Credit Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni for embracing the hypocrisy, for acknowledging that what might be best for his team could also undermine the integrity of the game.
Two weeks ago his Lakers slogged through a 99-98 victory over the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center by, in part, implementing the loathsome Hack-A-Howard gambit, a strategy entailing the intentional and repetitious fouling of Rockets center Dwight Howard, a notoriously inept foul shooter. When Howard played for the Lakers last season, D'Antoni decried the tactic, echoing the sentiment of those bemoaning the deterioration of the quality of play while Howard repeatedly strode to the free-throw line to influence the outcome of the game.
Earlier this month at Toyota Center, D'Antoni occupied the opposing bench and, thus, stood on the other side of the equation. He made no bones about doing the same thing he complained about one season earlier.
"Yeah, but that doesn’t change anything," D'Antoni said when asked about his decision to have the Lakers intentionally foul Howard down the stretch of their triumph despite previously voicing vehement objections over the ugly maneuver. "That doesn’t mean you’re not going to use it if it’s out there.
"I’m not crazy. If I could change it I would probably change the rule."
The Rockets managed just three shot attempts during the Hack-a-Howard portion of the fourth quarter.
Sending poor shooters to the charity stripe as opposed to allowing them layups or dunks has long been an NBA practice. However, intentionally fouling inferior free-throw shooters away from the basketball came into vogue when, colloquially, former Dallas Mavericks coach Don Nelson repeatedly and purposely fouled Chicago Bulls forward Dennis Rodman, a career 58.4 shooter from the line, in 1997. In later seasons Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal, a career 52.7 percent shooter from the line, was frequently targeted, inspiring the "Hack-A-Shaq" moniker that took on various forms with players like Ben Wallace (41.4 percent from the line for his career) exploited in late-game situations.
The NBA has a standing rule that discourages teams from intentional fouling players away from the basketball inside the final two minutes of games, but coaches have employed the tactic with increasingly creative measures over the years.
Howard has been in the cross hairs in recent seasons, with D'Antoni executing the practice perfectly earlier this month. With 3:24 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Rockets leading 93-91, D'Antoni had guard Steve Nash intentionally foul Howard away from the ball. Over the ensuing two-plus minutes, Howard missed seven of 12 free throws. The Lakers still trailed just prior to guard Steve Blake draining a game-winning 3-pointer with 1.3 seconds left to play, but by sending Howard to the line repeatedly, the Lakers bogged down the Rockets' offense.
The Rockets managed just three shot attempts during the Hack-a-Howard portion of the fourth quarter. Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle recently offered perspective to this secondary aspect of the strategy, noting his preference for snuffing Rockets possessions by denying their offensive sets via sending Howard to the line. While Howard missing more free throws than he makes is the most obvious benefit of the tactic, denying the Rockets the ability to run their fast-paced offense is a vital component of choosing when to start intentionally fouling Howard.
Carlisle dipped his toe in the Hack-a-Howard pool Wednesday night, but with Howard in a rhythm from the field — he made his first 11 shots from the floor en route to a 33-point explosion — Carlisle quickly backed off when Howard also converted his free throws. Howard finished 9-of-13 from the line while helping the Rockets establish an 18-point lead they eventually coughed up in a 123-120 loss in Dallas, but there was a lesson learned by Howard showcasing proficiency from the line, both for Howard himself and for upcoming Rockets opponents.
Last Saturday night at Toyota Center, Nuggets coach Brian Shaw played the Hack-a-Howard card to negative results. Howard made 13 of 19 free throws in the fourth quarter en route to a 25-point performance that included his making just four baskets. Howard scored 17 points at the line and missed only seven free throws, inspiring some self-flagellation from Shaw.
"That goes against everything I'm about," Shaw said in the aftermath of the Rockets' 122-111 victory. "I don't believe in that and I don't think it's in the spirit of the game. So, that is exactly what I get for doing that. I'm glad he made his free throws and it shows me to just be true to who you are. It backfired."
