Intentional fouling is not new. Wilt Chamberlain suffered it. A famously effective scorer and a simply atrocious free throw shooter, Wilt was hacked frequently in playoff games during his heyday.
Red Auerbach's Celtics were a common offender. In one conference finals game in 1966, the Celtics sent Wilt to the line for 25 free throws. He hit eight. Two years later the Celtics hacked into 22 Wilt FTAs. He hit eight. Five of Wilt's top 10 playoff game FTA totals came against the Celtics. Three more of those high-FTA playoff games came in a single 1970 series when Wilt's Lakers faced the Jerry Colangelo coached Suns. Over that seven-game series, Wilt went 42-of-93 from the line (45 percent).
Ninety-three free throws attempts by one of the worst shooters ever over seven games. What glorious fun that must have been.
On Wednesday, the Rockets attempted 64 free throw attempts, which ranks as the fourth-most by a team in a regulation playoff game ever. Now, Houston typically likes going to the line as a part of its rim-and-arc offensive system. For most players, a trip to the line for two is one of the more efficient results on offense. Except the Rockets have their own Wiltian free throw shooter: Dwight Howard. The Clippers sent Howard to the line 21 times. He hit eight.
The Rockets played that game, too, fouling DeAndre Jordan off the ball a couple of times. (Jordan beat the odds to hit four-of-six.) What that strategy did in this case is get Jordan out of the game: he played just 25 minutes. By refusing to allow the Rockets to exploit Jordan's free throw deficiencies, Doc Rivers kneecapped his team's defense and rebounding.
Our Rodger Sherman wrote recently that while intentional fouling is a horrible facet of the game, it does lead to a fascinating tactical war. That's especially the case in series like these, where each team has at least one hacking candidate. But as far as fascinating tactical wars go, I much prefer actual basketball. I bet you do, too.
The solutions to ending the intentional foul strategy are very obvious. My preference, as it has been for two years, is to give teams who draw an off-ball foul in the bonus the option of taking free throws or taking the ball out-of-bounds. It prevents more judgment calls for officials.
But plenty of folks are arguing against a policy change. And all of their reasons are weak. Here are my retorts.
1. "Free throws are a part of the game!"
Well, yes. They are. But why are they a part of the game? Free throws were created as a deterrent to fouls, not as a supplementary skill test to determine the best team. Free throws exist to prevent defenders from beating the Holy Hell out of prospective scorers on every possession. Free throws and the fouling system (including the six-foul limit) are simply deterrents against overly physical play.
The NBA tweaks its rules on what sort of physicality is allowed with some frequency. The norm is to allow less physicality over time. There's a reason East Coast Basketball is a pejorative term these days: open, free basketball is far more entertaining than burly, brawly action. In a perfect world, there would be no fouls and there would be no reason for free throws. Watching actual offenses face actual defenses is way more fun than watching anyone shoot uncontested set shots.
The time of play factor can't be ignored, either. In a Utopian paradise where no one fouled anyone, games would last no more than two hours, if that. The Rockets' Game 2 win lasted three hours. Game 1 of this series was 2 hours, 42 minutes. By contrast, the comparatively low-FTA Bulls-Cavaliers Game 2 was over in 2 hours, 23 minutes.
Free throws are a part of the game only by necessity. No one likes them. Players who are good at shooting them and capable of drawing them use their existence strategically. When players are bad at shooting them, opponents use their existence strategically. Frankly, reducing free throws to zero should be a goal of the NBA. It can never happen, but the NBA should look for policy fixes to reduce how many free throws we have to watch and how much time they waste. Which brings us to ...
2. "It's just as boring to watch good shooters take free throws!"
Mark Cuban provided a good example for this rationale.
Whats the difference between FTs in a Hack-a-whoever, and someone who gets to the line all the time. Is it more fun to watch a FT go in ?— Mark Cuban (@mcuban) May 5, 2015
Cuban is right: All free throws are boring. In fact, free throws from bad shooters are a bit less boring, because at least they are funny. Cuban isn't explicitly using this fact as a rationale to preserve intentional fouling -- I sense he hates it, too -- but some do make this leap. Because all free throws are boring and because we aren't going to stop James Harden from getting 17 FTAs in a game, we shouldn't prevent teams from making Dwight Howard take 17 FTAs.
I go back to Argument No. 1: Free throws are a deterrent to fouling. The only reason Harden gets 17 FTAs is because he gets fouled on a bunch of shot attempts. You can certainly argue that certain players (Harden among them) force defenders to foul them by initiating contact, thus using the free throw rule as a loophole just as Doc Rivers or Gregg Popovich did.
This should be addressed, too! And the NBA has done work to limit the types of ball handler-initiated contact draws free throws (see: the rip move). It can do more. That it hasn't solved that issue shouldn't be a justification for the continued existence of intentional fouling strategy.
3. "Those guys should just practice more."
The idea that DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard and Andre Drummond don't practice shooting free throws is just idiotic. You cannot brute-force most physical skills into existence. There's a sinister overtone to comments like this, as well, that implies the players are just too stupid to realize that Practice Makes Perfect. I blame Malcolm Gladwell.
4. "If you can't make free throws, you don't belong in basketball."
Yep. Wilt Chamberlain, Shaq and Bill Russell (career 56 percent FT shooter, lower than Dwight) didn't belong in the game. Ban Bill Russell retroactively.
Think about that. If Wilt and Russell played today, we'd have people arguing they don't belong in the sport. Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.
5. "What about the children?"
Adam Silver this week told Bleacher Report that he's gotten missives from youth basketball coaches imploring him to leave the intentional fouling strategy alone because if the NBA reduces the penalty on bad shooters, kids will no longer practice their free throws.
Really? Because, I mean, long ago we were warned that the allowance of slam dunks would lead to the end of the art of jump shooting. We've been told that once athletes took over the league no one would practice the fundamentals. And we just saw the greatest shooter of his generation and maybe all-time win the MVP award. Yeah, Stephen Curry is plastered everywhere and the art of shooting is at risk in the youth system. Right.
If there's a serious justification to preserve intentional fouling strategy, I haven't seen it yet.