There's no question that the series between the Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs was the best in the first round of this year's NBA playoffs. The matchup featured two of the top three teams in the league in margin of victory, pitting the defending champions against a team hoping to get to that point. With the exception of San Antonio's Game 3 blowout, the games were tense and exciting.
Despite all that, the dominant storyline during the third quarter of Game 5 wasn't who could take a 3-2 lead in the series. It was Spurs coach Gregg Popovich's strategy of intentionally fouling Clippers center DeAndre Jordan. Nine of the NBA's best players stood around watching Jordan shoot free throws -- 10 of them in all in a 1:47 stretch of the third quarter that took 9½ minutes to play in real time.
This is the Hack-a-Shaq, the NBA's version of pitching around the talented kids in little league to humiliate the one who always strikes out. More than a decade after future Hall of Famer Shaquille O'Neal struggled with the strategy that bears his name, it continues to have a major impact on the playoffs. And, in the spirit of ESPN's HoopIdea initiative to improve the game, it's time for that to change.
What's wrong with the Hack-a-Shaq?
From an entertainment standpoint, Hack-a-Shaq has always been a dubious proposition. It takes both offenses out of the flow of the game and prevents transition opportunities while lengthening game times. Game 5 took just shy of three hours to play, ending after 1:45 a.m. ET. NBA commissioner Adam Silver mentioned that concern when asked about intentional fouls last month by ESPN.com.
"It's something that I'm on the fence about," Silver said. "My thought used to be that we should definitely change the rule, and then having sat through several general managers meetings, competition meetings and having heard from some of the game's very best, the view is the players should hit their free throws. That's changed my view a little bit. Having said that, when I watch some of these games on television, frankly, it's not great entertainment for our fans, and that's important as well."
Even its most frequent user, Popovich, has said he doesn't like watching it but will continue to employ the strategy as long as intentionally fouling is permitted.
"I think it's an ugly thing for sure," Popovich said before San Antonio lost Game 7 of the series. "I hate it. I hate thinking about it. I'd rather think about the game, but free throw shooting is part of the game. I won't foul Jordan if [Clippers coach] Doc [Rivers] promises not to contest any of our shots. We can make a trade. If someone has a weakness, you exploit it, so intellectually I don't feel bad about it but sight-wise it's god-awful."
More than entertainment, though, Silver emphasized the good of the game.
"I used to run something called NBA Entertainment," he said, "but I always remind myself in my job now as commissioner and managing the league office, it's the game above all. So I think we have to [determine] what makes the most sense for the game. That's why I'm sensitive about guys being able to make their free throws, and I also find that sometimes it's a fascinating strategy."
There's a strong sentiment, particularly among former players turned analysts such as ESPN's Jalen Rose and TNT's Reggie Miller and Chris Webber that the answer to intentional fouls is simply for players to make their free throws. Free throws are part of the game, the argument goes. And that's inarguably true -- to a point. If Jordan gets fouled instead of getting a dunk, that's a basketball play. But defenders chasing Jordan around the court to foul him while he's minding his own business fails that test.
I'm reminded of a passage in Bill James' New Historical Baseball Abstract. Lamenting baseball's reluctance to change its rules, the father of sabermetrics contrasts the willingness to do so in college basketball to preserve the flow of the game.
"Most basketball rules changes," James writes, "are simply a way of saying to the coaches and players, 'Quit messing around and play basketball.'"
There's no better example of messing around in the NBA than the Hack-a-Shaq. Let's play basketball.
"We had a pretty spirited discussion on the subject, and we talked prospectively about how we might change it," then-NBA executive vice president of basketball operations Stu Jackson told ESPN.com at the time. "But in the end, there wasn't enough support to change it. There was a feeling that by changing the rule you would be essentially rewarding a player for a lack of skill by allowing him to stay in the game."
Since then, the topic has occasionally bubbled up as intentional fouls get out of hand, such as when Dwight Howard shot an NBA-record 39 free throws during games in both 2012 and 2013.
For the most part, the Hack-a-Shaq has been used only in isolated scenarios against a handful of players, like Howard and Jordan. Over the second half of the 2014-15 season, however, it's become much more ubiquitous. According to my research, with help from ESPN Stats & Information and Basketball-Reference.com, teams intentionally fouled 104 times in the month of April -- more than the first four months of the season combined (73), and more than I found in the entire 2012-13 season (102).
Jordan alone was intentionally fouled more times in the Clippers-Spurs series (30) than all players in either the 2013 (17) or 2014 (15) postseasons. Ten of the first 11 days of playoff action featured at least one intentional foul. And it's not just Howard and Jordan anymore. Eight players have been hacked during the playoffs.
With the Clippers and Houston Rockets advancing to meet in the conference semifinals, there's the possibility of mutually-assured destruction with both teams hacking each other's poor foul shooters.
"One day, two teams with poor free throw [shooters], it's going to go back and forth, back and forth and then everyone is going to turn from the game," joked Rivers early in the playoffs. "That could happen. Let's hope not."
How to eliminate the Hack-a-Shaq
Silver anticipates "full-throated conversations" at this summer's meetings of GMs, owners and the competition committee on changing the rules surrounding intentional fouls. If there's support, determining the correct mechanism to prohibit the Hack-a-Shaq will be an important part of the process. There are a variety of possible ways to change the rules.
One suggestion, notably thrown out by Bill Simmons on the Grantland Basketball Hour, is a "super-bonus" that would give extra free throws beyond a certain number of team fouls per quarter. That could prevent the most extreme cases, particularly if it were a bonus like the NBA's old "three shots to make two" rule that benefited poor foul shooters more than good ones. But any change of this nature would give players more incentive to flop their way to the free throw line, and it wouldn't prevent the kind of one-off intentional fouling we see more commonly than repeated trips to the line.
The most elegant solution would simply be to extend the away-from-the-play fouls that currently apply in the last two minutes and overtime to the entire game. That makes sense because most Hack-a-Shaq fouls -- nearly half of this season's examples -- come between the six-minute mark of the fourth quarter and the two-minute mark, when teams already are trying to lengthen the game. The only real downside here would be referees occasionally misapplying the rule to legitimate fouls off the ball, as happened during overtime of Game 3 of the Golden State Warriors-New Orleans Pelicans series.
A bolder strategy would be to award a free throw or two and possession for all intentional fouls. This would solve another of my pet peeves: fouls to stop fast breaks that are clearly intentional but don't qualify under the league's clear-path rule. Alas, it would put referees in a tough spot late in games, when trailing teams would have to foul the ball handler unintentionally on purpose.
There are a couple of intriguing solutions that fall further outside the box. One, which ESPN.com's Henry Abbott has suggested in the past, is allowing teams the option to decline free throws and simply keep possession, along the lines of penalties in football. That presents similar issues in the closing moments of games, however. If the shot clock resets each time a foul were called, teams could decline free throws and run out the clock, preventing exciting finishes.
Another idea I like for its simplicity is giving the offense the choice of having the ball handler shoot the free throws when a player without the ball gets fouled intentionally. There might, however, still be an opportunity for a Hack-a-Shaq when a team has multiple poor foul shooters.
Ultimately, the rule the NBA chooses to prohibit the intentional foul is less important than deciding to get rid of it in the first place. That's a philosophical shift whose time has come.