

Bob Cousy of the Boston Celtics made 30 free throws in one game. From Boston Celtics 1953 program, author unknown.
Bob Cousy of the Boston Celtics made 30 free throws in one game. From Boston Celtics 1953 program, author unknown.

In the fourth overtime, Syracuse literally ran out of players. Four players had fouled out with 6 fouls, one had been ejected for fighting, and the five left on the court all had five fouls. League rules required that if a Syracuse player then committed a foul, he would stay in the game, but a technical foul would be assessed in addition to the personal foul. The Celtics pulled away, as they still had a player with fewer than five fouls.

In the end, the referees had called over 100 fouls, Cousy had made 30 free throws (out of 32), and Al Cervi had set a record which will probably never be broken when he committed his seventh foul.

Analogous Strategies In Other Sports

Basketball is not the only game in which a strategy is employed that brings action to a halt:

  • In baseball, the pitcher may intentionally walk a batter. The fans have to endure watching the pitcher deliberately throw the ball where the hitter cannot reach it — four times. This strategy is employed either to avoid pitching to a superior hitter (in 2004, Barry Bonds was intentionally walked 120 times), or to set up a force play when first base is unoccupied.
  • In football, the quarterback sometimes ‘spikes’ the ball — deliberately throws the ball into the ground — technically an incomplete pass. This stops the clock when the team doesn’t want to use a timeout.

The Clippers And The Rockets, 2015

During the 2014-15 NBA regular season, 76% of all Hack-a fouls were committed against only five players. As it happens, three of those players were involved in the recent Los Angeles Clippers versus Houston Rockets playoff series. At times, the games ground on with a steady parade of players back and forth between the foul lines.

The series called attention to the tactic; the league will consider changes in the rules for next year. For now, since the Rockets have two of the five most hacked players this season, we may see Golden State use the Hack-a strategy against Dwight Howard and Josh Smith in the conference finals.

The Current Rule Prevents Hack-a In The Last Two Minutes Of The Game

The most common time in the game during which a coach would employ the Hack-a strategy is near the end, when the team is behind. The league has long had a rule that in the last two minutes of a game, fouling away from the ball will result in the fouled team retaining possession. Therefore, during the last two minutes, the team that is ahead tries to keep the ball in the hands of good foul shooters.

Hack-a Strategy By The Numbers

The Hack-a strategy becomes more advantageous as field-goal shooting percentages rise. In the days of one-shot fouls, a player would have to shoot over 80% from the foul line to score more points per possession than shooting at the then-normal 40% from the field. With current field-goal averages approaching 50%, and with only two-shot fouls, a foul shooter under 50% is worth targeting.

So even with the worst foul shooter — that would be Ben Wallace, who shot a career 38% — the strategy is only marginally worthwhile. Other factors should be considered, such as the pace of the game and how each team likes to play.

Though the Rockets like an up-tempo game, the Warriors probably like it more. Therefore, I don’t think Golden State will employ the Hack-a strategy very much, if at all, as it will disrupt the flow of their offense.

Better Free Throw Averages: The Best Solution

The best solution to the problem would be for players to improve their free throw shooting so that the Hack-a strategy isn’t useful. Oddly, poor foul shooters tend to get worse over time:

  • Shaquille O’Neal shot about 54% during his first 11 seasons; 48% in his last ten.
  • Wilt Chamberlain shot over 58% in three of his first four years in the NBA; he never shot over 54% during a season for the rest of his career.
  • Dwight Howard shot better than 59% in each of his first seven years; his last four years he has averaged 52%. And in this year’s playoffs, during which he has been repeatedly Hacked-a, Howard’s free throw percentage has inexplicably sunk to 41%

These guys can do better. Shaquille O’Neil had a special foul shooting coach for the end of one season, and his accuracy rose to 60% for 15 games. It is true that there are other things that these players need to practice, and it may be true that some of them simply cannot shoot fouls any better, just as I cannot run a 5k race in under 27 minutes no matter how hard I train.

Rick Barry is the seventh best free throw shooter in the history of the NBA. He shot 'granny-style' -- underhand. Photo credit: publicity photo.
Rick Barry is the seventh best free throw shooter in the history of the NBA. He shot ‘granny-style’ — underhand. Photo credit: publicity photo.

But I don’t see them making any effort. They shoot the same way, with the same result. In the early days of the NBA, many players shot fouls underhand (commonly referred to as ‘granny-style’). Rick Barry shot underhand; Barry is 7th on the list of all-time best foul shooters.

The science of underhand versus overhead foul shooting has never been carefully examined, but the physics is clear on one point: the higher the release of the ball, the higher the apex of the arc; and the higher the arc, the harder the ball falls onto the rim. An underhand shot approaches the rim more gently because of the lower zenith of the arc.

Give it a try guys. Hey, at 6-11, 240 pounds, Dwight Howard doesn’t have to worry that anyone will call him Granny.

What Have Other Sports Done About Players Who Are Poor At One Facet Of The Game?

Every sport has its own algorithm for what a player is expected to do. In football, players used to play both offense and defense; the modern game lets them specialize.

In baseball, the pitcher has always been a relatively poor hitter — so much so that one league (the American) has allowed teams to use a designated hitter since 1973. I prefer to see the pitcher bat, but I understand the logic of designated hitter — the pitcher is a fundamentally different kind of player than all the rest.

But if the logic is to have the best pitchers pitch and the best batters bat, then why not have designated hitters for every position?

I suppose by this line of reasoning, the NBA could allow a team’s best foul shooter to shoot all foul shots. This would do away with Hack-a, but I don’t think very many fans would want it.

The Bottom Line

Free throw shooting is an integral part of basketball, and basketball is a two-way game — players play both offense and defense. There doesn’t seem to be any reason to exempt any player from any particular requirement of the game.

Poor free throw shooters might take a cue from Blake Griffin of the Clippers, who shot fouls at 52% during the 2011-12 season. He worked to improve every year, and this season he shot fouls at 73%.

Don’t change the rules, NBA; encourage the players to shoot better.

© Copyright 2015 Jon Plotkin, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Sports
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