Did I expect the NBA to get it right? Not really, no. The rules committee almost never does something right the first time and the newly announced changes regarding intentional fouling away from the ball are no exception. As Lucas Hann has already pointed out, the changes coming next season are fairly minor, and while they could ameliorate the problem somewhat, on the whole the league has once again missed an opportunity to address a very real issue.
There are three changes in store. Two of them -- regarding fouls before the ball is inbounded and the "piggy back" fouls often seen after made free throws (a technique made popular by none other than Doc Rivers) -- are no-brainers, but will have little impact since neither of those tactics were particularly widespread.
The third change is the one that will affect the game the most, but also the one that represents a missed opportunity. The rule book currently treats fouls away from the ball in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter and throughout overtime as a special case, awarding a free throw and the ball out of bounds to the team being fouled. The league, in at best a half measure, simply extended that rule to apply during the final two minutes of each quarter.
That will have two positive impacts. First, it will eliminate the "final possession" foul which was becoming almost de rigeur in the league. In fact, given that a possession is worth essentially one point, from a purely mathematical standpoint, it would always make sense to foul with 20 seconds left in a quarter, even if you had to foul Stephen Curry. So it's definitely good for the game to reduce that incentive.
It will also significantly curtail what I might call "organic" hacking. Since intentionally fouling a poor shooter only results in free throws once a team has accumulated five team fouls in a period, eliminating the final two minutes of each period should significantly limit the opportunities if teams are playing traditional defense and trying to avoid fouling their opponent. "Organic hacking" in this case occurs when a team happens to get into the bonus and there happens to be a bad free throw shooter on the floor.
But here's where the law of unintended consequences kicks in -- here's where Adam Silver has once again screwed up. I GUARANTEE YOU that next season will feature many games in which coaches insert end of the bench players for the sole purpose of reaching the bonus early in a quarter.
You may recall that Houston coach J.B. Bickerstaff did precisely this last January when he had surprise second half starter K.J. McDaniels commit five fouls in nine seconds against Andre Drummond in what was surely a scintillating game to watch. For coaches devoid of other strategies (crazy ideas like playing defense, for instance) the rule change is simply incentive to get to the bonus as quickly as possible. As the McDaniels game painfully illustrates, the worst hack-a-thons will be completely unaffected by this rule change. A coach willing to grind a game to a halt with two minutes left in the the third quarter is perfectly willing to do so with four minutes left.
Think of it this way. If you assume that on average it takes about nine of a quarter's twelve minutes to reach the bonus, then a special "final two minutes" rule effectively eliminates two-thirds of the opportunity to use a hack strategy, so that's a big deal. But the game last 48 minutes, and intentional fouling is still open for business in 40 of those 48 minutes for the coach who's willing to get creative. If the law of unintended consequences has taught us anything, it is that coaches can get very, very creative. Silver's rule change is an attempt to take a significant chunk of the game away from coaches who would employ the strategy -- but it's actually a pretty simple matter for any coach to just take that time back by fouling more, sooner.
Silver is either stupid or willfully naive when he says the rule change will eliminate "roughly 45 percent of the incidents of the away-from-the-play fouls right now." If 45 percent of intentional fouls occurred during the final two minutes of periods one, two and three in the past, it's beyond certain that many of those fouls will just get shifted into the first ten minutes of those periods going forward. (Oh and by the way, how lame is it to implement a 45% solution? "We have a big problem that warrants a rule change. I know -- let's fix 45 percent of the problem!")
As we've been arguing for literally years on Clips Nation, the real solution would be to give the team being fouled their choice of free throws or the ball out of bounds. The strategy immediately disappears, with no unintended consequences since it's essentially a version of the rules already in place.
The big mistake in the proposed solution is that the NBA is trying to fix the problem by expanding the use of an existing BAD RULE. The idea that intentional fouls were acceptable for 46 minutes but not for two minutes was always crazy -- are they OK or are they not OK? So now we've got a crazy rule with a 40-8 split instead of a 46-2 split -- big deal. And it's not just a bad rule because it's inconsistent -- it also creates difficult judgments for the officials. For instance, what exactly does it mean for a foul to be "away from the play"? Smart teams foul DeAndre Jordan as he's setting a screen, masking an intentional foul as a regular foul. This rule change will just create more incentive for teams to pursue more of that sort of subterfuge. And the rule as written also has the potential to skew a game in which neither team is pursuing a hacking strategy. Imagine a close game where a defender is trying to deny the ball to the opponent's top scorer. A little too much grabbing, a whistle off the ball -- and it's a free throw and the ball out of bounds. In a one possession game, that extra free throw could be a game winner. Clearly that's not the intent, but it's always been a possibility under the "final two minutes" rule.
Will this rule change help? Maybe a little. There's also a decent chance that it simply exacerbates the problem, leading to just as many intentional fouls, in an even more cynical fashion. Will the NBA ever get it right? Our best hope is that Larson Ishii can have someone in Secaucus give me a call so I can explain it to them.