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Intentional fouls off the ball: Not effective, not smart, not basketball

Lots of people scream for a rule change (myself included) while others defend the hacking strategy as allowed by the game, but what's lost in all this is that it's a bad strategy that almost never works.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone knows I don't like the hacking strategy -- it's not a secret. I've railed against it many times. And in case you were wondering, I've railed against it for many years, since long before DeAndre Jordan was in the NBA. So anyone who suggests (as some have on Twitter) that I only care about this issue because it directly and adversely affects my favorite team is... um, what's the word I'm looking for... wrong. Demonstrably, unequivocally wrong. (In this post I called Gregg Popovich's fouling of Shaquille O'Neal in the first quarter of a playoff game in 2008 a "total BS"; at the time, DeAndre Jordan was a freshman at Texas A&M.) I don't like the strategy, I think it is stupid in addition to being an affront to the spirit of the game, and my opinion  on the subject has NOTHING to do with the team I root for. Sadly, I just get to watch it more than anyone else in the world.

But let's go over this one more time, just to be crystal clear.

We'll start with the math. During last year's playoffs, Daniel Ezekowitz of the fivethirtyeight blog made more or less the exact argument I've been making for many years, but did so with better data. (I've always filled in some guesses -- his data was better, and even more anti-hacking than my guesses.)

The problem is that the question of whether or not it's a good strategy is over-simplified to an equation comparing overall offensive efficiency of the team being fouled to the expected value of two free throws for the player being fouled. So if the Clippers (the best offense in the league) average 110 points per 100 possessions, then the break even point is 55% from the line -- if a player shoots worse than 55%, it's statistically better to foul than to take your chances playing defense. With DeAndre barely over 40% this season, it becomes a no-brainer by this logic.

But there are MANY, MANY problems with the basic premise, which Ezekowitz points out. First of all, a team's overall offensive efficiency includes the easiest points, like steals that lead to breakaway layups -- you can't intentionally foul on those plays. On the other hand, if your defense is set and you decide to foul, you're already facing a less efficient offense. Next, the expected value of those two free throws needs to include the offensive rebounds the Clippers can (and often do) get on misses. I've always used about a 10% rebound rate and the standard 1.1 points the new possession is worth. Ezekowitz had hard numbers on these that actually indicated that the Clippers were getting 21% of those misses and scoring 1.36 points on them. (I do think the Clippers probably get a higher percentage of DJ's misses -- since they know they're coming, they go after them. It's not like you try real hard to beat the box out when Chris Paul or J.J. Redick is at the line.) Finally, one huge factor that Ezekowitz undervalues if anything is the fact that the fouling team is eliminating their own chance to score in transition -- by fouling intentionally, they guarantee that the Clippers are back on defense every time. So by fouling you make your own offense less efficient by taking away steals and fast break points.

One factor from Thursday's game which Ezekowitz omits because it is specific to the Spurs is that they are an above average defense -- fourth best in the league. So while the Clippers score 110 points per 100 possessions against the league, one would expect them to average less than that against the Spurs, who are 3.5 points better than the league average. Oh, and the Clippers were playing without their leading scorer on Thursday night.

In other words, Ezekowitz' math indicates that the strategy is an expected value loser, without even taking into consideration the fact that the Spurs are statistically an elite defensive team and the Clippers were playing without Griffin. The idea that Gregg Popovich is some advanced stat genius who is doing the right thing and that other, less savvy coaches simply aren't smart or bold enough to do it, is fallacious. Popovich is hurting the game, doing something he ostensibly hates (if he hated it as much as he portends to he wouldn't do it, seems to me), while simultaneously hurting his team's chances to win. A player would have to be around 35% for this strategy to actually make sense -- though even then it would be against the spirit of the game.

But as I was told on Twitter Thursday night, it sometimes works! So it's justified, right?

It sometimes works? Wow, that's a solid argument. But ignoring that, let's go ahead and look at the actual results. I queried every game this season in which a player missed half of their free throws and sorted by free throw attempts. Thursday night's marathon topped the list, and overall the list is a sort of proxy for the "hack-a-fill-in-the-blank" strategy. And guess what? The hacked player's team wins much more frequently than they lose. Teams being fouled are undefeated in games in which a bad free throw shooter took 13 or more free throws while missing at least half (I'm not counting a Spurs loss in which Duncan shot 5-15 from the line nor a Jazz loss where Gordon Hayward was 7-14 on the assumption that neither of those incidents involved intentional fouls off the ball since neither Duncan nor Hayward would be a target for the strategy).

Now you're going to say "That's not fair, the numbers are skewed by the fact that teams employ this strategy when they're desperate, so they're likely to lose those games." Yes, it's true -- but that argument would hold more water if San Antonio had not started fouling in the second quarter of a one point game Thursday night. And oh by the way -- it pretty much never works.

