Game Four of the Western Conference Semifinals between the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers was something of a farce. Especially in the first half. Houston’s continued reliance on the “Deandre Jordan Hackmode” strategy made the game almost unwatchable.
Naturally, this has caused a debate over what to do about this scourge to entertaining basketball.
Some want rule changes and want them now. Proposals for a fix range from the hastily considered to the more well-thought out. Others (among them Mavs owner Mark Cuban) contend that free throw shooting is an essential basketball skill, and exploiting players who can’t perform this skill at a certain minimum level aren’t deserving of additional protections. Whether the strategy is effective or not has been argued from both sides as well.
Theoretically, it shouldn’t work, at least not on average. In a game with as much short-term randomness as basketball, anything can work for a time. In fact, ESPN Insider’s Kevin Felton has found the hacking strategy has been somewhat effective when employed, a view backed up by BBALLBREAKDOWN colleague Jay Cipoletti, who finds that all the qualitative and quantitative caveats to an ostensibly simple piece of maths add up to make a significant enough difference to justify the strategy’s deployment.
Given the rarity of the tactic being employed, though, those results aren’t dispositive. Screwy things can happen in small samples, such as the Memphis Grizzlies turning into a better three-point shooting team than the Golden State Warriors for a few games on end. Furthermore, the finding that the team hacking outscores the opponent marginally might not even be a result of the Hack-A strategy itself. There have been suggestions and initial research to suggest that teams trailing in games tend to close the gap, with the suggested mechanism being that the leading team is running clock (eschewing high-value early offense), while the team that is behind is playing fast and launching three-pointers.
There is no simple answer to the question of whether or not the Hack-A strategy works. It depends on several variables – the relative offensive and defensive efficiencies of the teams, how well the team subject to intentional fouling rebounds the victim’s free throw misses, and of course the shooting accuracy of the fouled player. But it’s probably not a wise strategy. In most cases, the fouled player needs to have a free throw percentage of well below 50% for the strategy to be long-term effective.[newsbox style=”nb1″ display=”tag” tag=”2015-NBA-Playoffs” title=”More 2015 NBA Playoffs articles” number_of_posts=”2″ show_more=”no” nb_excerpt=”0″]
Other factors can change those calculations. Later in a game, intentionally fouling has always been a viable tactic since the choice is between “losing anyway” and “trying something desperate.” In reality, the biggest win the fouling team can get is if the opposing coach “gives in” and benches the fouled player. Not only has DeAndre Jordan been a monster defensively and on the boards, his backup is Glen Davis, so naturally playing more minutes against Davis would be a boon for the Rockets.
Unfortunately for Houston, having seen this movie a few times in the first round series against the San Antonio Spurs, Doc Rivers appears to realize getting Jordan off the floor is the goal and has not acquiesced.
With benching DeAndre off the table, the strategy is less enticing. Houston has further erred in their implementation. Partially for reasons of roster construction and player availability, Houston hasn’t chosen to or been able to put anything resembling an ideal “hacking” lineup on the court. While the Spurs could employ a “designated shooter” like Matt Bonner to both soak up fouls and provide offensive punch at the other end, Houston relied on Clint Capela, Joey Dorsey and Kostas Papanikolaou to give the fouls. While this makes initial sense as a way to keep Houston’s more valuable rotation players out of foul trouble, it also meant players with rather limited offensive skillsets (especially Capela and Dorsey) were essentially playing only offense. Add to this Corey Brewer, whose best offensive attributes are in the transition rather than halfcourt game, and the Rockets were simply exchanging low percentage Jordan free throws for their own poor offensive plays at the other end.
While it’s well outside the realm of analytics, other impacts of fouling so early an so often must be considered. Slowing the game to crawl plays into the advantage of a team as bereft of depth as the Clippers. Chris Paul and his injured hamstring probably prefer a start-stop game to a more free-flowing contest with constant end-to-end movement. Individual players accumulating fouls can present a problem later in the game as well – the Spurs ran into this problem at times with Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili both put in danger of foul-outs during the first round series, partially as a result of fouls given hacking Jordan.
Further, while being subject to a hacking strategy is often said to get a team out of its “offensive rhythm.” what though of the defensive rhythm of the fouling team? Certainly, Houston did not appear to be locked in defensively in the second half of game four. While it’s speculation to suggest the first half fouling played a role, it’s not a great leap of logic. After all, Houston hadn’t really “played defense” for much of the first half beyond having a designated player sprint towards Jordan like a playground game of tag.
Lastly, what of the psychological impacts? Continuing the fouls as long as the Rockets did seemed almost admission that they weren’t good enough to win the game straight up. In the end, that might be the most disappointing and annoying thing about the Game Four intentional fouling. It was haphazard at best in execution, and reeked of a desperation not evident in any other aspect of Houston’s play through four games of the series. The mathematical validity of the Hack-A strategy can and has been much debated, and the aesthetic value of it universally panned. Yet what it represents for the fouling team – a desperate ploy, an admission that they cannot satisfactorily stop the opponent from scoring in any way other than this – is an immediate boost to the opponent. Especially when it comes so early in the game.