The Futility of Hack-a-Player Tactics

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Published: April 22, 2010

I was watching The Basketball Jones vidcast this morning, like I do every morning, and good ol’ J.E. Skeets said something that made me grumble.  While lauding the gorgeous 25 and 17 that Tim Duncan put up against the Mavericks, he suggested that Rick Carlisle should have considered Hack-A-Duncan tactics, since Tim Duncan was only 3-7 from the line for the game.  The implication, of course, is that it would have helped the Mavericks with their comeback. 

I’ve always had a problem with this strategy – and unlike most protests aimed at it, I’m not worried about how it looks, or how “cowardly” it is.  Let’s break it down:

The players who are most common targets of that strategy are bad free throw shooters, hovering in the 50-55% range for their careers.(Tim Duncan is 68%, by the way)  That, of course, means that fouling that player will most likely earn about 1 to 1.1 points per posession for his team.  Now, one point per posession may sound great, but here’s a few things to consider:

  1. An average team in the NBA has a True Shooting percentage of about 54%.  That means that an average team earns about the same amount of points per attempt that a bad free throw shooter does on the line.
  2. When a team hacks a bad free throw shooter instead of playing standard defense, they guarantee they have no chance at forcing a turnover at all.
  3. Turnovers, of course, equate to zero points for a team, and occur on nearly one out of six posessions.
  4. Turnovers have a high chance of generating fast break points, which of course are high efficiency shots.
  5. Sending a team to the line makes it easy for them to set up their defense afterwards, making your own team have to slug it out in the half court.

So – in essence – the Hack-A-Player strategy makes it harder to score, doesn’t really reduce the efficiency per attempt of the other team  and since it eliminates their turnovers, increases their points per posession.  In return, the team doing the hacking gets to hope that the shooter is having a worse than normal night – or wilts under the pressure. 

That just doesn’t balance out for me.

Personally, I’d rather see a team play their atheletes, ramp up their pressure defense, and hope for turnovers and missed shots.  Almost all of the big comebacks I remember happened that way.  Can any of you remember a game that was won, out of hand, by hack-a-player tactics?  I tried, but I can’t.

So – what do you think?  Valid Strategy?  Hold it for use against sub-50% free throw shooters like Ben Wallace or Biedrins?

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