For many years, the Golden State Warriors have been one of the most entertaining and least successful franchises in the NBA. So although they've been first or second in the NBA in points per game in four of the last five seasons, they've also missed the playoffs 16 times in 17 years. Still, they always put on a show and have some of the greatest and most loyal fans in the NBA to show for it.
When first time coach Mark Jackson took over the reins, he vowed to change things in Oakland. Unfortunately, while the fans all hoped he was talking about bringing more success, it seems like maybe he was just planning to make things a whole lot less entertaining.
Jackson's Warriors faced the Orlando Magic Thursday, two nights after beating the Miami Heat in overtime in their biggest win of the season. Golden State got off to a great start, opening the game on a 9-0 run, and building a double-digit lead that they maintained through most of the first half. With a little less than four minutes to play in the half and his Warriors leading 50-39, Jackson bizarrely decided to employ the Hack-a-Dwight strategy, intentionally fouling Dwight Howard off the ball.
No fan likes the Hack-a-insert-name-of-poor-free-throw-shooter-here. People enjoy NBA basketball for the end-to-end, free-flowing action, not to watch a parade to the free throw line. Nevertheless, it can be an effective tool in certain situations. In particular, for a team that is trailing, it lengthens the game, creating more possessions and more opportunities to cut into the lead, and hopefully yields some empty trips if the target misses his free throws.
But Hack-a-Dwight in the first half with an 11-point lead? What's the logic there? Howard is a 59 percent career free throw shooter. Granted, he's been significantly worse so far this season at around 43 percent, but that's a very small sample size, and if you're going to do the cost-benefit analysis on this strategy, I think you have to use his career number. The worst defense in the NBA, measured by points per possession, allows 1.12 points for each possession. The Warriors on the season are allowing 1.05 points per possession, and the Magic are scoring 1.08. Well, if Dwight Howard makes free throws at his career average, that's 1.18 points on average each time you intentionally foul him. It's going to be worse over time than the worst defense in the league -- so why in the world would you want to do it with a lead? Not to mention that it creates massive foul trouble for your team (Andris Beidrins and David Lee both fouled out and two more Warriors had 5 each) and takes the home crowd completely out of the game. In the end, Howard made 21 of 39 free throws Thursday for 54 percent, pretty close to his career average, and the same as Orlando's offensive efficiency on the season. Imagine that.
Hindsight is 20-20, but it sure looks like the wrong strategy in retrospect. Orlando went on a 14-5 run at the exact point Jackson started intentionally fouling, the Warriors double-digit lead was gone, and they were in a dogfight the rest of the way. Although Monta Ellis (30 points and 11 assists), Lee (36 points and 12 rebounds) and rookie Klay Thompson (14 points on just eight shots) played wonderfully, in the end the combination of Howard on the inside and shooters on the perimeter proved too much. Ellis tied the score for the final time at 109 with 81 seconds remaining, but Orlando scored the final eight points for the 117-109 victory.
Hack-a-Dwight wasn't pretty, and it wasn't effective, but it did make for a record-setting night. Howard's 39 free throw attempts were the most ever in an NBA game, breaking the record of 34 set by Wilt Chamberlain when the Warriors were still in Philadelphia -- that is to say, a really, really long time ago. To be fair, Jackson was dealt a bad hand in this game, facing the most dominant big man in the NBA in the Warriors' first game since losing Kwame Brown for the season with a pectoral tear. With his best and biggest low post defender sidelined, the Warriors were down to Biedrins and a bunch of smallish power forwards to try to contend with Howard. Jackson may have felt that Howard was going to score more against his team straight-up than he would at the line. Even so, it was the wrong strategy on every level -- statistically, from an entertainment standpoint, for the game itself, and eventually on the scoreboard.
Fueled in large part by 21 made free throws, Howard finished with a season high 45 points to go along with 23 rebounds, in the first 40-20 game of his stellar career. Orlando also made 11 of 23 three-pointers on the game. Hedo Turkoglu finished with 20 points (including three of those threes) and 9 assists.
With the win, Orlando remains perfect at 3-0 on their West Coast road trip and moves to 8-3 overall. The Warriors fall to 3-7.