Clarification Please: The NBA still needs to fix Hack-a-Shaq

By Phillip Barnett  |  Last updated 12/13/16

Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan is a career 42.6 percent free throw shooter. David Sherman/Getty Images

Welcome to The Clarification, an ongoing series in which Yardbarker will take a look at rulings that have players, coaches and fans a bit puzzled. Whether it is regarding old "unwritten rules" or a new subsection IV schedule, these are some rules in which we would like to get more clarification from the leagues.

In the second round of the NBA playoffs, the Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets faced off in what should have been a thrilling matchup featuring a handful of the NBA’s best players: Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan in Los Angeles up against James Harden and Dwight Howard in Houston. The Clippers were No. 2 and No. 6 in scoring per game. The Rockets were No. 2 in pace while the Clippers were 10th. Of the four second-round series, Clippers-Rockets was the most highly anticipated of the bunch. Unfortunately, the series didn’t turn out the way any of us wanted. During the seven games, Howard shot 85 free throws, while Jordan attempted 84. Of those attempts, Howard made 33; Jordan only made 34.

That series was a dark point on what was a fascinating postseason and led to a season in which the NBA experienced more “hack-a” or off-ball deliberate fouls than it ever had in its history. During the 2015-16 season, there were more than 420 such fouls, up from 179 the year before and 115 the year before that. It’s an issue the league has considered correcting for years now, but after the huge uptick last season and, well, Jordan shooting an NBA-record 28 free throws in a playoff game during Game 4 of the second-round series against Houston, the NBA decided it was time to make a change.

During the summer, the NBA’s competition committee voted to make a change to the rule that allowed for teams to employ the “hack-a” strategy at any point in the game until the last two minutes of the fourth quarter. The rule change, however, failed to thoroughly address the problem. This year, instead of just the fourth quarter, teams aren’t allowed to issue off-ball deliberate fouls during the last two minutes of any quarter. The rule change was, in a word, underwhelming, leading the NBA's commissioner, Adam Silver, to suggest that he believes the rule could have done more to change one of the dark spots on the NBA’s brand.

"We adopted a new rule there,” he began in a statement. "I would say it is not everything that some people were looking for us to do and it was a compromise."

While the rule change is a step in the right direction, many believed that it’s a step that shouldn’t have been taken at all.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who voted against the rule change, told ESPN, “Rewarding incompetence is never a good business strategy.”

This sentiment, the one where bad free throw shooters are let off the hook with the rule change, is a huge reason it took so long for any kind of change to happen. Even Silver once believed that the onus was on the players to simply make the shots when placed on the free throw line — but data has changed that.

It takes just three off-ball deliberate fouls to add 11 minutes of real time to an NBA game. With the NBA working to keep its broadcast partners happy and keep games within the 2.5-hour window allotted for telecasts, the league had a greater incentive to push the rule change this past summer. That, combined with the ever-increasing number of fouls and the timing, just made sense for Silver to change his thinking on the issue.

Kiki Vandeweghe, the NBA’s vice president of basketball operations, was one of the NBA’s biggest champions of the need for a rule change. His reasons were less about numbers and more about the aesthetics of the game.

“I think very few people like the idea of this, it's non-basketball play, it sort of goes against the spirit of the rule book,” Vandeweghe told Sports Illustrated about the play. "Free throws are to compensate and deter fouls, not to encourage them. And so I think we're at the point where everyone agrees on that.”

The aesthetic, especially in basketball, is always going to be a topic of conversation when it comes to the entertainment value of the game. There is this dichotomy between the acceptance of players who are forced to the free throw line because of their lack of ability and those who force their way to the line through sheer will. Many find it hard to watch Harden because of the number of fouls he draws during his forays into the paint but feel it’s OK to keep guys like Jordan, Howard and Andre Drummond on the line. For comparison’s sake, Harden got to the free throw line at a rate 39 percent higher than the league average last season. While their teams were in the bonus, Jordan’s free throw rate was 347 percent greater than the league average, Dwight Howard was at 266 percent and Andre Drummond was at 141 percentage points higher than the league average.

This all brings us back the rule change. Will forbidding teams from fouling in the last two minutes of any quarter cut down on the number of off-ball deliberate fouls? Through two months of the season, that is still yet to be determined. But for at least Jordan, Howard and Drummond, the trend in when they shoot their free throws has changed. All three men are shooting slightly fewer free throws than they were last season, but their free throw shooting is more evenly spread throughout all four quarters instead of huge fourth-quarter spikes — which remains consistent with what we’ve seen with the league as a whole. In the last few years, the number of off-ball deliberate fouls happening in quarters 1 through 3 had grown to 50 percent last season, showing that coaches are willing to employ the tactic at any point in the game.

The future for bad free throw shooters remains bleak if this is as far as the NBA is willing to go regarding a rule change. In a January game last season, the Rockets fouled Drummond 12 times in the first 180 seconds in the third quarter alone. And if it makes sense situationally, NBA coaches continue to use whatever means possible to get the upper hand. Steve Kerr, after ordering his Warriors to trade “hack-a” fouls with the Portland Trail Blazers in the playoffs last season, called the tactic the “stupidest rule in the league.”

Gregg Popovich, who has used the foul to his advantage many times over, also hates that it’s allowed. After a January 2014 game against Chicago, the Spurs coach said, "I think it's awful. I hate doing it. Seriously. I think it's a pain in the neck, fans don't like it, I don't like it, nobody likes it. It disrupts the flow of the game. If there's an equitable way to get rid of it, I'm all for it.”

Even coaches who hate the rule are going to continue to use it if it gives their teams a chance to win (the perceived advantages of the rule are still up in the air). So yes, the rule has been updated to remove using off-ball deliberate fouls from eight of the possible 48 minutes of game play, but it doesn’t look like it’s enough. At least not yet.

We’re still not halfway through the first season with the rule change, and numbers for at least three of those most affected by the play are slightly down. But as games become more important down the stretch or changes in the other myriad variables happen, will we see a spike or a continued downtick? We can hope for the latter, but the former has found a way to win out in recent history.

Check out Part 1, Clarification: Why the rules near the crease need to be fixed, here.

Phillip Barnett firmly believes in the healing power of a good snickerdoodle cookie. You can follow him on Twitter @regularbarnett.

QUIZ: Name the NBA's Top 25 all-time leaders in free throw percentage

Can you name the Top 25 career leaders in free throw percentage in the NBA?

Clue: Years active (free throw percentage)

1996-14 (.9043)
Steve Nash
1986-98 (.9039)
Mark Price
2009- (.9010)
Stephen Curry
1965-80 (.8998)
Rick Barry
1998-11 (.8948)
Peja Stojakovic
1997-14 (.8940)
Chauncey Billups
1996-14 (.8939)
Ray Allen
1970-83 (.8916)
Calvin Murphy
1986-96 (.8891)
Scott Skiles
2006- (.8881)
J.J. Redick
1987-05 (.8877)
Reggie Miller
1979-92 (.8857)
Larry Bird
1950-61 (.8831)
Bill Sharman
2007- (.8819)
Kevin Durant
1998- (.8791)
Dirk Nowitzki
1986-00 (.8770)
Jeff Hornacek
2012- (.8765)
Damian Lillard
1998-12 (.8758)
Earl Boykins
2011- (.8756)
Isaiah Thomas
1982-98 (.8755)
Ricky Pierce
1991-02 (.8732)
Terrell Brandon
2011- (.8730)
Kyrie Irving
1980-93 (.8717)
Kiki Vandeweghe
1994-08 (.8714)
Darrell Armstrong
1983-96 (.8711)
Jeff Malone

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