<
>

Who wins from 'Hack-A-Shaq' strategy?

Since appreciation for the beauty of basketball can’t stop coaches from intentionally fouling bad free throw shooters away from the ball, perhaps we can appeal on these grounds: the hoops higher-ups hate it. I’m not talking about the occupants of the NBA offices, who continue to pay lip service to their distaste for the slew of fouls but refuse to legislate against it. I’m talking about the deities, the basketball gods. They have a way of punishing those who desecrate the game by fouling repeatedly, and rewarding those who abstain.

The best evidence comes from the playoff record of Shaquille O’Neal, the Don Dada of getting fouled away from the ball, the origination of the modern “Hack-A-...” strategy and the only person for whom that moniker fit. (“Hack-A-Shaq” was catchy. “Hack-A-Howard” or “Hack-a-Jordan” is derivative and lame.)

From 2000 to 2006, Shaq’s teams won 22 out of 25 playoff series. Two of the three series he lost were to teams coached by Larry Brown, whose “play the right way” mantra prevented him from fouling Shaq without the ball every time down the floor.

“I’m not going to make a farce of the game,” Brown once said. “I’d rather have people beat us in basketball plays.”

It wasn’t just an appeal to the greater good of the universe. It also was a message to his players: man up and play good defense. Brown didn’t mind fouling Shaq if he was about to tear the basket down with a dunk. He just didn’t endorse fouling him 50 feet from the hoop without the ball.

Brown’s Detroit Pistons beat the Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals while O’Neal attempted only 11 free throws per game, by far the fewest in his four Finals appearances with the Los Angeles Lakers (he averaged 16 attempts per game in his previous three Finals in L.A.). The next year, Shaq’s first season with the Miami Heat, the Pistons won the Eastern Conference finals while sending Shaq to the line only seven times a game.

Perhaps I could endorse the constant stoppage of play if fouling bad free throw shooters was the way to beat them. But with Shaq it was actually the opposite. At his peak, the more free throws he shot the better his winning percentage. From 2000 to 2006 his teams were 22-4 in playoff games when he attempted 15 free throws or more, including 6-1 when he attempted at least 20 free throws.

Some of the tactical arguments against intentional fouling are that it also disrupts the rhythm of the team doing the fouling, while eliminating the chance for transition baskets by allowing the defense to get set. Some research also shows it doesn't work. I choose to believe it’s mainly because the basketball gods don’t want to see games dragged out to three hours, marred by watching bad free throw shooters parade to the line.