Trivia Question: What do the Orlando Magic and San Antonio Spurs have in common so far this season?
Answer: Both teams have missed less free throws than DeAndre Jordan has on his own…
The tactic of deliberately fouling poor free throw shooters rose to prominence last year and has continued to feature heavily so far this season. Essentially teams rely on a player’s inability to make shots from the charity stripe as a way of limiting their opponents’ capacity to score.
So far this season, alongside DJ; Dwight Howard, Andre Drummond and Hassan Whiteside have all been subjected to the tactic. But this is not a new problem in the NBA.
Wilt Chamberlain, one of the most dominant scorers in NBA history, shot only 51.1% from the charity stripe. In an attempt to slow the big man down, teams would deliberately hack him. For a long time, Wilt held the record for free throws made in a game with 28 and still holds the highest average free throws attempted for his career with 11.4. What’s more impressive is that his average was during a time when the NBA was much more physical than the modern game!
In the late 90’s and early 00’s, the tactic became popular again as a way of limiting Shaquille O’Neal and was ingeniously referred to as “hack-a-Shaq”. With Diesel having retired for a number of years now, and the tactic now spreading across other poor free throw shooters, the name isn’t quite as good. Hack-a-whomever doesn’t have quite the same ring.
To highlight the rise of the tactic, below is the list of most free throw attempts in a single game since the 1983-84 season:
It’s no coincidence that the top four spots are from the past four seasons. Coaches and teams try to exploit any weakness available in order to get a win. Coach Popovich openly admits to using the tactic despite its detriment to the game: “I hate it. It’s ugly, but I’m gonna do it. You don’t want me to do it anymore? Learn how to shoot a free throw.”
Make no mistake, hacking is damaging to the game. The NBA is about pace, athleticism, high-flyers and sharp-shooters. It’s designed to entertain and engage its fans around the world.
The league is already conscious of the length of time it takes to play a game and has previously trialed 10 minute quarters in a bid to develop a more fan-friendly package. Hacking slows the game down and fans neither buy tickets nor tune in to watch someone stand alone and miss uncontested shots.
So what’s the solution? As recently as October 2015 when discussing the rule, commissioner Silver said: “My inclination is not to change it, but we'll continue to watch it”. But with the hacking tactic being five and a half times more prevalent than it was last year, Silver confirmed that “I’m beginning to feel that a change needs to be made.”
Some of the ideas floating around include:
• the ability to decline the foul and take the ball out of bounds
• to take the shots and retain possession
• to allow teams to nominate a shooter
• to upgrade the severity of an obvious hack from a personal foul, (hacks are usually away from the ball and from what we have seen this season sometimes not even on the court!)
As much as something needs to be done about the issue, it does feel like the “victims” of hacking are being let off. Yes, it can be painful to watch a 12 minute quarter which takes 40 minutes, but should we just change the rules for what is essentially a handful of players?
As noted earlier, teams look to exploit weaknesses. If a player is poor going left, send him left. If they struggle to recover through screens, run them through screens. So if they can’t hit free throws, send them to the line!
Some of the onus needs to fall on the players and their respective coaching staffs. Teams have player development personnel and there are countless shooting coaches available to help. It used to be thought that a player needed to add at least one thing to his game each off-season to grow and remain in the league.
When Karl Malone was drafted in 1985, he was a notoriously bad free throw shooter averaging 48.1% in his rookie season. But he was a grafter and worked on his weakness to the point that, by the time he retired in 2004, his career average was 74.1%.
It will be interesting to see how Silver plans to address this in the off-season. But as the old coaching adage goes, “you’ve got to make your free throws, they’re free.”