As a lover of basketball, Gregg Popovich abhors “Hack-a-Shaq,” intentionally fouling opposing players who are hideous free throw shooters.
As coach of the San Antonio Spurs, Popovich readily embraces the strategy.
“I hate it,” he told reporters Tuesday. “It’s ugly. But I’m going to do it. You don’t want me to do it anymore, learn how to shoot a free throw.”
That’s seemingly impossible for Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond (.381 career free throw percentage), Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan (.418) and Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (.571). Those players combined have drawn roughly 69 percent of Hack-a-Player fouls this season.
But there’s another way to stop Pop and fellow coaches from continuing the custom: Change the rules.
The debate on intentional fouls dates to the Wilt Chamberlain era. The NBA instituted the current rule for off-the-ball fouls after watching Chamberlain, a notoriously poor free throw shooter, run away from opponents trying to foul him late in games. Now, whenever away-from-the-play fouls are committed in the final two minutes of regulation and overtime periods, any teammate already in the game shoots a free throw and his team retains possession.
Teams still can hack away for the first 46 minutes and it wasn’t much of an issue. But an increasing number of coaches are utilizing the practice. ESPN reports that the number of intentional fouls entering last weekend was 266.
The total all of last season was 164.
As a fan of the game, I want to see it flow with rhythm, pace and grace. I detest the disruption of bricklayers’ repeated trips to the so-called charity stripe. Watching Drummond miss 23-of-36 free throws on Jan. 20 must have been worse than witnessing Jordan clank 22-of-34 on Nov. 30.
But fans of given teams likely prefer ugly wins over pretty wins. Especially in the playoffs. If it takes an intentional foul away from the ball in the first quarter – like Boston committed against Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson in the first round last season – so be it, right?
“I don’t really see a problem with it,” Cavaliers forward LeBron James told reporters last weekend. “At the end of the day, it’s a strategy of the game and whatever it takes to win. If that’s part of the game, and you have a guy that is a bad free throw shooter and you put him on the line, that’s a part of strategy.”
The basketball purists’ side of the argument is simple: Improve at the line.
“You can’t protect guys because they can’t shoot free throws,” Los Angeles Lakers wing Kobe Bryant told reporters Monday. “You’re getting paid a lot of money to make a damn free throw, dude. I think it sets a bad precedent. I wouldn’t change it.”
Like myself, NBA commissioner Adam Silver has gone back and forth on intentional fouls. He told The Associated Press that he was “on the fence” during the playoffs last year. But he has hopped off and picked a side, advocating for a rule change this summer.
“Even for those who had not wanted to make the change, we’re being forced to that position just based on these sophisticated coaches understandably using every tactic available to them,” Silver told USA Today on Friday. “It’s just not the way we want to see the game played.
“As I travel around the league, there’s that one school of thought: ‘Guys have got to make their free throws,’” he said. “But then at the end of the day, we are an entertainment property, and it’s clear that when you’re in the arena, that fans are looking at me, shrugging their shoulders with that look saying, ‘Aren’t you going to do something about this?’”
With a bit of reluctance, I agree. Bringing the action to a grinding halt isn’t good for the business or good for the game.
A change shouldn’t be viewed as rewarding Drummond, Jordan and other atrocious shooters. It’s granting a pardon for fans who are unduly punished while trying to enjoy a game. There still are plenty of opportunities to wrap up Howard when he snares an offensive rebound or receives a pass in the post.
What we don’t need is one player jumping on another player’s back during a free throw attempt, slyly committing a loose ball foul instead of an intentional foul away from the ball). Or one player intentionally fouling the player who’s inbounding the ball; the NBA sent a memo to teams and referees Tuesday clarifying that tactic as delay of game violation and possibly a technical foul.
Popovich worries about the unintended consequences of any change. “That’s always the toughest thing with a new rule,” he said. “Something pops up that you didn’t think about. … I’m not sure what the answer is.”
Doing nothing isn’t a good choice.
The league changed the rule back in Wilt’s day.
For the love of basketball, it’s time to do it again.