The Heresy of Hack a Shaq
06 Sep 2016
Bubba Wells chuckled as he ran on to the court in a late December game against the Chicago Bulls. Wells, a 6’ 5” small forward out of Tennessee, was a rookie in the league used sparingly off the bench for the struggling Dallas Mavericks. Seconds after running out on the floor, he grabbed onto Bulls forward Dennis Rodman, prompting a whistle and a foul call, sending Rodman to the free throw line. After the subsequent Mavericks possession, the same thing happens, Wells runs into Rodman, stopping play and sending him to the line.
“You know what? This is the intentional foul rule to get them back in the game!…His job is to foul Dennis to try and get them back in this game,” Bulls TV announcer Tom Dore
“John, I don’t know of anybody who has ever come up with a plan to do something like that before.”
Wells, under the orders of Dallas coach Don Nelson, smashed the record for fastest foul out in NBA history, clocking in around 3 minutes of floor time, and Rodman, an historically horrible free throw shooter, actually made 9 of the 12 shots negating any advantage this strategy might have given the Mavericks.
Two years later, Nelson, now coaching the Portland Trail Blazers, attempts an almost identical strategy against Shaquille O’Neal of the Lakers (a 52% free throw shooter.) As it became widespread during the 1999-2000 NBA season, the sports media affectionately named this strategy “Hack-A-Shaq”. Nelson, whether he knew it or not, unleashed a sometimes dormant monster of defensive strategy into the NBA.
Late game fouling is a part of professional basketball, and, whether you like it or not, does serve a purpose for strategy and defense late in the game. Within the last 24 seconds of a ball game, after the shot clock has been turned off, the only way to stop the clock and attempt to get the ball back is to intentionally foul the other team. Hack-a-Shaq amplifies this strategy to extend past the very end of the game, not so much as a clock management system but more of an attempt to play the numbers and reduce, as much as possible, the chance of the other team scoring. The Hack strategy slows games to a halt, while also ideally giving one team a major advantage, creating this strange dilemma that involves strategy, pace of play, player efficiency and of course enjoyment for players and spectators. Would a rule banning the Hack strategy serve to enhance the game, much like the introduction of the shot clock in 1954 or the banning of zone defense, or would it serve as another rule that attempts to unnecessarily micromanage and govern play?
What is the Hack?
On average, an NBA team will score about 1.12 points per possession. Intentionally fouling during the course of a game usually is not a viable strategy because the average NBA team will make around 75% of their foul shots. Even the weaker foul shooters will usually make over 50% of their shots, effectively meeting the average and negating any advantage.
In order to engage the Hack-a-Shaq, the team that is being hacked must first be in the bonus, which kicks in after 4 total fouls are committed against them by the other team. Whenever a player on the team in the bonus is fouled, the fouled player goes to shoot foul shots, even if that player is not fouled in the act of shooting. If a player is fouled away from the ball they automatically shoot as well, as a punishment to the fouling team. The Hack strategy attempts to leverage this rule by giving an advantage to the fouling team.
Hack-a-Shaq only really works when a player is so bad at shooting foul shots that they average below that 1.12 points per possession (i.e consistently make less than 50% of their shots), but are also effective enough in other areas of the game that their coach will keep them on the floor despite their putrid foul shooting. Once the team with this type of player is in the bonus, the opposing coach could begin to intentionally foul that specific terrible free throw shooter. This gets really interesting when you consider players like Shaquille O’Neal or Wilt Chamberlain, horrible foul shooters who were arguably the best two players of their respective eras. Pulling them from important games simply does more damage to their team than leaving them in to get intentionally fouled.
Writing for SBNation, Rodger Sherman argues that that Hack strategy is not akin to taking say a shortstop and making them pitch in a baseball game or having a wide receiver attempt to kick field goals in a football game. “Almost all recreational basketball players can hit half their free throws. And then you get an NBA guy who can’t. Their shot is no harder… It’s a strategy that takes the worst players in a sport at a specific thing and makes them do that thing. The only person who can cause them to succeed or fail is themselves.” Basketball is a very unique game in that the offense and defensive boundaries are much more blurred than in other sports. Sure, some players are better at one aspect of the game than others but when it comes to things like taking foul shots, every player is put in the same position when at the line. This mental and tactical battle of shooting foul shots could be argued as being a totally separate and unique event from the actual game of basketball. Much is made over the flow and rhythm of basketball; shooters always want to get into a rhythm, defensive players, especially big men, want to disrupt that rhythm. Intentionally starting up the metagame that is foul shooting is a detriment to one of the key facets of the game.