The Nuggets weren't alone in being burned by Hack-a-Howard. New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony intentionally fouled Howard away from the basketball with 1:36 remaining — "That was a boneheaded play on my behalf," Anthony later said remorsefully — on Nov. 14, enabling the Rockets their selection to shoot the subsequent free throw (they chose guard James Harden) while also allowing Houston to retain possession.
Harden missed a jump shot on the subsequent possession but Howard corralled the offensive rebound and, in a humorous twist of fate worth noting, he converted both free throws after he was fouled by Knicks center/forward Andrea Bargnani. That three-point swing proved integral in the Rockets' 109-106 victory.
Free Throw Defense
Of course, Howard could end this charade by simply making his free throws. Even after his stellar night from the line in Dallas, Howard is shooting just 54.4 percent at the stripe heading into Saturday night's game against Minnesota. Only three players averaging 30-plus minutes per game own worse shooting percentages on free throws: Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond (17.6 percent); Phoenix Suns center Miles Plumlee (40.0 percent); and Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan (45.8 percent), himself an occasional target for intentional fouls down the stretch of contested games.
Howard ranks second in the NBA in free throw attempts per game, his 11.5 free throws trailing Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant (12.8 free throws per game) and ranking just above Harden, who is averaging 8.8 free throws per game. Interestingly, Hack-a-Howard has little to do with the frequency Howard has gone to the line in his career. Howard has paced the league in free throw attempts on four different occasions (2007-08, 2008-09, 2010-11, 2011-12), including thrice during his days with the Orlando Magic when he shot a decent percentage.
"There’s nothing I can do about it besides make them."
Howard is on pace to attempt 943 free throws this season, which would eclipse his career high of 916 free throws when he shot 59.6 percent during his penultimate season with the Magic.
If Howard were to scan his previous percentages during his days in Orlando, perhaps he would spot a significant correlation. When healthy, Howard was adequate from the line. He converted 67.1 percent of his free throws as a rookie and, over the ensuing six seasons with the Magic, Howard shot 59.2 percent while missing a grand total of six games. Combine his injury-marred finale with the Magic with his forgettable campaign in Los Angeles and Howard missed 18 games. His free-throw percentage dropped exactly 10 points to 49.2 percent.
Recovered from the back and shoulder ailments that sapped his athleticism last season, Howard should make good on his promises to keep practicing and improving at free throws.
"There’s nothing I can do about it besides make them," Howard said. "The more free throws I make, the less teams will do the Hack-a-Howard. So I’m just going to continue to practice and they’re going to start falling.
"It’s annoying to the fans. I know that they don’t want to see that. We don’t want to have to go through that but it’s a part of the game and we’ve just got to do a good job, myself, of knocking down the free throws."
With greater proficiency at the line, Howard would bolster the Rockets' foundation offensively. The Rockets lead the league with 37.2 free throw attempts per game (a whopping 7.4 more per game than the Thunder) and also in free throw rate at 48.1 percent (12.2 percent better than Oklahoma City). And while they rank just 28th in free throw percentage, in no small part due to Howard and his struggles, the Rockets still pace the NBA in free throws made at 26.1 per game.
In order to maintain an offense that ranks third in points per 100 possessions (108.0) and effective field goal percentage (54.1 percent) and fifth in pace (100.2 possessions per 48 minutes), the Rockets must remain true to their aggression with regards to drawing fouls. If Howard can contribute positively to that bottom line, the Rockets could reach their potential offensively.
But if Howard continues to languish, the debate over Hack-a-Howard will continue in earnest, with coaches far and near arguing the merits of a strategy everyone considers unappealing.
"It's been something that has been productive and unproductive, depending on the day," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "His shot looks a lot better to me than the percentage.
"I understand why people do it, and I understand that if you're in that situation why it's a consideration."
Said McHale: "I think it takes away some from the game but I’m not saying that if I was a coach playing against him we wouldn’t do it, too. But I’d like to see them have a different rule. I don’t know. It’s hard to say."