Sunday Statistical Test: Should Hack-A-Shaq Come Back?

The old “Hack-A-Shaq” strategy of fouling a poor free throw shooter to send him to the line whereupon he’d then miss at least one free throw and have to be removed from the game as an offensive liability never made much sense statistically.

Unless the player was truly horrid from the line (even Shaq, a career 52.7 percent free throw shooter, would thus generate 105.4 points per 100 possessions before a single one of his free throws went for an offensive rebound and got the Magic, Lakers, or whoever an extended possession and often a putback), the strategy inevitably generated more points for the offense than it took away with the missed free throws, to say nothing of having to either put in a bench player to absorb the six fouls who’d then have to play offense for his team or else to have players who actually got rotation minutes end up in foul trouble.

It was a stupid strategy then…and one would think it would be a stupid strategy now.

The difference is that Offensive Rating has gone through the roof since Shaq’s day.

In 2003-04, NBA offensive rating bottomed out at a putrid 102.9, the lowest in a non-lockout year since the advent of the 3-point arc in 1979.

Shaq hit 49.0 percent of his free throws that year, while the Lakers as a team had a 105.5 rating, sixth in the league.

Of course, since approximately 13 percent of missed free throws (according to a Google search that produced results from all over the map, from the distant past to the more recent past and including NBA and college sources, all of which seem to point to the free throw being a distinct entity in basketball that generates that roughly 13 percent no matter what) go for offensive boards, the Lakers got a bunch of extra possessions out of that what should on paper have been just a 98 offensive rating…

…the overall upshot being that fouling Shaq, at worst, was no better a result for the defense than just letting the possession play out like a typical Lakers trip up the floor during that 2003-04 season.

But that was 2004.

In 2020, league-wide Offensive Rating was 110.6; independent of the variables in a missed free throw situation, that works out to a 55.3 percent clip from the line.

Only five players in the entire league both qualified for the scoring title and shot 55.3 percent or worse; those guys are Mason Plumlee (53.5 percent in 1,057 minutes), Robin Lopez (52.8, 958), Dwight Howard (51.4, 1,306), Jakob Poeltl (46.5, 1,171), and Jarrett Culver (46.2, 1,506).

Now riddle me this, Batman. Who is fouling Jarrett Culver as a viable strategy to try and slow down the Timberwolves, or Poeltl to stop the Spurs?

Nobody, that’s who. The worst free throw shooter out of any guy you’d actually want to try to force out of a game belongs, depending on how loosely you want to define “guy you want out”, to either Lonzo Ball (56.6, 2,025) or the venerable Andre Drummond (57.5, 1,879.)

Wait a minute…you don’t seriously think…

The Real Legacy of Hack-A-Shaq

Drummond is a career 46.1 percent free throw shooter.

But since 2016-17, when he shot just 38.6 percent from the stripe and it was beyond dispute that “foul Drummond” was the lowest possible expected-value outcome in terms of points allowed for a defense (no amount of accounting for rebounding, especially since the best rebounder—Drummond—was at the line where he was unlikely to come up with his own miss or be in position to follow the shot if his team did get the ball), Drummond has vastly improved.

He made 60.5 percent of his charity tosses the next year, 59.0 percent in the year after that, and 57.5 percent this year (although he did shoot just 51.3 percent from the stripe in Cleveland.)

Rare indeed is the guy who is so genuinely dreadful from the free throw line that it becomes anything resembling a good idea to hack him.

Only 29 players since 2014-15 have played enough to qualify for the scoring title and still shot at or below 50 percent even from the line. And of those, only four such seasons have come in the past two years—besides Culver and Poeltl this year, there were Hassan Whiteside (44.9, 1,674) and Steven Adams (50.0, 2,669) last season.

Maybe you’d want to get Adams out of there if you are a team with absolutely nobody on your squad who can bang bodies on the boards (even teams with terrible rebounding starting centers usually have a power forward or a bench guy who can be swapped in for that matchup if necessary), but Whiteside?

Forcing Miami to run their offense through the big man and having fouls be an occupational hazard of Whiteside having a solid game is part of how the Heat ended up going just 39-43 last year while as of this writing, they have Milwaukee on the ropes and have gone 7-0 in the 2020 playoffs (time will tell whether this comment ages well or sounds over-optimistic, but the point is the Heat are vastly better without Whiteside than with him, as Bam Adebayo proved a giant upgrade.)

The real point here is that having a strategy where truly putrid free throw shooters could cost their teams games simply by being sent to the line deliberately by the other team is no longer an argument about viability…

…because almost nobody in the NBA is both good enough as an overall player and bad enough as a free throw shooter to have the topic come up anymore, even as offensive ratings have gone way up and continue to climb toward whatever theoretical maximum (probably between 115 and 120, for reasons I’ll get into sometime in a future version of Sunday Statistical Tests) they are bound by the logic of an NBA game to be able to reach.

Teams have figured out that the most important thing is to have the expected value of a trip to the line exceed their average Offensive Rating, especially when combined with the overall value of a player to the team’s success.

As such, players like Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan (consistently between 38 and 43 percent from the line early in his career, closer to 70 percent the past two seasons) have worked hard on their free throw shooting and become vastly improved shooters from the line, making any attempt to hack them a complete exercise in foolish futility and not reading the scouting report.

Jordan’s renaissance began the same time Drummond’s did, after the 2017 season. Jordan shot 58 percent from the line in his last full year with the Clippers and hit 77.3 percent of his free throws in 19 games with the Knicks last year (and 68.2 percent in 50 games in Dallas) before heading to the Nets to shoot 68.0 percent this year.

So to answer the core question in the headline, no, Hack-A-Shaq doesn’t need to come back…because sometime during the 2017 offseason, NBA coaches and lousy free throw shooting players made a collective decision to nip it in the bud once and for all.

If anything, the legacy of Hack-A will be that it improved free throw shooting league-wide, an undisputed win for basketball at all levels, since the college game and G-League will no doubt place a greater emphasis on foul shooting as part of overall player development.