The text of my Saturday column runs below.
This is about entertainment value, moral obligation and the Hack-a-Shaq.
Well-meaning, powerful people want to outlaw the Hack-a-Shaq in the NBA — intentionally fouling a horrendous free-throw shooter because he probably will miss one or both of the 15-foot set shots from the charity stripe.
“To me, it’s a dumb rule,” said Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr before Game 3 of the NBA Finals. “It takes away from the flow of the game.”
Like Kerr, Cleveland Cavaliers’ head coach David Blatt dislikes the Hack-a-Shaq, although both coaches freely used the tactic during the playoffs. “There’s no such thing as ‘Hack-a-Shaq’ overseas — that’s one of the reasons that I believe they can and should change the rule,” Blatt said before the Cavaliers played the Chicago Bulls during the second round.
The Hack-a-Shaq’s most ardent opponent probably is former head coach, current television analyst and voice of the NBA — Jeff Van Gundy. “I turn those games off the moment (the Hack-a-Shaq) happens,” he said shortly after the Houston Rockets Hack-a-Shaqed Los Angeles Clippers’ center DeAndre Jordan 34 times during Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinal.
“To me, it’s not enjoyable to watch … It’s about saying to the viewers, ‘We know you invest a lot in the NBA — time, money, whatever. We’re not gonna subject you to this type of basketball.’”
Do these arguments carry weight? Let’s consider them one by one.
First, Kerr’s argument. The aesthetic argument — that basketball is beautiful when played fast without interruption. The Hack-a-Shaq only stops the action and slows down the game, which is bad for the sport.
I agree with Kerr that interruptions can be no fun. But the Hack-a-Shaq accounts for only a tiny portion of the interruptions. Fouls in general are what really bog down basketball. Teams shoot dozens of free throws every game.
If we extend Kerr’s argument to its logical end, refs should rarely call fouls, players should wear pads and teams should replace the hardwood floors with ice. That would be a fast sport.
Oh wait, it already exists: hockey, I think.
The “Overseas” argument, courtesy of David Blatt: The NBA should outlaw the Hack-a-Shaq because it’s outlawed in European leagues.
That’s like saying Major League Baseball should outlaw wooden bats because the NCAA bans them for college where they mandate aluminum bats.
Or it’s like saying the NFL should allow wide receivers to get a running start before a play because they can do that in the Arena League.
European basketball leagues allow offensive goaltending. Should the NBA allow that, too?
The entertainment value argument, courtesy of Jeff Van Gundy: The Hack-a-Shaq is boring.
How does one quantify entertainment value? What’s boring to Van Gundy might not be boring to someone else. To me, the Hack-a-Shaq is one of most exciting things that can happen in an NBA game. The Hack-a-Shaq brings drama to an undramatic part of the sport.
Watching a good shooter shoot free throws is like watching an intentional walk in baseball. Automatic. Not thrilling.
Now, if the pitcher chokes under pressure and throws it over the backstop and a runner scores from third, that’s entertaining.
In basketball, it’s exciting when a team intentionally fouls Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard, essentially telling him he can’t do the easiest part of the sport – shoot free throws. Rubbing his face in it.
You get to watch anxiety creep across Howard’s face as he walks toward the free-throw line. He knows he can sink these shots during shoot-around before the game, but something happens in his brain when the game starts. He can’t handle the pressure, the possible embarrassment of failing at something so easy, something little kids can do.
And he bricks.
What a wonderful phenomenon of human psychology.
And that isn’t even the best thing about the Hack-a-Shaq. The Hack-a-Shaq is great because it’s a form of quality control. It punishes players who can’t perform the basics and rewards those who can, improving the skill level of the entire league.
That’s what rules should do. They shouldn’t protect players’ weaknesses. Sports are about finding weaknesses and exploiting them. That’s the whole point.
If a baseball team has a third baseman who can’t field, it’s the other team’s moral obligation to bunt down the third-base line. If a basketball team has a center who can’t protect the rim, it’s the other team’s moral obligation to attack the lane and punish him.
And if a basketball team has a player who can’t shoot free throws, it’s the other team’s moral obligation to foul him until he makes them or his coach takes him out.
The ruthlessness of sports should be preserved.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.