Bad free throw shooters deserve no special exemption

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.

Next argument.

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?

Next argument.

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

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  1. Grant,

    I agree with you that there shouldn’t be a rule letting bad FT shooters off the hook, but I haven’t ever gotten a charge out of their “noses being rubbed in it” before. That’s an interesting way to look at it.

  2. A 7-foot player shouldn’t have much difficulty
    shooting at a 10 foot basket .. so-o-o .. in the interest
    of making it “more of a sport” … why not ..

    raise the basket to 13 feet .. and put a motor on it
    to rotate it around randomly ?

  3. Grant

    Can you define the phrase “outlaw the rule” please?

    Is the proposition that if Howard gets fouled, then Harden can take his shots? Is that on every off the ball foul taken on Howard, or just the obviously Hack-a-Shaq instances?

    1. I believe the proposition is to let teams decline the free throws and take the ball out, or call it an intentional foul and give two shots and possession.

  4. Can’t agree more, Iggy!
    If the guy sucks at the line, he sucks at the line.
    I’ve been a BBall fan all my life and it doesn’t bother me a bit.
    What I don’t like is their need to give each ‘five’ after every free-throw regardless of whether or not they make it.
    When did that become the norm???
    Reminds me of women’s volleyball…

  5. I think the issue is a little more nuanced than you present it. The hack a shaq involves an intentional foul on a player who may or may not be directly involved in the action. There are already rules in play for intentional fouls and flagerant fouls. I don’t see any problem with penalizing a team for flagerantly fouling someone clearly out of the play. It would help the flow of play and maintain the drama of the moment. You are probably correct there is drama in watching a player under stress but then again that is for people who don’t enjoy basketball but enjoy someone else’s misery. Kind of like the fans of NASCAR who only enjoy the car wrecks. Sure they are fans of some sort but not really of the sport. Finally your points regarding taking ideas from other leagues really don’t hold water.. The rule is either effective or not regardless of where it comes from… Or are you too young to remember the 3 point shot came from the ABA?

    1. If a player is on the court, he’s involved in the action.

      A guy missing free throws is nothing like a nascar driver potentially dying in a car wreck. That’s tragic. The former is merely embarrassing.

      1. Hmm… yea that’s right I was comparing missing a free throw to someone dying…yeesh… Are you intentionally being obtuse or is hyperbole how you defend your arguments? Also intentionally fouling someone away from the action is treated differently now in the last two minutes so merely stating when someone is on the floor they are part of the action really isn’t addressing the issue..

  6. Its likely time saved by rule changes will be filled in by advertising at another point in the game.

    I remember what a joke the new “two minute warning” rule was. I still cringe at the phrase. Coaches can’t read clocks? Later “officials time outs” were added.

    If the NBA saves 5 minutes a game with a new hack a shack rule, don’t be surprised if they find a way to tack on 5-10 minutes of advertising at another point in the game.

  7. There’s a lot of subjectivity in this discussion about how one sees the game; any game. The Lakers’ Showtime uptempo game was great, but I liked the Bird/McHale half court game too. When any of a number of different styles are well executed it can be a thing of beauty. The Greatest Show on Turf had entertainment value, but who watched Kiick & Czonka or Riggo & The Hogs without grudging admiration?
    As to flow of the game, Soccer has a great more or less uninterrupted flow of movement, but not that much scoring (entertainment). A 2-1 or 3-2 match is common. Same in Hockey, although it provides some roughhouse action in between scores.
    American Football has a horrendously interrupted flow with huddles before each play, penalties, injury time outs, official time outs, team time outs, extended wtf? TV time outs, yet maintains interest with the intensity of the struggles. Of course in the case of the tail wagging the dog as Brodie noted, the TV Network$ encourage endless rule changes to immaculate the defense and allow more scoring and increase sales and marketing opportunities.

    1. I think Mike Singletary said it best: “I want winners!!!”….It’s hard to win when you have Eleven men on the field and you know one is pulling in the opposite direction (to paraphrase him)….I don’t know if someone who can’t shoot free throws is a winner, But Iguodala winning the MVP and making life tough on Lebron James might be an exception to the rule…It takes an excellent GM to spot that weakeness and still feel that his overall strengths can benefit the team.

      1. Forgetting to mention Iguodala’s involvement in the leagues best passing attack was my fault, however an example of how he overcame his shortcomings in one area while helping athletically in another is the GM’s balancing act.

  8. The real question isl; why are there bad free throw shooters in the NBA?

    Unlike most facets of team sports that increase with difficulty as you progress through higher ranks of competition the free throw remains just as easy as it was when you were in Jr. High as it does as a professional. The free throw line isn’t any farther back and the hoop isn’t any higher nor is the ball any different size. It’s the same shot you’ve been taking your whole life playing the sport.

    I think it’s being overly generous to say that if you can’t make 80% of your free throws you shouldn’t be considered a professional basketball player.

    1. I think I recall someone years ago asking Shaq why he found free throws so difficult and his reasons were that the ball is small and extremely light for him–like you or I trying to shoot one of those toy plastic balls from the bin at the supermarket–and also because his height makes the trajectory of the free throws difficult–like he’s shooting straight at the hoop–which is why his coaches kept stressing for him to put more arc on his shots.
      Interesting topic…even for a football blog.

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