During the Nuggets-Jazz game Tuesday night, Denver, trailing late in the game, tried the “Hack-A” strategy on Rudy Gobert, who had started the game 1-of-6 from the line.
Gobert is a poor free throw shooter (63.1 percent for his career.) But even if he were a 50 percent shooter, it would still be a stupid idea to hack him and send him to the line.
If we strip every element of the Offensive Rating formula out except for free throw attempts, what we’re left with is PTS/(.44xFTA)x100. The free throw attempt multiplier takes into account the fact that not every possession involving a shooting foul gives two free throws. Some give three—when a 3-point shooter is fouled. Others give one—an “and-one” or a technical. The end result is that on average, a shooting foul gives 1.76 FT.
So if you hit one out of two, you end up with 1/.88*100, or a 113.6 Offensive Rating. So far in 2021-22 (through games of Monday, October 25), 113.6 would be good for fourth in the league. Charlotte is third at 114.5; Golden State is at 113.2.
Or, put another way, if your defense consists entirely of hacking a 50 percent free throw shooter, you’d have the sixth-worst defense in the league.
Making matters worse, players who get hacked have a tendency to get better at the line when they’re there over and over again. Gobert finished the game making eight of his last 10 free throws to go 9-of-16 overall, including canning all four of his final shots.
But sure. We already knew Hack-A was a bad idea, but how far down does this rabbit hole go?
“Hack-A-Steven” would, if Adams kept up that 4-out-of-9 clip, yield a 100.9 Offensive Rating. Now that would be great defense. The Lakers led the league with a 107.1 Defensive Rating in 2021.
So what would give you a 107.1 Offensive Rating at the line on Hack-A plays? 47.1 percent from the line (divide by 100, multiply by .88, then cut the result in half because there are two maximum points available.)
In theory, that does mean there are a couple of players in any given year who are worth fouling, especially as NBA offense improves year after year. Last year it was Adams and Biyombo; in 2020 it was Jarrett Culver (46.2 percent.) In 2019, Hassan Whiteside held the dishonor at 44.9 percent.
But Whiteside is a career 60.4 percent free throw shooter. Adams is terrible, but he’s still at 54.9. Biyombo has made 56.6 percent of his career charity tosses. Even in a down year, a player will regress to a much bigger sample size given enough repetitions. Culver, after shooting 46.2 percent as a rookie, shot 60.4 percent in 2021.
The point of all this is that Hack-A-Whoever is stupid. The chance that you’ll catch a guy in a slump continuing to have a slump are far from guaranteed. Unless you are one of the worst defensive teams in the league already, just get a stop the normal way. Statistically, you’ll be better off the overwhelming majority of the time.
Not that it would’ve helped Denver; Nikola Jokic was out with a knee contusion sustained in the second quarter. Utah won that game by 12. Even if Gobert went 0-of-16 from the line, the Jazz still win by 3 with all else being equal.
But Hack-A needs to stop. It’s Just. Plain. Dumb.