Hack-a-Howard backfires on Popovich

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

No NBA coach uses intentional fouls as a strategic weapon more extensively than Gregg Popovich of the Spurs. From a statistical standpoint, he overuses it, and tonight at least, it contributed to a Spurs loss.

Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs is a great coach, far and away the best in the NBA at present, and he deserves a lot of praise for what he has done with that team over the years, and indeed what he has done with them this season. But if we're going to laud him for the things he does well, we should also point out when he screws up. And in the Spurs game against the Houston Rockets tonight, he screwed up big time.

Anyone who has read my blog for any extended period of time knows that I am not a fan of the hack strategy. Popovich employs it extensively, in ways both wise (at the end of a quarter to get his team another possession) and dubious. He is about the only coach in the league who will use it not just to try to overcome a deficit, but also in order to try to maintain a lead. There are, to my mind, very few situations where intentionally fouling makes sense -- fouling when your team has the lead is certainly not one of them.

What are the perceived advantages of intentionally fouling?

1) To decrease your opponents' scoring;

2) To prolong the game by creating more possessions;

3) To disrupt the rhythm of the game.

Dwight Howard was shooting .539 from the line heading into tonight's game. His career percentage is .576. Two free throws for Dwight Howard yields an expected value of 1.078 points for two free throws based on his season average, 1.152 based on career. The Rockets are a very good offensive team, about 1.11 points per possession. BUT, San Antonio is also the second best defensive team in the league, allowing just 0.952 points per possession. As a coach, is it not unconscionable to take the second best defense in the league out of the equation, and instead take your chances with free throws completely out of your control? Ethics and watchability issues aside, if the math were massively in your favor, I could see fouling. But when the math is against you? Just plain dumb.

Sometimes you have to take your chances even if the math is against you, because you're behind and you just need to create more chances for your team to score. That's why opponents foul Chris Paul in the final 24 seconds, right? So, down 12 with three or four minutes to go, sure, you foul Dwight Howard or DeAndre Jordan if you have the chance. You can't allow your opponent to use 24 seconds on every trip or you'll just run out of time, even if you string a bunch of stops together. But tonight Popovich began fouling in a tie game. The Spurs committed their final intentional foul at 2:06 while they were ahead by a point. Howard made two free throws to put the Rockets ahead. There is no incentive to extend a tie game, so this very real advantage of intentionally fouling was irrelevant in this instance.

As for the rhythm of the game, the Spurs had trailed by a score of 55-32 with four minutes left in the first half. When Popovich instructed his team to begin fouling, the score was tied at 96 with 3:05 remaining: San Antonio had outscored Houston 64-41 over the previous 25 minutes of basketball. Is that a rhythm you want to disrupt? Houston closed the game on a 16-10 run.

Randomness happens, and sometimes the right strategy yields the wrong result. In this case, the strategy backfired, which is too bad for the Spurs -- but it also happens that this was NOT the right strategy. Howard made four of six free throws on the three intentional fouls the Spurs committed -- an expected value calculation would tell us that he would score between three and four points, so it wasn't even as if the Spurs got wildly unlucky. Given that Houston wound up winning by six, you could argue that all this was irrelevant -- had Howard scored zero points, Houston would still have won. But of course nothing in a basketball game occurs in a vacuum, and the fouling strategy changed the arc of the game in a direction unfavorable to San Antonio.

I find it particularly galling that Popovich would take the game out of his defense's hands. After a loss, it's one thing to say "We did our best but we couldn't get the stops necessary to win the game against a very good offense." Instead of putting his trust in his defense, he decided to flip a coin -- a coin that wasn't even weighted in his favor.

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