Hack-a-Shaq is a basketball defensive strategy used in the National Basketball Association (NBA), where Dallas Mavericks coach Don Nelson adapted the strategy of committing intentional fouls (originally a clock management strategy) to the purpose of lowering opponents' scoring. He directed players to commit personal fouls throughout the game against selected opponents who shot free throws poorly.
Nelson initially used the strategy against Dennis Rodman, the power forward of the Chicago Bulls. However, the strategy acquired its name for Nelson's subsequent use of it against Shaquille O'Neal, the center of the Orlando Magic.
A rule change starting in the 2016–17 NBA season put constraints on intentional fouling. Away-from-the-ball fouls committed late in the game award the fouled team not just free throws but possession of the ball.
- 1 Name
- 2 Background
- 3 Hack-a-Shaq
- 4 Application against other players
- 5 Criticism
- 6 References
Hack-a-Shaq is an oronym for "Hacky sack", a trademark for a footbag toy, itself suggesting the city of Hackensack, New Jersey. The use of an article ("-a-") is inappropriate for a proper name, especially the indefinite article, but it assists the sound-alike.
The term was coined when O'Neal played at LSU and during his NBA tenure with the Orlando Magic. At that time, the term referred simply to especially physical defense against O'Neal. Teams sometimes defended him by bumping, striking or pushing him after he received the ball to deny him an easy layup or slam dunk. Because of O'Neal's poor free throw shooting, teams did not fear the consequences of committing personal fouls. However, once Nelson's off-the-ball fouling strategy became prevalent, the term Hack-a-Shaq was applied to this new tactic, and the original usage was largely forgotten.
Strategy of repeated intentional fouling
Committing repeated intentional personal fouls is a longstanding defensive strategy used by teams that are trailing near the end of the game. Basketball, unique among major world sports, permits intentional fouling to gain a strategic advantage; in other sports, it is considered an unfair act or professional foul.
Once the fouling team enters the penalty situation, the fouled team is awarded free throws. The typical NBA player makes a high enough percentage of his free throws that, over time, opponents' possessions that end with free throws will yield more points than possessions in which the opponents try to score a field goal. Even the highest-scoring NBA teams average only about 1.1 points per possession. Giving such a team two free throws on each possession, the poorest free throw shooting teams make around 70% of their free throws and would score 1.4 points per possession. So intentionally fouling tends not to reduce the opponent's score.
However, fouls stop the game clock. If a team is trailing with time running out, intentional fouling may be the only hope. In normal game play, the opponents will stall and run out the clock, even at the expense of failing to score. The trailing team fouls intentionally to end the opponents' possession as soon as possible. It may also hope that fatigue and pressure affect the ability of the free-throw shooter.
When this strategy was originally employed in the NBA, the trailing team often made a point of fouling the opposition player who was the poorest free throw shooter in the game at that time, even if that player did not possess the ball. However, fouling "off the ball" became a problem for the league when Wilt Chamberlain—a player of superstar caliber but an atrocious free throw shooter—entered the NBA.
Wilt Chamberlain and the off-the-ball foul rule
Wilt Chamberlain was such a dominant player that he was sure to be on the floor near the end of any close game. However, he was such a poor free throw shooter (51%) as to be the natural target of a strategy of intentional fouling. The opposition was eager to send Chamberlain to the free throw line, and Chamberlain wished to avoid doing so. This led to a game of tag developing away from the basketball, players chasing Chamberlain as he tried to avoid being fouled.
The NBA enacted a new rule on off-the-ball fouls—personal fouls against an offensive player who neither has the ball nor is trying to obtain it. On such fouls within the last two minutes of the game or in overtime, the offensive team is awarded the usual number of free throws and then possession of the ball. The new rule removed the benefit of fouling to gain possession of the ball and limited late-game intentional fouls to the ball handler.
The current version of the rule contains an additional disincentive to off-the-ball fouls: The free throws need not be attempted by the player who was fouled; the fouled team can choose as shooter any player on the court at the time.
The reason they have that rule is that fouling someone off-the-ball looks foolish . . . Some of the funniest things I ever saw were players that used to chase [Wilt Chamberlain] like it was hide-and-seek. Wilt would run away from people, and the league changed the rule based on how silly that looked.
There are several late-game situations where committing an isolated intentional foul makes sense. For a team trailing, late in the game, stopping the clock is a higher priority than keeping the opponents from scoring. In other situations, intentional fouling does not make sense because it typically lets the opponents score more points.
Intentional fouling every time the opponents get the ball was an innovation of Don Nelson in the late 1990s as coach of the Dallas Mavericks. He theorized that, if the opponents played an especially bad free throw shooter, intentionally fouling him might hold down his team's points per possession, compared to a conventional defense against them. Nelson used the strategy throughout the game, when the late-game penalties for off-the-ball fouls did not apply, such as the ball being given back to the fouled team.
Nelson did not invent the strategy; his innovation was to take a strategy whose primary purpose had always been simply stopping the clock, and use it instead primarily to minimize the opposition's scoring.