In the late 1980’s and through the 90’s, a popular defensive strategy intended solely to combat shooting flow and rhythm was the “Jordan Rules.” In Jordan Rules, the opposing team (famously the Pistons and later the Knicks) would do whatever they could to stop Bulls guard Michael Jordan from having the opportunity to shoot even a contested shot. Pistons coach Chuck Daly explained: “If Michael was at the point, we forced him left and doubled him. If he was on the left wing, we went immediately to a double team from the top. If he was on the right wing, we went to a slow double team…The other rule was, any time he went by you, you had to nail him.” With a double team, especially in the pre zone era, there was of course another player open as one player leaves his assignment to help a teammate defend another player. Daly and later Pat Reilly knew that leaving that other player wide open and overplaying Jordan would be more effective than playing Jordan one on one.
So what does this have to do with foul shooting and the Hack strategy? Well, even when using an alternative strategy like Jordan Rules, there is very little disruption to the flow of the game. Fouling Jordan was the worst possible thing you could do in this situation (he was almost automatic at the line), so the whole point of Jordan Rules was to force him to either pass or shoot a really awkward shot. No one complained about this strategy as it seemed like, and was, a natural extension to the game, and not a slow drawn out metagame like free throw shooting.
The Rules: Governance Vs. Liberation
“It has always seemed to me that the trick of civilization lies in recognizing the moment when a rule ceases to liberate and begins to govern…basketball has been supreme in recognizing this moment of portending government and in deflecting it, by changing the rules when they threaten to make the game less beautiful and less visible, when the game stops liberating and begins to educate.”
Thomas Cummins in The Heresy of Zone Defense, discusses rule changes in basketball, focusing on the illegal defense rule, which banned zone defense in the NBA. In his opinion, the removal of zone defense was a rule change that was made, not to govern and restrict play, but rather to liberate and allow the players to express their talents in a rule system that encourages them to do so.
He argues that “It moved professional basketball into the fluid complexity of post-industrial culture.” In other words, it allowed plays such as the “Dr J Scoop Basket” in the 1980 NBA finals or [“The Shot”] (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TuCxuq-yn1w) by Michael Jordan in 1989. Instead of having players adhere rigidly to a system where they are instructed to stand and guard a certain piece of the court, they are instead playing the “‘match-up game’ in which both teams run patterns, picks, and switches in order to create advantageous situations for the offense or the defense.” While zone defense is certainly more dynamic than Cummins would have you believe, his point is more about maintaining the freedom and flow of the game, rather than ZONE IS BAD.
Cummins brushes on the implementation of the shot clock in his piece, but I would argue that the implementation of the shot clock in 1954 was even more important, in terms of preserving the fluid complexity, than the illegal defense rule of 1977. Before the implementation of the 24 second shot clock, many games would devolve into a huge stalling match, where the team that was ahead would hold onto the ball for as long as possible. This lead to thrillers such as the [all time lowest scoring game] (http://www.basketball-reference.com/boxscores/195011220MNL.html), where the Fort Wayne Pistons defeated the Minneapolis Lakers, 19-18. These were still 48 minute games so one can imagine how slow moving these contests were. One of the only ways that a team could regain posession it was to intentionally foul so that they would have a chance to get the ball back after the two free throws.
With the shot clock, players are encouraged to execute strategy and score more points all at a fluid pace. On defense, players and coaches can use the clock to their advantage when trying to prevent scoring. Eliminating zone defense was to avoid a) having a very tall player camp out under the rim and obliterate anyone trying to score, and b) to eliminate standing around. In all of these examples, the viewing experience and excitement level of the game is enhanced. But it also made it so that plays such as the Dr J Scoop and the Jordan Shot could take place; this rule change liberated.
What controls the game?
Another important topic when it comes to the Hack and rule changes in general is the question of what interests takes priority in a professional sports league. Are they interests of active participants in the game? Or those of the paying spectators in the arenas and watching on TV. Eric Dunning in The Dynamics of Modern Sport talks about the GP Stone opinion that, “Display for spectators is ‘dis-play’…whenever large numbers of spectators attend a sports event it is transformed into a spectacle, played for the spectators and not the direct participants. The interests of the former take precedence over the interests of the latter.” Stone would argue that whether you like it or not, once a massive amount of spectators enters the picture, the interests of the spectator, and not the active game participants take extreme priority. When Stone argued his position in the early 1970s, the focus was mostly on the enjoyment of the spectator live in the venue. TV was certainly a way that fans enjoyed the game, but was not the priority. Today, with massive multi billion dollar TV deals, it is all about making it so that the spectators at home have as enjoyable an experience as possible. Stone’s view still applies, and even is amplified because not only are thousands in attendance at the event, but millions are watching remotely as well. We can use the aforementioned implementation of the shot clock as an example. Fans were simply not going to see games because of lack of a rule that defined the pace of play. After the implementation of the clock due to lobbying by Syracuse Nationals owner Danny Biasone, the league’s popularity skyrocketed, essentially saving the league and the game.
