One of the most intriguing and interesting strategies we’ve ever seen an NBA coach employ is the “Hack-a-Shaq” strategy. This essentially consists of intentionally fouling a poor free throw shooter so he will get to the free throw line, where he’s more likely to miss shots. This technique has been tested on many occasions throughout the league’s history. Today we’ll look at when the Hack-A-Shaq strategy works, and how it’s been used in the past.
When Wilt arrived in the NBA, he became the most dominant NBA player the league has ever seem. Chamberlain scored at such a high efficiency, that hacking him and sending him to the free throw line was their only choice. Chamberlain averaged 54% from the field throughout his career, however he was an awful free throw shooter, especially early in his career. Chamberlain was 51% from the free throw line, meaning he was 3% less likely to score a free throw than he was to score an actual shot. Wilt always had the ball, meaning he was taking virtually every shot. It statistically made perfect sense to send Chamberlain to the free throw line. If you didn’t, he was more likely to score an easy two points on you.
It got to the point where Wilt was easily the worst free throw shooter on his team, and eventually teams would figure out that fouling Wilt was a great idea. Wilt didn’t want to get fouled, but in the 1960’s a rule was not yet in place that you off-ball fouls mean the offense takes the free throw shot and gets the ball back. Teams would apparently chase Wilt all around the floor, with Wilt desperately trying to evade them, in order to avoid going to the free throw line. Eventually, the NBA would implement the Wilt rule, which stands today that only on-ball fouls result in two free throws, and the ball being turned over in the last two minutes of a quarter.
Pat Riley said watching Wilt run away from opponents in “a game of hide and seek” was one of the funniest things he’d ever seen. Many didn’t find it funny, and called for the NBA to implement rules to stop this. However as we’ll see, coaches still found a way to dodge these rules, and thus beginning, the hack-a-shaq movement.
The first modern era NBA player to experience the hack-a-shaq strategy was not Shaq himself, but Dennis Rodman of the Chicago Bulls. Dallas Mavericks coach Don Nelson developed the theory that fouling abysmal shooters would potentially give teams an advantage, as the bad shooters would miss both free throws or at least one.
In 1997, Dennis Rodman was shooting just 38% from the free throw line, Don Nelson decided to put his plan into action. Nelson theorized that Rodman making a free throw was less likely than Michael Jordan or Scottie Pippen making a shot. Nelson sent Mavericks bench man Bubba Wells into the game to foul Dennis Rodman 5 times and send him to the free throw line. Wells was a player who rarely saw court time, so the Mavericks could go without him.
In this particular occasion, Rodman ended up shooting 9 for 12 from the free throw line before Nelson gave up on the strategy for the game, and thus the strategy was more or less abandoned. Interestingly enough, a new record came out of this game. Bubba Wells fouled out of the game in 3 minutes, which is the quickest anyone had fouled out at that point in NBA history.
The Hack-A-Shaq technique was used 2 years after it was used on Dennis Rodman, in 1999. Don Nelson once again took advantage of Shaquille O’Neal’s 52% career free throw percentage, and popularized the strategy. Orlando’s O’Neal struggled to avoid the fouls, as he was so dominant that taking a foul was way worse off then letting Shaq work inside. Eventually, by the 2000 NBA playoffs, the strategy was being used by pretty much every team.
In the 2000 NBA playoffs the issue reached its peak. The Lakers first and second round opponents in the Indiana Pacers and Portland Trail Blazers used the Hack-A-Shaq strategy mercilessly, and it was slowing NBA games down. The NBA looked at making rule changes to discourage the use of the strategy, but came to no result. Shaq continued to get fouled, and continued to miss free throws.
Eventually the strategy was no longer widely used, as Shaq developed his free throws to some extent, getting his free throw percentage up to 66% following the playoff series’.
Hack-A-Shaq was brought back to life 8 years later in 2008, when San Antonio Spurs head coach Greg Popovich faced off in a playoff series against Shaquille O’Neal and the Phoenix Suns. Popovich used the strategy as the Spurs led the Suns 3-1 going into game 5. The Spurs defeated the Suns 92-87, and O’Neal made just 9 of his 20 free throw attempts. With the Suns eliminated, Popovich was hailed as a genius who had employed the strategy to perfection. O’Neal’s 11 missed free throws very well could have resulted in a Suns victory, but instead contributed to the 17 total missed free throws from the Suns that night.
Unfortunately before the rule could be revived, the NBA implemented some rules restricting off ball fouls in the final two minutes of a quarter, as Popovich would foul Shaq with less than 25 seconds left in order to get the last shot of the quarter.
