Let's start by admitting that we need a better name for this. Hack-a-Shaq was a terrific construction -- it rhymes, it told us what was happening, it all worked. But just substituting other names in for Shaq is lazy -- Hack-a-Howard at least has alliteration. Hack-a-Jordan? Hack-a-DeAndre? Hack-a-DJ? All meh.
When the Wizards intentionally fouled DeAndre Jordan in a game last week, Eric Pincus sent a tweet that I wish I'd thought of: Hack-the-DJ. Why is that better than Hack-a-DJ? Well, if you're a Smiths fan like myself (and evidently Pincus) then you'll immediately think of Morrissey's voice repeating "Hang the DJ, Hang the DJ, Hang the DJ" from the classic Smiths song Panic. So for now, for me, and until further notice this particular flavor of intentional fouling will be known as "Hack the DJ" -- Hack the blessed DJ.
Whatever we call it, we can all agree that it's a problem for the game.
Two weeks ago, the Clippers and Raptors played one of the most entertaining games of this or any recent NBA season. It was free flowing, it showcased some great performances, it was exciting, and it was just a joy to watch. Last night the same two teams played entertaining basketball throughout the first half -- and then everything came to a screeching halt when Dwane Casey decided to Hack the DJ, Hack the DJ, Hack the DJ.
The first quarter took 25 minutes of elapsed time to play. The second quarter took about 30 minutes. The third quarter alone took over 40 minutes. Toronto fouled the Clippers enough to get them into the bonus early in the quarter, and then for the next nine consecutive possessions, the Clippers did not advance the ball into the front court before a foul was committed. Seven of those fouls were of the Hack-the-DJ variety -- there were also two loose ball fouls in the mix, one committed on Jordan and the other on Blake Griffin.
Did it work? Well, Toronto lost the game, so it didn't work in the big picture. Depending on your perspective, you might say that it accomplished some goals, but you'd have to be pretty cynical to believe that. The Raptors trailed by 20 points when they began fouling with 6:31 remaining in the third quarter. Three minutes later (that's game time -- it felt more like three hours of my life), after 18 free throws, the Raptors trailed by 18. Toronto made up two points of their deficit in nine possessions. On their nine possessions, the Clippers scored nine points -- which is about what NBA teams score per possession. (The Clippers are a good offensive team and average 1.084 points on each possession; the Raptors are a good defensive team and give up 1.011.)
The Raptors did create extra possessions in the game, which is a good thing when you're trailing as it gives you more opportunities to come back. But what did they accomplish beyond that? And would they not have been better served simply playing defense and trying to get stops? Especially after Blake Griffin left the game with his fifth foul? Midway through the third quarter, Casey was playing a Clippers team missing their starting backcourt and with Griffin glued to the bench with foul trouble, and he didn't think that playing defense gave his team the best chance of winning? Sorry, but that's just stupid and shows a complete lack of faith in his team.
You could argue that the strategy worked in that it took the Clippers out of an offensive rhythm, and there's some truth to that. After all, the Clippers shot 59% in the first half and only 25% in the third quarter. To me though this is a red herring. There are no doubt any number of nefarious ways to interrupt a team's offensive rhythm -- ways that aren't expressly forbidden in the rule book but are clearly outside of the spirit of the game. J.R. Smith tried untying his opponent's shoe laces; the NBA said "Don't do that" and fined him. How is intentionally fouling really that different from untying a guy's laces, when you get right down to it? You could also probably upset the rhythm of the game by constantly untucking a guy's shirt, by blowing in his ear, by stepping on his feet at every opportunity and a million other ways that no one has other thought of because, well, why would you do that? If basketball is supposed to be an entertainment, then I personally don't accept the premise that "ruining the flow of the game" is a valid goal. Great defense can disrupt your opponent's ability to score without making the game unwatchable, and it also happens to be in the spirit of the competition.
Here's the strange thing to me. J.A. Adande isn't sure how to fix this problem; neither is Doc Rivers. But while there are plenty of issues in NBA basketball that are difficult to solve (no one likes flopping, but the line between embellishment and flopping is far from clear and there's no easy way to address it; flagrant fouls are a problem, but everyone accepts that giving a hard foul to prevent a sure basket is a good strategy) this one is not. There is an easy solution to this problem that could be implemented tomorrow.
The "bonus" is supposed to be just that: a bonus or advantage for the team being fouled. For the first four fouls of a period, the consequence of a non-shooting foul is ball out of bounds; thereafter the offended team gets the "bonus" of two free throws. So why should being fouled ever be a disadvantage to the victim? Simply give the team the OPTION of free throws OR ball out of bounds and Hack-the-DJ, Hack-a-Howard, Go-get-Bogut and Bang-the-Drummond-Slowly all end immediately.
It's worth debating whether this should be the rule for the final two minutes of a game or just for the first 46. If you allow the option of ball out of bounds at the end of a game, then come-from-behind wins with fewer than 24 seconds on the clock become that much more difficult. Then again, the Clippers tied Minnesota on a steal with eight seconds left, and inbounds plays can be difficult, so if teams opted for inbounding the ball rather than shooting free throws, it would just set up a different possibility for a comeback. Regardless, I can see no disadvantage to allowing the inbound-the-ball option for the first 46 minutes of the game. It is clearly preferable to the current rule.
Some will argue that if NBA players all made their free throws at a reasonable rate this would not be a problem. That's as may be; but given that there is literally no era in the history of the NBA when there were not dominant bigs who happened to shoot 50% or less from the foul line, I believe we can safely conclude that the problem will not be ameliorated simply by asking DJ and Andre Drummond to practice more.
I've argued long and hard in the past that this is generally not a winning strategy. It didn't work for Dwane Casey last night. It didn't work for Randy Wittman last week. I can show the math again, but I get tired of doing that. It's time for the NBA to save coaches from themselves, and save the fans from the coaches. There's an easy fix; let's fix it.