The NBA itself has shown that, on multiple occasions the TV audience trumps all. A recent example is the incident in November of 2012, when Spurs coach Gregg Popovich gave his 5 starters the night off in a nationally televised game against the defending champion Miami Heat. This is a frequently employed tactic for Popovich throughout the season, as he has one of the oldest teams in the league. His team also has not missed the playoffs since the 96-97 season, and assumes (so far, correctly) that maybe losing a random game in November will not heavily impact his team later in the year. The NBA commissioner David Stern responded by handing the Spurs a $250,000 fine and calling the tactic, “a disservice to the league and the fans” and threatened “substantial sanctions.” Arguing that this fine is anything but a move to appease the TV audience and live spectators is silly. The league obviously wants its best players on display during a nationally televised game, and also wants to make the most money possible off the game. The commissioner has an obligation to the team owners first, which I think is part of the problem Dunning is commenting on. Also, by trying to argue that the fans are somehow hurt by this just makes Stern and the league look even worse. Even if the fan experience is arguably damaged by these players having a night off, (which in this case it wasn’t, the game ended 105-100 and was close right up to the end), Lebron James summed things up nicely “it’s not in the rules to tell you you can’t send your guys home.”
When looking at statements both verbal and on the court from coaches like Popovitch and Nelson, the Stone and Dunning argument that big business and the “spectacle” trump all is on full display here, but it also creates an interesting conflict. Pop and Nelson’s job is very simply to win ball games and championships. Winning games and championships generates revenue for the league. However, employing the Hack strategy slows down and lessens the excitement of the individual games, which could lead fans, especially casual fans, to simply stop watching.
When making rule changes to a major sport such as pro basketball, more often than not it is to improve the spectator experience. As much as I would like to say that NBA officials, like Cummins argues, almost solely make rule changes to liberate and advance the game, most of the time it is with the mindset of “how does this improve the spectator experience?” Sometimes it liberates players but other times it governs.
The Hack in action
For better or for worse, the Hack has been full force on display in the ‘14-’15 playoffs. On the May 6th contest between the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers, Rockets players attempted 64 foul shots over the course of the 48 minute game, the 4th most ever in a non-overtime playoff game. Do the Rockets have an abhorrently bad free throw shooter who is also an effective player in other aspects of the game? You betcha. Dwight Howard is a career 57% from the line, while being 52% from the stripe during the ‘14-’15 season. Their opponents, the Clippers, have DeAndre Jordan, one of the all time worst free throw shooters who averaged an abysmal 40% during the ‘14-’15 season. Statistically speaking, fouling him at all times is a solid strategy; he is way under the magic 1.12 number. At this point, the Clippers are employing the only countermeasure that they can: simply not playing Jordan for a majority of the game.
If you think that this makes for a less than thrilling experience watching the game on TV, then you would be correct. You would be hard pressed to find someone who finds watching the Hack strategy to be a compelling, suspenseful or fun.
However, on the other side of Hack are the people who argue that those who miss free throws at such a high rate simply need to get better at shooting them. They are professionals after all, and if they cannot make the shots, it’s their problem.
Hack-a-Shaq enthusiast and master tactician Gregg Popovich has been coaching the San Antonio Spurs for almost 20 years. He is known for his “don’t care” demeanor, especially when it comes to grey area tactics such as intentional fouling. “If someone can’t shoot free throws, that’s their problem. As I’ve said before, if we’re not allowed to do something to take advantage of a team’s weakness, a trade should be made before each game. ‘We won’t foul your guy, but you promise not to block any of our shots.’ Or, ‘We won’t foul your guy, and you allow us to shoot all uncontested shots.’” In his eyes, he is taking advantage of a currently legal strategy for winning. While also being facetious, Popovich knows that using this strategy directly contributed to his team winning in 2008, where he intentionally fouled his way to a series win over the Shaq lead Phoenix Suns and was also extensively employed in the 2015 Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Clippers.
While it’s true that making foul shots is an important part of the game, “getting better” at shooting them is not an easy task. The New York Times’ [John Branch argues] (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/04/sports/basketball/04freethrow.html?_r=0) that one of the reasons for the plateaued foul shooting percentage in the NBA is that the key aspects of improvement in sports (or any game, really) do not apply to the foul shot. Ray Stefani, professor emeritus at California State broke down improvment into four areas “physiological (size and fitness), technology/innovation (the invention of the “Fosbury Flop”), coaching (strategy), and equipment (fiberglass pole vaulting poles, composite hockey sticks.) Branch correctly postulates that foul shooting has been [(aside from a few outliers)] (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1bm6hgRIi-o) generally the same throughout the history of the game, and that no increase in strength, advances in tech, coaching or equipment would help the shooter. We saw an example of this first hand when the Lakers brought in one of the all time best free throw shooters, Ed Palubinskas to help Shaq improve his then 38% foul shooting percentage in the 2000-2001 season. And while this extra coaching did help to marginally improve his shooting for the next few seasons, his numbers plummeted back down in 2003 when he shot 49%.
