I swear that the following is a real, legitimate box score:
That’s Rockets wing K.J. McDaniels—who once upon time was a good and useful player, not simply cannon fodder—intentionally fouling Pistons center Andre Drummond five times in nine seconds to begin the third quarter.
Intentional fouling has always existed as a strategy, most commonly on the poor free throw-shooting Shaquille O’Neal. Hack-a-Shaq was preferable to him backing down a hapless defender for an easy dunk. But it is usually done when the opposing team has already committed five fouls, or close to it. That’s what triggers the bonus, when all fouls—not just shooting fouls—result in free throws.
By intentionally fouling so brazenly at the beginning of the quarter, the Rockets were pretty much forced to commit to the strategy. If they all of a sudden decided to play normal defense, they’d face a grueling 11:51 where any touch would send the Pistons to the line.
And the thing is, it worked! From the beginning of the third quarter until Drummond was removed from the game less than three minutes later, the only shots the Pistons took were 16 free throws from Drummond, as the Rockets continuously fouled him. Drummond made just five of those 16 free throws, while at the same time the Rockets scored 11 points. He was an immense offensive liability.
Without going too far down the rabbithole of mapping out every scenario, this season the Pistons are averaging 1.05 points per possession. If Drummond shoots 35% on his two free throws, hacking him results in an average of 0.7 points per possession (as well as the chance the Pistons get an offensive rebound off a miss, though their best rebounder is Drummond). Over a sustained period of time—like the eight possessions the Rockets employed this strategy for—the average of 0.35 points lost on each possession adds up. Stan Van Gundy had to remove Drummond from the game.
This is the shitty basketball the NBA deserves. It only takes a small tweak to rid the game of intentional fouling, but this summer the NBA Board of Governors declined to, and commissioner Adam Silver says he’s still “on the fence” about the issue.
Meanwhile, the strategy is spreading. As ESPN’s Kevin Pelton demonstrated ($) last month, it’s not just one or two players being hacked anymore. Drummond, Dwight Howard, Deandre Jordan, Hassan Whiteside, Ian Mahinmi, and Rajon Rondo have all been targeted. According to Pelton’s research, last season there were intentional fouls in 4.5% of games, while this season there are intentional fouls in 11.8% of games. Last season there were 277 hackings of poor free throw shooters, while this season we’re on pace for over 400 (and even more after tonight).
The Rockets ended up losing the game 123-114, but that was for plenty of other reasons. As an intellectual exercise, math problem, or strategic discussion, intentional fouling is fascinating. But as an aesthetic proposition it makes me want to claw my eyes out.
Photo via AP