During last night’s Spurs-Clippers game, TNT threw up a graphic showing the Clippers’ record when DeAndre Jordan shoots at least 12, 14, and 15 free throws in a game, implying that the donkey show you were watching at the time—a professional athlete performing his sport’s most boring component badly—is not only a waste of your time and TNT’s broadcasting capacity, but a losing strategy. But whether or not intentionally fouling Jordan is a useful long-term strategy isn’t quite as important as whether or not it’s a good short-term one. DeAndre is getting fouled because the Clippers are winning, not the reverse.
So far in his career, DeAndre is the worst free-throw shooter of all time. This much is demonstrable fact. He’s been bad enough for long enough that to become an object of fascination in the NBA analytics pocket economy, because whether or not to foul the galoot who shoots free throws like he’s throwing a really long water balloon seems like a solvable problem. Last spring, FiveThirtyEight looked at what fouling DeAndre did to the Clippers last year, and the predictable mitigating factors began to emerge. You can see the effect on the Clippers’ offense in their chart below, which includes adjustments for the possessions being in the halfcourt, the Clippers rebounding Jordan’s misses unusually well, and taking away the chance for a fast break after a Clippers miss from open play.
(In our calculations below, we’re using Synergy Sports figures instead of ESPN Stats & Info, so there are some discrepancies between what 538 had and what we have. Synergy has the Clippers down for .938 PPP in halfcourt offense last year, for example, instead of the 1.04 number cited on 538. Still, we can assume that the two sources match up in the final ledger.)
This year, Jordan is shooting 39.7 percent from the line (and 71 percent from the floor), meaning his expected points for two free throws are 0.794. The Clippers’ halfcourt offense is sitting at 0.969, meaning there’s a difference of .175. Using apples-to-apples numbers to account for the difference between Synergy’s numbers and Stats & Info’s, this is actually twice as large last year’s DeAndre gap. (.856 expected points on two FTA vs. .937, a difference of 0.08.)
I looked at the 16 games this year in which DeAndre had at least 10 FTA as a rough estimate of when he was being deliberately fouled, and then looked at the play-by-play for repeat trips to the foul line for Jordan, at the ends of quarters or games. In two of those games, against the Nuggets and Nets, the play-by-play didn’t come up with anything like that, so I tossed them. (If you have a good idea for what to do with this data, let me know in the comments!) In the remaining 14 games, 10 teams began fouling Jordan when they were down by at least 6 points, six while down by at least 10, and just one—the Spurs—while leading. On average, these 14 games saw hack-a-DJ start with an average opponent deficit of 8.8 points. To put a very broad point on that, the Inpredictable Win Probability calculator says an 8.8-point lead with 5 minutes to go in the fourth quarter results in a win 92.7 percent of the time. In other words teams tend to hack DeAndre when they’re almost certainly going to lose the game.
The thing that makes broader number dumps less than useful is that taking DeAndre’s numbers in aggregate and comparing them to the Clippers’ offense misses the entire point of fouling Jordan. You aren’t looking for a long-term strategic gain; it’s a short-term gambit. When you foul DeAndre, you strip all of the complexity and redundancies out of an offense, and give it a single point of failure—DJ making his damn free throws—and a single release valve, like those offensive rebounds 538 pointed out. Over the course of a game, the Clippers offense is not volatile; it has good shooters, good ball handlers, and good passers all over. But DeAndre at the line? That is a very volatile proposition. This is precisely why teams begin to use it in situations—the clock is short and there’s no time to wait on season-long trends to show up on the scoreboard. Sometimes this works, like in Game 1 of Rockets-Blazers last year. Other times it doesn’t, like in the 15 Clippers wins in that TNT graphic up top.
The compelling thing about how Popovich is using the tactic is how he’s willing to go to the move before things get out of hand. (Popovich is the only coach who went to fouling Jordan this year while ahead.) But even this isn’t exactly a vote for fouling Jordan as a long-term efficiency, only a more surgical implementation than Oh shit, we’re down by 50 with two minutes to go. Last night, he went to it after the Spurs had eaten up the Clippers early lead to go up by two, only to give up 10 unanswered points. So Popovich took the measure of everything happening to the Spurs—Chris and Blake bulling into the lane, Jamal Crawford lurking—and deciding that the lineup he had in the game would be better served taking those off the table and just fouling. (It may not have been a bad play; the Clippers have a pretty bad transition defense, but the Spurs actually have a very bad transition offense and one of the best halfcourt units.) Putting Jordan on the line there, late in the second with the Clippers already in the penalty, is actually a relatively tame use of the device—really just a way to stop the bleeding.
Pretty much everyone but Lex Luthor and Reggie Miller can agree that this is a garbage rule highlighting the least theatric part of the game and enacted in bad faith. (Imagine if the NFL allowed a defensive end to kick a tight end in the nuts and force a field goal try from the 45 eight times a game.) Until it’s more common in less hopeless situations, don’t let the success rate fool you.