Ben Wallace was the next victim to the strategy in 2005. The Pistons were upset with the strategy, but said that all it did was allow them to set their defense. Following the game, Wallace’s teammate Tayshaun Prince was told reporters that all it tells him, is that Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy knows nobody on his team can guard Wallace.
Following Shaq’s retirement, Dwight Howard emerged to replace Shaq’s dominance, and lack of free throw shooting ability. In 2012, the Golden State Warriors made use of Howard’s 42% free throw shooting percentage, and fouled him continuously throughout the game. This resulted in Howard attempting an NBA all time high 39 free throws. Howard made 21 of them, and carried the Magic to victory. When Howard left the Magic for the Lakers, Orlando decided to use the tactic on Howard in his return game in 2013. Howard wasn’t having any of it, and sunk 16 of his 20 free throw attempts when intentionally fouled, thus ending the Hack-A-Dwight era.
Tiago Splitter of the San Antonio Spurs became the next victim of the strategy. The only problem was the Thunder seemingly failed to realize he was actually a 69% free throw shooter, and not overly dominant. Splitter hit 5 of his 10 free throw attempts in the western conference final in 2012.
This was an interesting one. The San Antonio Spurs led by Greg Popovich brought back the hacking strategy for the first time since Popovich had defeated Shaq in 2008. This time, Popovich ordered fouls on Josh Smith, who was actually average at shooting. However, it was reported that Popovich only did this to cool off the red hot James Harden. The stoppages in play and constant fouls allowed the Spurs to regroup, and contain Harden.
Deandre Jordan inevitably fell victim to this strategy. The Clippers with Jordan were facing off with the Dwight-led Rockets in the 2015 NBA playoffs. The Clippers were ordered to employ the Hack-A-Dwight strategy, and send the dominant Dwight Howard to the line. The Rockets responded in game 2 by ordering fouls on Deandre Jordan. This turned this series into a brick-fest, and the trend slowly died off later in the series.
Andre Drummond was next in 2016. Drummond was fouled 5 times by the Houston Rockets in one minute to start the third quarter. Drummond shot just 13 for 36 from the line, and his 23 misses became an NBA record. The Pistons would still win by 9 points despite the missed free throws.
In maybe the most successful hacking job ever, the Houston Rockets once again utilized the strategy, this time on Andre Roberson. Roberson was a notoriously bad shooter, and ended up shooting an amazing 3 for 21 from the free throw line in the series.
Ben Simmons is the latest to experience the strategy. The Washington Wizards attempted to take advantage of Simmons’ poor shooting in 2017. The Wizards were down by almost 30, and had nothing to lose. Simmons would end up shooting 15 for 29, and this was almost enough to help the Wizards come back and win the game. The Sixers would eventually put their foot on the gas and win 118-113.
Does It Work?
Statistically speaking, the Hack-A-Shaq technique only works on very very rare occasions.
- A player averages more than 1 point per possession AND the player shoots less than 50% from the free throw line
2. A player has a lower free throw percentage than field goal percentage
Currently only Thabo Sefolosha, Jakob Poetl and Dwight Howard meet the second option, and nobody meets the first. Realistically, none of these players will get the hack treatment, perhaps Howard. The other thing with this strategy is it’s very inconsistent. Dennis Rodman, a 38% free throw shooter shot 16 for 20 when he was hacked, but Andre Drummond once shot 13 for 39. It’s a gamble, that works, but only when used on certain players.
The player it’s being used on needs to be dominating the game, and a poor free throw shooter. If these needs are met, Hack-A-Shaq COULD work.
Psychology Of The Strategy
Many have considered the psychology of the strategy when determining the outcome. One argument is that hacking players improves their free throw shooting, as it allows the shooter to get into a rhythm, and find their shot. It also allows players to rest more while they wait for the shooter to take his two shots. On the other end, some believe that the fouling get into the shooter head. Perhaps the shooter knows why he’s being fouled, and thinks he’ll miss, and that’s why he was fouled.
There’s two sides to every coin, this one in particular works on certain players, and doesn’t on others. We’ve seen success on Shaq, Dwight and Simmons, and failure on Rodman and Wallace. I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of this technique, as we currently have 6 players in the NBA shooting below 50% from the free throw line, and 2 players shooting below 40%.
The Verdict: Sometimes
It depends on the player, the situation and so much more. But the Hack-A-Shaq strategy has worked before, so there’s no question it will work again.