Deep Thoughts About Hack-a-Shaq

There was such a weird moment near the end of the third quarter of last night's Suns vs. Spurs game.

Brent Barry fouled Shaquille O'Neal, well away from the ball. The idea, of course, was to get O'Neal on the free throw line, where he is normally terrible. And then the Spurs would, of course, get the ball back.

The only thing was, it backfired terribly -- not because O'Neal hit the free throws, but because the Spurs were not, in fact, "in the bonus" whereby such a foul would give the Suns free throws. So the Suns got to take O'Neal out of the game (to stop this happening again), and take the ball out of bounds.

Upon reflection, if the Spurs were going to just use a foul, they should have played really aggressively on the ball -- maybe they'd get a steal, you know?

In no way did this foul help the Spurs, and it certainly hurt them, a little, by giving the team and the player another foul, giving the Suns a chance to make substitutions, and by making Brent Barry look stupid.

But, before you say "yeah, yeah, yeah, that was a fairly dumb and fairly meaningless play," take a minute. Think about this with me.

What the rule book was saying to the Spurs was, essentially: "Silly Spurs. You haven't fouled enough for us to reward you."

You see what I'm getting at?

In a small but meaningful way, that rule book is messed up.

First of all, you could make a case that no team should ever get an advantage by fouling. The whole point of making fouls against the rules is to stop teams from fouling, because fouling is contrary to the spirit of the game.

The idea is deeply ingrained in us now, that fouling is sometimes used to help the fouling team. Like when a team is down four with twenty seconds left, and has no other sure way to even get the ball back, let alone win.

But even that is weird, if you think about it. Free throws were designed as a gift to the fouled team. In that setting, however, when the team would much rather have the clock running and possession, free throws are instead a curse, or at best an unwanted test of nerves.

(If it were a birthday present, you'd unwrap it and say "oh I love it!" and then make sure your kids didn't do anything to it so that the store wouldn't take it back.)

Even if, thanks to the traditions of the game, you are OK with foulers being rewarded in some cases, in this Brent Barry case, it's especially weird.

If he fouls him twice, it's good for the Spurs. But if he only fouls him once, it's good for the Suns.

Okey dokey.

Nobody wants more radical solutions from sportsbloggers, but tough! I have some ideas about how to address this.

The current rules are such that if the referee determines that a player has been intentionally fouled for possession, away from the ball, in the final two minutes of a game, the fouled team can have a free throw and the ball back. That rule could be extended all game long.

Another idea that has been discussed would be, in those cases, away from the ball, the fouled team could pick any free throw shooter it wanted. Not a bad idea.

But here's my crazy, from outer-space, rule, that would change all of basketball: how about if any time any player in the NBA is entitled to free throws, the fouled team can elect to take it out of bounds instead.

It's too crazy to even really think about. And I have tried it out on some people on the phone, and nobody wants to give up giving a team that is trailing a way back into a close game.

They say it's the only way a team can come back if they're down four etc.

But I'm saying, we don't know that! At the moment, if a team is down four, and they start fouling, they end up winning, what (I'd actually love to see this research) 10% of the time?

And 100% of the time it's pretty terrible to watch a lot of what should be the most important and fun part of the game.

However, if the team was basically playing their asses off going for the steal, the block, the miss, the offensive foul, etc. what percentage of the time would they win? If teams went to some trouble to acquire and develop players who could succeed in that setting, and coaches put their thinking caps on to maximize their chances, would a team really be way less likely to win?

I don't know. Maybe.

But the game would sure be fast-paced, intense, and fun to watch.

And Hack-a-Shaq would be gone for good.