It’s no secret how I feel about the strategy of intentionally fouling poor free throw shooters. Spoiler alert: I’m not a fan.
Leagues are always hesitant to make rule changes, for what should be obvious reasons. There’s inherent virtue in having the game remain consistent over time. For instance, rule changes like the introduction of the shot clock or the three point line make it all but impossible to compare statistics from different eras. But that doesn’t mean you never make changes: you have to balance the needs of the game with tradition. Hopefully we can all agree that the shot clock and the three point line are both very good things.
The league rightly overcame their reticence this summer and actually modified the rules concerning off the ball fouls — ultimately making a change that was almost completely meaningless. It was the worst of both worlds: daring to make a change, while doing nothing to address the problem.
In the last two Clippers’ games, we’ve had the extreme pleasure of watching terrific basketball through three and a half quarters, followed by the extreme displeasure of watching those games grind to a halt, essentially because Adam Silver is apparently too stupid or too scared to make a meaningful change.
Thank goodness the Clippers have been winning most of their games by 40 or so, putting DeAndre Jordan on the bench in the fourth quarter while also placing the game far too out of reach to even bother with silly chicanery, no matter how unscrupulous the coach.
Let’s recap first: prior to this season, the rules awarded one free throw and the ball out of bounds to the offended team for fouls committed off the ball in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime. This season, they extended that rule to cover the final two minutes of all four quarters. Intentional, off the ball fouls at all other points in the game incur no additional penalty for the team committing the foul.
So if you’re scoring at home, the NBA took a practice that is completely outside of the spirit of the game and changed the rule book so that now they allow it during 40 out of 48 minutes, instead of allowing it during 46 out of 48 minutes.
And they even screwed that part up. On Friday night in Oklahoma City, with seven seconds left in the first half and the Clippers not yet in the bonus, J.J. Redick intentionally fouled Victor Oladipo off the ball because the team had a foul to give. Unfortunately, the new rule that takes affect in the final two minutes of each quarter is enforced IRRESPECTIVE of whether the team being fouled is in the bonus — so all Redick did was give Oladipo a gift of one free throw, thanks to the new rule. (Live and learn — hopefully the Clippers never make that mistake again.)
The amazing thing is that the strategy continues to be ineffective, even when the foul shooter is missing free throws. On Friday night, the Thunder started fouling with 5:41 remaining and the Clippers ahead by three points.
(Let’s briefly stop there, shall we: you’re at home, you’ve played 42 minutes against the team with the best record in basketball, a team you defeated just nine days prior, and it’s a one possession game. How about playing defense for the final six minutes? How about trying to win the game playing basketball, as opposed to employing a slimy gimmick? Is that too much to ask, Billy Donovan?)
Despite the fact that Jordan missed five straight free throws at one point, the Thunder actually lost ground while they were fouling. Now, it was certainly unusual that Jordan wound up making five out of six at one point, but overall Jordan was just six for twelve, which is exactly one point more than the expected value for a 40% shooter. Meanwhile, the Thunder scored just four points in the seven possessions during their foul-fest. Teams forget that as they are fouling they are also taking themselves out of any semblance of offensive rhythm, while also ensuring that they will be facing a set defense every trip. And by the way, the Clippers have far and away the best defense in the NBA right now.
Consider two specific plays. After Luc Richard Mbah a Moute blocked a shot, the Clippers were running out in transition. The Thunder were scrambled, and were seemingly more concerned with finding Jordan in order to foul him, than with finding the ball. Enes Kanter literally ignored Chris Paul while pointing at Jordan, apparently imploring one of his teammates to commit the intentional foul. Paul, alone behind the arc, calmly sank the three as the Thunder players tried to pull their collective heads out of their asses.
Later, after the Thunder had called off the hack-a-Jordan and committed to playing defense, they immediately forced the Clippers into a turnover which led to an open corner three from Oladipo, which cut the lead back to three — right where we had started when the abomination began. It’s also worth noting that the Thunder beat the Clippers last week by forcing turnovers and getting easy transition scores, NOT by committing intentional fouls.
But none of this is new. We’ve been here before, we’ve expressed our distaste for the practice, we’ve pointed out that it’s not even particularly effective.
Instead, let’s talk about Doc Rivers for a moment. On Friday night, DeAndre Jordan was on the bench to begin the fourth quarter, checking in with 5:43 left in the game. Nick Collison fouled Jordan two seconds later, and the Thunder fouled him five more times over the next three minutes.
On Saturday, Jordan was once again resting at the start of the final period. He checked in with 5:52 remaining and the Timberwolves committed a whopping 15 fouls over the remainder of the game, beginning five seconds after Jordan took the floor. Ugh. At least we had that frozen yogurt excitement to keep things interesting.
If I were Rivers, I would probably be a bit stubborn too. I’d want to show them that their strategy isn’t going to work, and that I won’t be manipulated. But at the same time, Rivers can play this smarter. We know that Jordan needs rest during the course of the game, but why not have him log his minutes at the START of the fourth, and plan to rest him in the period from six minutes left until two minutes left, prime time for hacking? With his current substitution pattern, Rivers is inviting opponents to send an ice cold Jordan straight to the line, which is exactly what happened on Friday and Saturday.
Of course, an opposing coach could choose to commit five quick fouls and get into the bonus to begin the fourth quarter while Jordan is out there. If that happens, you calmly take Jordan out and pad the lead with a parade to the line for 90% foul shooters like Jamal Crawford and Chris Paul. Yes, Doc prefers to keep his first and second units somewhat separate, and changing Jordan’s rest pattern would have him playing with the reserves while putting Marreese Speights on the floor with the starters for a few extra minutes. But isn’t it worth it? Simply by tweaking when Jordan gets his rest, Rivers could significantly limit when opposing coaches can employ the strategy, and at the same time spare me the pain of watching that shit show.
I’m actually tired of writing about this issue. You all are probably tired of reading about it. Adam Silver obviously didn’t fix it this summer, and who knows when or if he’ll try again. But even if Adam Silver isn’t going to save us, at least maybe Doc Rivers will do his part.