Nelson first used the strategy against Dennis Rodman of the Chicago Bulls in 1997, who was making 38% of his free throws on the season. He could not use the strategy on every Bulls possession, as a player committing his sixth foul is disqualified from the game. He used the strategy selectively, and chose a little-used player, whose absence the team could tolerate, to commit the fouls. He believed that Rodman's horrific foul shooting would result in the Mavericks actually giving up fewer total points during those Bulls possessions than they would give up by playing a standard defense against the Bulls' efficient offense, led by Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
In that game, Rodman shot 9-for-12 from the free throw line, defeating the strategy, and the Bulls won the game. The strategy was thus largely forgotten, except that Maverick player Bubba Wells, who had been assigned to foul Rodman, set the all-time NBA record for fewest minutes played (3) before fouling out of a game.
Nelson used the strategy again in 1999, this time against Shaquille O'Neal, a career 52% free throw shooter. Other NBA coaches also did so to defend against O'Neal. So, even though it had been first used two years earlier against Rodman, the strategy became known for its use against O'Neal.
Problem for the league
As with Chamberlain decades earlier, intentional off-the-ball fouls against O'Neal became controversial. During the 2000 NBA Playoffs, both the Portland Trail Blazers and Indiana Pacers relentlessly used the Hack-a-Shaq defense against the Lakers. The NBA discussed expanding the off-the-ball foul rule to cover more than just the final two minutes of the game, or another rule change that would discourage the use of Hack-a-Shaq. Ultimately, though, the NBA did not change any rules to discourage the Hack-a-Shaq strategy. An effective rebuttal was that the Lakers won both of the games where Hack-a-Shaq was notorious, suggesting that the strategy was too ineffective to require remediation.
Coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs used the Hack-a-Shaq strategy successfully in Game 5 of the Spurs' 2008 first round series against O'Neal and the Phoenix Suns. O'Neal made only 9 of his 20 free throws, dropping the Suns to 20-of-37 total on free throws. The Suns were eliminated from the playoffs in a 92–87 Spurs win. In May 2008, ESPN.com columnist John Hollinger named the Spurs Hack-a-Shaq use as the "Best Tactic" of the first two rounds of the 2008 NBA Playoffs. Hollinger wrote that Popovich was the "first to really master how to use this weapon to his advantage." He explained that Popovich used the tactic "to eliminate 3-point attempts" and with 25 seconds or less at the end of quarters to get the ball back for the Spurs to gain the last possession. Hollinger stated "This should be a Eureka! moment for other coaches, and I expect it will be the league's most widely copied tactic next year."
In subsequent seasons, fans and media remained displeased with the continued use of the strategy, particularly in high-profile playoff games. In 2008, the NBA Competition Committee again considered rule changes but did not achieve consensus. According to an ESPN study in 2016, offensive efficiency was higher than the Golden State Warriors when the Hack-a-Shaq strategy was used against a team. NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced that the competition committee would look into changing the rule before the start of the 2016–2017 season due to extended length of games.
Application against other players
A player against whom the Hack-a-Shaq strategy is most effective is one who shoots free throws very poorly, and also is so effective in other areas that their coach is reluctant to simply remove that player from the game. There are very few players, aside from O'Neal, who meet such criteria.
Ben Wallace shot only 42% over his career, and is statistically the worst free throw shooter in the history of the NBA (minimum 1000 attempts). Bruce Bowen was also considered one of the game's best defenders and was also among the league's worst free throw shooters. Because of their struggles at the free throw line, each man has at times become a target of the Hack-a-Shaq strategy.
On January 12, 2012, the Golden State Warriors hacked Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard intentionally throughout the game. The result was he attempted a record 39 free throws, breaking Wilt Chamberlain's record of 34 set in 1962. Howard entered the game making 42% of his free throws for the season and just below 60% for his career. He made 21 of the 39 attempts, and he finished with 45 points and 23 rebounds in the Magic's 117–109 victory. The following season, Howard was traded to the Lakers. In his first game back in Orlando on March 12, 2013, he made 25-of-39 free throws, setting Lakers records for free throws made and attempted while tying his NBA record for attempts. Howard made 16-of-20 free throws when he was fouled intentionally by the Magic.
During the 2015 NBA Playoffs, Howard, now with the Houston Rockets, was again targeted often by opponents, particularly during round 2 against the Los Angeles Clippers. During Game 2, Howard shot 21 (converting 8) out of the 64 free throws for the Rockets. In turn, the Rockets targeted DeAndre Jordan, who had been victim of "Hack-a-Jordan" or "Hack-a-DJ" since 2014, and in particular was fouled five times in two minutes during the previous playoff round against the San Antonio Spurs. Game 4 had Jordan breaking O'Neal's record for most free throw attempts in a half game with 29.
On January 20, 2016, Houston Rockets used Hack-a-Drummond against Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond, and Drummond went 13 for 36 from the free throw line. Those 23 misses are an NBA record for most free throws missed by a player in a game.
