People get attached to issues, I'll be the first to admit it. In politics, in business, in life, sometimes you get more caught up in the issue itself than in the impact. And clearly that's where I am in the ongoing discussion of intentional fouls in the NBA.
It's so obvious to me that the rule needs to be changed. There was never any intent in the bonus rule that it be used as an alternative to playing defense, regardless of how badly an opponent shoots free throws. The very name of the rule (alternately called the bonus rule when referring to it from the perspective of the team being fouled or the penalty from the perspective of the team committing the foul) tells you all you need to know. It was never meant to be a "bonus" to commit a foul nor a "penalty" to be fouled. It is so obviously outside of the spirit of the game to provide an incentive to foul systematically that it's not worth discussing.
There are those who disagree with me that the rules need to be amended. Not significantly, mind you. Just a simple tweak, allow the team to decline the penalty. Done. No more problem.
But here's the thing: make the change, don't make the change, it's not really that big a deal. It doesn't affect the outcome of games. It will never be a winning strategy. To me, that's another reason to change the rule -- the strategy only serves to make the game less watchable, and that's not in anyone's interest.
But it would appear that the NBA is not going to change it. And it really doesn't matter that much.
I will take the time to point out the ridiculous nature of Adam Silver's explanation for maintaining the status quo. (I am very disappointed in Silver on this matter by the way -- to this point in his tenure I had been pleasantly surprised with his willingness to make the right decisions for the game. This time he chose to cop out on the flimsiest of grounds.)
In explaining why the league will likely not act on the issue, Silver cited only three points:
(a) the problem is primarily limited to two players,
(b) viewership numbers have not suffered and
(c) it sends the wrong message to young basketball players.
Let's dig deeper into these arguments.
According to Silver:
90 percent of the occurrences of Hack-a-Shaq involve the Rockets and the Clippers, and for the most part, it's two players. Seventy-five percent involve two players, DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard. So then the question becomes, should we be making that rule change largely for two teams and two players?
I'd be interested to know what methodology was used for calculating those numbers, but they seem about right to me. There are a few problems though. To start with it's a fallacious argument. What does the number of players/teams affected have to do with it in the end? If it's a problem, it's a problem. I also can't help but point out that two players on two teams is still one game in 15 during the regular season, and given that these happen to be good teams, far, far more in the playoffs when every game is on national television.
Beyond that, let's be perfectly clear: Dwight Howard shot .528 from the free throw line this season and his career percentage is higher than that. There were 32,136 minutes played in the NBA this season by players who shot .528 or worse, 4,043 of which were played by Howard and Jordan. There were 3,276 FTs taken by players shooting at or below .528, 742 of which were taken by Howard and Jordan. If intentional fouling is a viable option against Howard, it's a viable option against those other guys as well, one of whom is currently playing in the NBA Finals (Andrew Bogut, .524 this season and .451 over the last five seasons). By my math, the potential problem is either 8x bigger (by minutes) or 4x bigger (by free throws) than just Jordan and Howard.
So why did Jordan/Howard suffer 75% of the intentional fouls? In the case of Jordan, it's partly because Doc Rivers is a stubborn SOB. Rivers knows the strategy doesn't work, and he leaves Jordan on the court to accept the fouls until he finally decides to take pity on either Jordan or the fans. There's also a lack of imagination on the part of coaches at work here, who have seen other coaches foul Jordan and Howard and follow suit. Why don't teams foul Bogut intentionally? I don't know, but Steve Kerr's tendency to play a small lineup at the end of games has something to do with it.
Regardless, to maintain that it's a "two player problem" is disingenuous. By this logic, it would be a zero player problem if Rivers and Kevin McHale would simply bench Jordan and Howard -- which is one of the goals of the strategy in the first place. This argument only makes sense if the NBA thinks it's a good idea to allow the strategy to remove certain players from the game.
As for the ratings argument, we don't have access to Silver's data, we'll just have to take his word for it. I suppose if content is the goal, then intentional fouls are a good thing, since they prolong games interminably -- an opportunity to show more commercials! Then again, rule changes to improve the flow and watchability of the game are made all the time without specific ratings data to support them. Did the NBA eliminate hand-checking because dial groups were turned off by it? No. They did it because they knew intuitively that fans would rather watch players who were allowed more freedom on the court. The supposition that the average NBA fan doesn't dislike watching a parade to the foul line doesn't pass the sniff test. Maybe fans aren't changing the channel the moment it starts -- but I find it hard to believe that it is helping to grow the popularity of the game. The NBA used an increase in points scored to justify its decision to eliminate hand-checking -- would average length of game not be an equally valid criterion for making a change?
The most ludicrous argument is the young players thing. In his press conference, Silver "added that 'as a steward of the game,' he had concerns that eliminating Hack-a-Shaq might provide a disincentive for young basketball players to practice foul shooting." When you resort to Helen Lovejoy's go to argument you're clearly out of ideas.
It reminds me of a recent TNT telecast where Chris Webber opined that a rule change would be a boon to European players, who would be practicing their free throws while Americans were sipping iced tea (or something else that involves not practicing free throws I guess). Apparently Webber was unaware that under FIBA rules an "unsportsmanlike" foul, which includes any and all off the ball fouls, results in two shots and the ball. Funny that international players are often cited has having better skills than US born players, which would include FT shooting, even though the rules in Europe don't allow for intentional fouls off the ball.
I was absolutely certain that the league would change this rule this off-season. It's clearly only escalating. The "before the ball has been inbounded" innovation that Gregg Popovich and others put in this year now makes it an option early in quarters, even before a team has reached the bonus, making it harder to hide players like Bogut simply by sitting them at the end of quarters. For his part, Rivers landed on a fairly brilliant dodge of the last two minutes rule, having his players commit intentional loose ball fouls (technically not off the ball fouls) on free throws at the end of the game. The trendline is disturbing, and that has nothing to do with free throw shooters getting worse and everything to do with coaches doing it more. (It doesn't help that half the league used to be an assistant to Popovich.)
But if the NBA doesn't want to change it that's their business. It's difficult for me to comprehend why they wouldn't make a simple change for the good of the game, but it's not as if it's changing the outcome of games.