How Game 4 in the Rockets-Clippers Series Evidenced the Shortcomings of Hack-a-Shaq
Intentionally fouling bad free-throw shooters is all the rage -- and all the outrage, too, it seems -- in the NBA Playoffs.
Basketball is very much a strategic game, but when DeAndre Jordan sets an NBA record for free throw attempts in a half -- he attempted 28 in the first half of the Clippers' Game 4 win against the Rockets -- not because of his relentless attacking of the rim but rather because he's a woeful free throw shooter, it's time to re-evaluate the strategy.
Of course, anecdotally, the strategy does and doesn't work. Jordan made just 14 of 34 free throws (41.2 percent, more or less on par with his season average of 39.7 percent). But the Clippers won the game 128-95.
Some studies have been done on the subject by now, and many are skeptical of the merit of Hack-a-Shaq.
Overall, the consensus seems to be that the strategy does not work as well as it ought to, which is supported by the Game 4 loss by the Rockets. Part of that is because the Clippers are very good at rebounding DeAndre's missed free throws, but chalking up one statistical anomaly to prove or disprove anything doesn't do us much good.
Still, if a player is a sub-50 percent free throw shooter -- like Jordan is -- then the strategy does have some potential.
A larger part of the strategy, though, is the unintended impact, the self-harm that the strategy inflicts on a team itself. If the intent is to reduce an opponent's points per possession from their average, then it is imperative for the fouling team to maintain its own points per possession and not suffer a decline as well.
Was that the case for the Rockets?
Analyzing Game 4
Digging into the annals of NBA history is necessary to illustrate how the trend works and why coaches choose to implement it, but Game 4 provided plenty of reasons why the Rockets opted to do so.
Rockets' center Dwight Howard, having picked up two fouls, went to the bench with roughly eight minutes to go in the first quarter. To mitigate the impact of Jordan on an undersized frontcourt, Rockets coach Kevin McHale began hacking away. The Clippers are a great offense (their Offensive Rating of 112.4 led the NBA this season), and Jordan is a horrible free throw shooter, again bad enough for the strategy to make sense on paper.
This suggests that the threat of an unstoppable Jordan was worth halting the game and sending him to the stripe. Or, in terms of the numbers, fouling Jordan would lead to fewer points for the Clippers than having him play his game without Howard to defend him.
Jordan, again, made 14 free throws on 34 attempts. That's 0.82 points per possession on 17 possessions. With Jordan on the floor in the regular season, the Clippers scored 1.17 points per possession (that number is 1.11 in the playoffs). Simple arithmetic wins, but the strategy isn't just a plus and a minus, as previous research and common sense indicate.
We'll throw out Jordan's first two free throws in the first half and examine the Rockets' offensive results on the possession after fouling Jordan (13 possessions).
|1||Harden||2 Made FT||2||Make||2|
I have to foreground the obvious: it's a small sample size. I'm not indicating that this game was definitive proof that coaches should can the strategy. (The prior research has already more or less suggested that.)
Whether or not the Rockets' offensive output (0.69 points per possession) after fouling Jordan is indicative of the typical impact of a team that fouls intentionally, it does indicate how and why this strategy is not foolproof. Mitigating the opposing points per possession is only impactful if the fouling team can surpass the points-per-possession pace.
Clearly, the Clippers scored more on Jordan's free throws than the Rockets did after the attempts. In this case, the Clippers scored 0.77 points per free throw trip. Compare that to 1.12 in the regular season and 1.18 with Jordan on the court.
So the Rockets did what they intended: they turned the Clippers' offense into something resembling, well, DeAndre Jordan's free throw shooting. However, they could not capitalize.
Even though Jordan made just 10 of those 26 free throws, 7 of his 13 trips ended in makes, allowing the Clippers' defense to operate from, essentially, the same as if Jordan had just slammed in an alley-oop. The Rockets scored just 0.57 points per possession after a made free throw, a far cry from their 1.07 mark overall in the regular season and their 1.06 mark in the playoffs.
It isn't every day that a former superstar's outlook on an analytical strategy is positive, but Shaquille O'Neal, the very namesake of the strategy itself, makes valid and obvious points in regards to the approach. "I miss and we get a [defensive] stop, then the game is where it is," O'Neal said in an interview with Yahoo! Sports.
That's what happened. The game is where it was. If that makes sense.
But another rather glaring variable in the approach is personnel.
The fact that Howard was in foul trouble makes this a moot point, as the bench for the Rockets would have seen extended run regardless, but unless designated foulers swap out during free throws, the fouling team is stuck with a likely subpar offensive performer on the court, further limiting the offense's upside and narrowing the gap created by forcing the opponent to a smaller points per possession mark.
During the regular season, the Rockets posted an Offensive Rating of 101.6 with Clint Capela on the floor (and 107.2 without him). And Capela played just 90 minutes during the regular season. The rookie has 71 minutes in the postseason already and played nearly 12 in Game 4, but the Rockets are 9.4 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the floor (98.7 compared to 108.1).
Kostas Papanikolau also chipped in four fouls in just more than nine and a half minutes. Papanikolaou played significantly more minutes in the regular season (795) than did Capela, and the Rockets managed an Offensive Rating of 102.2 with him (as opposed to 108.3 without him), a 6.1-point swing every 100 possessions.
Of course, these players are only soaking up a few minutes and are on the floor to use their expendable fouls, but the Rockets' offense sputtered during the Hack-a-DeAndre stint, these players were on the floor in the meantime, and the Rockets' offense is far from the same with these players on the court.
Perhaps a more appropriate technique is to play a five-man rotation with a higher offensive floor and to spread the fouls around rather than use a designated fouler, but perhaps the issue is that even if the shooting team's offense loses its rhythm so does the fouling team's.
The strategy has its place, particularly when trying to slow down an offense that is playing above its means, but even that wasn't the case.
When Jordan was intentionally fouled at the 5:34 mark in the first quarter, the Clippers had just 11 points (including a technical free throw make by J.J. Redick). Factoring out the free throw, the team managed just 10 points on 14 possessions, good for just 0.71 points per possession. Again, Jordan scored 10 points on 13 trips to the free throw line (0.77 points per possession).
Plenty of research is left to be done about the topic, particularly the impact of defensive performance after a missed or made free throw, a closer look at the fouling team's offensive performance while being subjected to a similar slow pace, and whether fouling without a designated fouler changes offensive flow.
But one thing is clear: it didn't work on Sunday despite Jordan's 14 of 34 performance.
Maybe the Rockets, one of America's most reliant teams on analytics, will take a second look in the offseason.