Nazr Mohammed: Hack-a-Player, Tactic vs. Message

(Photo courtesy of SportsBlog.com)

By Nazr Mohammed, a former 16-year NBA veteran who’s a regular contributor for SportsBlog.com, a content partner of the NBPA that focuses on first-person stories with pro athletes   

When it comes to the game of basketball, NBA players should be role models for kids and the rest of the basketball world. To let poor free throw shooters like myself off the hook is not the message we should be sending. The game will constantly evolve as coaches and players find ways to use the rules of the game to benefit them. But at the end of the day, it’s about winning at all costs within the rules. The sad part about this evolution of the game is that it’s hard to watch.

I’ve given the issue of hack-a-player a lot of thought. First of all, I’m going to call this “hack-a-whoever”—Shaquille O’Neal, DeAndre Jordan, Andre Drummond. It just doesn’t seem right calling it by a particular player’s name. I don’t like seeing it, but at the same time, I understand it’s a tactic that’s part of today’s game. This is not coming from a guy who spent his career knocking down free throws.

I like to call myself “King of Splitting Free Throws.” I’ve shot an airball or two from the free throw line in my day. The worst and most humiliating airball came during the 2012 playoffs against the Denver Nuggets, which sent me into a two-week tailspin of feeling like every single free throw I shot was going to be another airball.

I’ve shot less than 50 percent for a couple seasons. I know how it feels to be at the free throw line just hoping to hit rim. At one point in my career, I was trying to bank it in just to make sure I hit rim. I actually started swishing a few when I did that. It’s embarrassing, especially when you know you could shoot 85 out of 100 at the gym any day of the week. So I empathize with the guys that this strategy is being used against. That’s exactly why I wanted to write about this topic.

In the past, coaches liked having their best free throw shooters on the floor when games were on the line, so when I wasn’t shooting free throws well, the coach took me out. I hated it, but I understood. I think coaches’ original reason for using the “hack-a-whoever” was to get dominant players (i.e. Shaq) out of the game in order to have a more favorable matchup. The reason why it’s evolved into the issue that it is today is because today’s coaches refuse to take one of their more valuable players out of the game just because of their bad free throw shooting.

In the age of statistics and analytics, I’m pretty sure coaches realized that the benefit of leaving these players on the floor outweighed their poor free throw percentages. From a coach’s perspective, this is a great tactic to have in your bag of tricks. Coaches are able to slow down the game, put a poor free throw shooter on the line and limit an opponent from scoring with a running clock, therefore increasing possessions and giving a team an opportunity at victory. In the new three-point age, it gives a team a chance to trade potentially one point—adjusted for a 50 percent free throw shooter—for opportunities at three points. You really can’t blame a coach for trying.

But then you look at it from another perspective: the fan watching from home, which is the category that I fall into these days. “Hack-a-whoever” is difficult to watch because it disrupts the game. I know fans are probably thinking, Hey, you guys should be able to shoot free throws. You get paid to play basketball and free throws are one of the fundamentals. This should be something that you are good at.

They’re absolutely right, but they’ve never experienced shooting free throws all alone in front of 20,000 fans and millions at home. From a TV perspective, it prolongs the broadcast and makes the length of games unpredictable to programmers. We have to be conscious of this, especially considering how beneficial and lucrative the new TV deal is to both players and owners.

And then, of course, I thought about this from a player’s perspective. I can’t speak for all players, but for myself I hated using this tactic because it meant you’re either losing badly or on the verge of a loss. For me, “hack-a-whoever” was a sign of admitting that you weren’t good enough to beat your opponent without putting junk in the game. There’s not a pro athlete with pride that wants to admit they can’t win with time left in a game.

Contrary to what some may think, I don’t think that the poor free throw shooting by some NBA players has anything to do with practice. The victims of “hack-a-whoever” are probably practicing their free throws as much, if not more, than anyone else in the NBA. I don’t think it’s about technique in some of the worst offenders’ cases either. Some people like to blame it on having huge hands, but Michael Jordan, Dr. J and Kawhi Leonard immediately dispute that.

If you look at DeAndre Jordan or Andre Drummond, you can see that they don’t have bad technique. It can be tweaked, but I’ve seen worse techniques go in. I’ve actually watched both work out before games and they both have good touch. I honestly believe that if their free throw percentages go up, it’s going to be real scary for those who have to guard them. Once they welcome going to the line, those two will be even more aggressive and dominant. That’s what made Shaq so great; he tried to draw fouls regardless of his percentages. I think he took pride in almost fouling out a whole team.

When I was shooting poorly during points in my career, it was more mental than anything. That’s the one part of the game where everything is still and everybody’s eyes are on you. When you’re playing in the flow of the game and you’re moving and your adrenaline is going, shooting a shot becomes more instinctive. There’s less time to get nervous.

There were times in my career when my nerves were bad at the line—it was almost like a golfer getting the yips when putting—and then there were other points when I wanted to go to the line. I wanted those free points, like when I was playing for the Spurs and shooting 79 percent. The more I played and the more attempts I got, the better my free throw percentage was in those seasons. There’s nothing worse than getting to the line once every three to four games.

While I think the rule could stand to see some tweaks, I do not believe we should be getting rid of it altogether. This tactic is only used consistently on about five or six guys in the NBA. If you look at the numbers of who’s affected, considering there are almost 450 players in the league, it’s kind of unfair to change a rule because of such a small group of players. Plus, you can’t just totally take away that tactic for coaches.

But I do understand the NBA’s Competition Committee and Commissioner Adam Silver’s concern. It’s not just about the players; it’s about the flow of the game and maximizing the fan experience. I get that. Maybe there are some tweaks that could be made. But the tweaks have to benefit coaches, players, fans and the integrity of the game. For example, I wouldn’t mind seeing the NBA implement the “one-and-one” free throw format, like they do in college basketball, in “hack-a-whoever” situations. I also believe it should be used at any point during the game—even the last two minutes. It forces a player to earn their second free throw.

That way, coaches can still use it as a strategy to stop the clock or get the ball back, and it would take some pressure off the players, too. This format also would speed the game up when the “hack-a-whoever” is used. Another suggestion is not allowing players to foul off the ball when the ball is in the backcourt. It helps the teams victimized by the “hack-a-whoever” burn 7.9 seconds off the game clock, thus speeding the game up. This is a happy medium to help both teams. Once it passes the half-court line, now you can foul. It could potentially spread the court causing 4-on-4 situations because some teams would rather take a quick shot than let their worst free throw shooter get fouled.

I’ve heard what various players have said on the issue and have seen many voice their opinion on Twitter, so I’m very interested to see how this plays out. I know that Commissioner Silver and the Competition Committee are made up of very smart people who have the best interest of the game, and fans in mind when deciding on critical rule changes. Maybe I can influence the decision with my two cents in some type of way, especially since my perspective is coming from a guy who didn’t shoot free throws well and probably would have been a victim of the “hack-a-whoever.” If I think it should be left alone, then that should say a lot.

And finally, to the guys who are the victims of this scheme take it as a compliment. You’re either too dominant or your team is dominating your opponent so badly that you have forced them to attack your weakness. This is the equivalent to biting or a nut shot during a clean 1-on-1 fight. After all, what else would you expect when winning is on the line?

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