Changing the rules
This brings us to the main question that the NBA will have to think about. Does the use and abuse of the Hack strategy prompt a rule change? If it does prompt a rule change, who does it really benefit? and will the new rule, as Cummins would say, “liberate” instead of “govern?” During the Chamberlain era, the league instituted a rule that negated the strategy within the last 2 minutes of a contest. “A personal foul and team foul shall be assessed and one free throw attempt shall be awarded. The free throw may be attempted by any player in the game at the time the personal foul was committed.” Since anyone on the floor can attempt the shot within the last 2 minutes, there is no reason to Hack a player.
The problem with Hack outside of it being a boring spectator experience is that it is taking advantage of a set of rules that are supposed to deter this kind of play. When a team is in the bonus, it is supposed to be an advantage (a bouns if you will) for that team, not the opposition. Also, taking free throws from an off the ball foul is supposed to punish the fouling team as well as reward the shooting team, as they are in the bonus and also get to score points with the clock turned off. [Tom Ziller of SBNation lays it out nicely] (http://www.sbnation.com/2013/12/4/5174012/nba-intentional-fouls-hack-dwight-howard-andre-drummond-hook) “It’s called the bonus for a reason. You can’t get more efficient on offense than a trip to the foul line for a typical player.” The NFL has a great example of a rule that could, if not implemented correctly, have a positive effect for the offending team. If you are on defense and hold a player, not only does the other team gain 5 yards, but also gets a first down. If they didn’t award the offended team a first down, the defense could intentionally hold a player if they didn’t like the way the play was going, and would only be penalized a meager 5 yards. Holding could become a strategy for the offending team, which is exactly what the rule is preveting.
On a recent episode of Mike’s On, popular sports commentator Mike Francesa called the May 6th game, to paraphrase: boring, slow and not a compelling game to watch. He recommended a rule change in which, if at any point outside the last two minutes there is an intentional away from the ball foul, the fouled team would get their shots, plus possession of the ball. Ziller, as well as others have recommended simply letting a team choose what to do, either take the shots, or take the ball out of bounds.
A rule change would set out to accomplish two main goals, 1) to make it so that a rule that is intended to punish the offending team does not actually benefit them and 2) to make the game more enjoyable to watch. The NBA, and all other sports are in a constant battle for viewers, especially during the fall when all four major US sports are going on at the same time. If the pace of play in the NBA grinds to a halt, the casual fan will not continue to watch a constantly clock stopping, foul fest of a game. This is not to say that Hack is used in every game, just as not every game in the pre shot clock era was a low scoring race to the bottom. However, when marquee matchups, especially during the playoffs, devolve into a game where one team shoots 64 foul shots, there is clearly a rule problem that needs to be addressed. In the overall scheme of things, I usually am against changing rules for solely the sake of the TV audience, I’ve watched more boring games than I can count, but in this case there is clearly a loophole in the rules that needs to be closed.
If we go back to Cummins’ example of Liberation Vs. Governance, we are in a strange situation with Hack where the lack of a rule is bringing about governance. Case and point is Clippers coach Doc Rivers not playing DeAndre Jordan nearly as much as he would like in the 2015 playoffs. He knows that Gregg Popovich in the first round and Rockets coach Kevin McHale in the second round will swarm Jordan with bench players whose only role is to foul. Doc Rivers is almost forced to employ the same strategy against Howard and the Rockets. Because both teams have a horrible foul shooter on their roster, they are locked into this very strange system of play, where games move at a snail’s pace and take almost three hours to play.
Changing the Hack rule during the Chamberlain days was a move that made the ends of games more competitive and more exciting, it only makes sense to expand it out to cover the entirely of a contest. Instituting a rule change much like that suggested by Francesa and Ziller would effectively end the Hack strategy. However, I argue that it would also fall perfectly in line with Cummins liberation argument. Having a system where a coach has to choose between playing and allowing one of his best players to be fouled over and over again or simply not playing him at all and negatively impacting his team’s chances of winning is certainly not a liberating decision. Both outcomes are bad, for the teams on the floor, as well as the spectators, and certainly govern the place of play as well as player choice.
As much as I would love to say “just get better a shooting foul shots” to players like Shaq and Jordan, history, science and math have shown us that this is not something that will happen any time soon. A rule change will certainly liberate coaches and players from the existing paradigm allowing for play that not only allows players to showcase their best abilities but also creates an intensely more exciting game for the spectator.