I've watched the strategy a lot this year of course, and I can't say that it has ever worked. The Clippers lost a game to the Nets by two points this season in which Jordan was 2-12 from the line -- but in fact there was only one intentional foul on Jordan off the ball in that game, and he split a pair of free throws on the trip. Jordan was 0-8 in the first quarter on shooting fouls and Brooklyn scored 10 points on three possessions in the final minute. Lots of things happened to allow Brooklyn to win that game, but Bang-the-DJ wasn't one of them.

Likewise in the Clippers' January 16 game against Cleveland, the Cavs started intentionally fouling Jordan midway through the third quarter, he was 5-12 on the game, and Cleveland won. Then again, when they started fouling, LA led by six and when they stopped the lead was eight. So unless intentionally fouling Jordan somehow enabled Kyrie Irving to shoot 12-18 with five threes, I'm not willing to call that one a win for the strategy either.

I've watched the Clippers lose many games of course. I've watched them lose plenty in the last four years since they've been a good team that included a bad free throw shooter (or two or four). I've watched them lose games when they had the lead. And almost NONE of those losses had anything to do with the opponent intentionally fouling DeAndre Jordan -- certainly none of them had anything to do with fouls that occurred in the second or third quarter. Which seems to indicate that there are other, more effective strategies for winning basketball games.

How many times have you watched a team come back from a deficit, even a big deficit, by playing great defense and getting a series of crucial stops? Is intentionally fouling really more effective than playing defense when you're trying to win a basketball game? If there is any data to say that it is, I can't find it. And certainly no one I've argued with has ever been able to show me any data -- and I've argued with a LOT of people about this.

The next plank in the "I hate it but it's effective" platform is always that it breaks up a team's rhythm. I have no idea how you could possibly prove that -- but regardless, isn't it just as likely to break up your own team's rhythm? One old adage in basketball is that good defense leads to good offense -- no one ever said "intentional fouls lead to good offense."

There is another, more nefarious potential motivation for the strategy: you can force the opposing coach to take a dominant player out of a game. It is true that Doc Rivers eventually sat Jordan down in both the second and the fourth quarter of Thursday night's game, and it is equally true that Jordan was having his way with the Spurs bigs especially on the boards, so perhaps the "strategy" worked. Having said that: Jordan averages 34 minutes per game this season and played 39 minutes on Thursday. He has to rest some time -- so yes, he exited during the strategy, but it's not like he wasn't a factor or that he was glued to the bench. I sometimes wonder if Rivers takes pity on the poor fans when he takes Jordan out. He knows the strategy isn't particularly working, but maybe he just likes basketball too much to watch it go on indefinitely.

Before we move on though, let's spend a bit more time on this potential motivation. During the Christmas 2013 game between the Clippers and the Warriors, Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut each committed flagrant fouls against Blake Griffin in plays off the ball in a span of seconds. Green and Bogut were assessed Flagrant ones as the rules dictate -- Griffin was given two technical fouls for his reactions (one of which was later rescinded) and ejected. Both intentionally fouling a bad free throw shooter off the ball and hitting a player in hopes that he'll react are strategies one could employ to get a dominant player out of the game. I would argue that neither is in the spirit of the game, but to slightly paraphrase Gregg Popovich  "The rules allow it and it's easier than playing defense." I'm suggesting that maybe we should strive for better.


Last season I landed upon what I believe is a straightforward rule change that would eliminate this problem immediately and with minimal side effects -- on fouls away from the ball at any time in the game, if the penalty is in effect, give the fouled team their choice of the free throws or the ball out of bounds. Done. No more Bang-the-DJ. Pop is saved from himself, doesn't have to employ a strategy he supposedly hates.

The penalty is supposed to be that -- a penalty to the team committing the foul. Why not give the team being fouled the choice of how to penalize them? Do you want the free throws or the ball out of bounds?

I've heard many say as Charles Barkley did Thursday night on TNT, you can't change the rules for a few guys. Well, yes, you can, of course you can. You can do what you want if you're the NBA. They changed the rules many times for a guy named Wilt Chamberlain and he was just one guy. If a simple rule change can make the game more watchable (and oh by the way, much, much shorter) then why does it matter how many players are targets? Even if we're only talking about Jordan and Andre Drummond and Dwight Howard who might be targeted, that's three guys on three teams in a league of 30 teams -- in other words, one in ten NBA games could conceivably devolve into the travesty we witnessed Thursday night. I for one don't consider that a small problem.

Of course, returning to my original point, the strategy is almost always a loser, so a rule change should not be necessary. But this seems like a case where the league needs to save Popovich from himself for the sake of the game.


There are times when it absolutely makes sense to foul. If DeAndre Jordan gets the ball with great low post position, you should wrap him up and put him on the line provided you make sure he doesn't get the shot off. If a team is in a position to get 2-for-1 possessions at the end of a quarter, intentionally foul to stop the clock and get the final possession yourself -- the math on that one is a no-brainer. Hell, you should probably foul a good FT shooter on that one. And if the clock is winding down and you're behind, of course you have to foul to extend the game. But Popovich's strategy to foul early in games, to foul in close games, and even to foul when his team is in the lead, is brutal. The fact that it makes no sense just makes it that much more maddening.