Detractors argue that deliberate fouling makes the game unpleasant to watch, violates the spirit or disrupts the rhythm of the game, puts the fouling team too quickly into the penalty situation, and disparages the team's defensive abilities.
All that did was allow us to set our defense. I think that's disrespectful to their players. Basically, they were telling their players that they couldn't guard us.
Many coaches have heeded these criticisms and doubted the effectiveness of the strategy in minimizing scoring. One imponderable is the effect on the psychology of the player fouled deliberately on the belief that he will not make his free throws. Some believe that frequently sending O'Neal to the foul line risked putting him "into a rhythm" and temporarily making him a better shooter.
These factors, and the fact that there are only handful of players who qualify for Hack-a-Shaq, mean that the strategy is uncommon in the NBA. However, as the NBA has only regulated against late-game fouls off the ball, deliberate fouls remain an option to defend against any key player who is a poor free throw shooter.
- NBA Official Rule Book (Rule 12-B, Section X)
- "NBA Board of Governors approves new rules for away from the play fouls". NBA.com. Turner Sports Interactive, Inc. July 13, 2016. Retrieved July 13, 2016.
- (1995, December 17). "Magic Don't Care For Hack-a-Shaq 'D'", The Deseret News
- (1996, May 19). "WHY HACK-A-SHAQ? SHAQ'S A HACK AT FOUL LINE", The Charlotte Observer
- (1995, October 29)."Pop-a-shot or Hack-a-Shaq, Until free throws fall, Magic's O'Neal subject to punishment", Star Tribune
- "Dwight Howard breaks FT attempts mark as Magic top Warriors". ESPN.com. January 12, 2012. Archived from the original on January 14, 2012.
- Perrin, Steve (May 30, 2012). "Scott Brooks's 'Hack-A-Splitter' Strategy Against Spurs: A Poor Tactic On Every Level". SB Nation.
- Dudley, Carl A. (2006, January 26). "The Most Important Form of Official Communication: The Pre-Game Conference Archived 2007-04-26 at the Wayback Machine.", International Association of Approved Basketball Officials, Board #134 Information Release
"In a close match, with seconds ticking down and a team being down by one or two points, a coaching strategy could be to foul and stop the clock and make the other team earn their victory by way of the free throw."
- Phoenix Suns 2005–2006 Season Statistics
- (2006, January 2). "Milwaukee Bucks/Chicago Bulls Preview", Yahoo! Sports
"Chicago is one of the NBA's worst free-throw shooting teams at 70.7 percent."
- Ballantini, Brett. (November/December 2004) "A steal of a deal: with Shaquille O'Neal in tow, Miami's president has set the Heat's sights on one thing: winning an NBA title", Basketball Digest
- Hubbuch, Bart. (1999, March 5). "QUESTIONABLE CALLS: Nelson's coaching moves still up for debate", Dallas Morning News
- Turner, Broderick. (1999, November 8). "Shaq vents his frustrations on late-game fouls: Vowing to get back at Portland's Jermaine O'Neal, he also is mildly displeased at Mavericks coach Nelson's strategy." Riverside Press-Enterprise
- (2000, May 24). "DUNLEAVY IMPRESSES A COACHING MAVERICK", The Oregonian
- (2000, May 23). "League will reconsider rule after Hack-a-Shaq marathon", Atlanta Journal-Constitution
- (2000, May 28). "IT DOESN'T FIGURE, SO LET'S SACK THE HACK", Los Angeles Daily News
- (2000, June 13). "A no-call for league: NBA won't change rule to stop foul strategy", Boston Herald
- "Phoenix sloppy down stretch as Parker, Spurs send Suns packing". ESPN.com. 2008-04-29. Retrieved 2008-04-30.
- "Best and worst of the first two rounds of the playoffs". ESPN.com. 2008-05-16. Retrieved 2008-05-20.
- Adande, J.A. (2008, May 8). "Commish: Fouling away from ball, replay to be reviewed", ESPN.com
- Stein, Marc (2008, May 29). "Fines will be imposed for clear cases of flopping", ESPN.com
- "Does Hack-a-Shaq actually work?". ESPN. April 28, 2016. Retrieved June 20, 2016.
- DeAntae Prince (April 21, 2016). "Adam Silver: New Hack-a-Shaq rule could be in place by July". Sports Illustrated. Retrieved June 20, 2016.
- Bresnahan, Mike (March 12, 2013). "Hacks and answered: Lakers' Dwight Howard buries Magic at line". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on March 13, 2013.
- 'Hack-a-Jordan' clouds Clippers' win
- Intentionally Fouling DeAndre Jordan Is Futile
- Even in a win, the flaws in the Spurs' strategy of intentionally fouling DeAndre Jordan were exposed
- Clippers rout Rockets 128–95 to take 3–1 series lead
- (2005, December 12). "Strategy doesn't work, Pistons top Clippers", The Detroit News
- Jordan, Rivers Give Thoughts On Hack-A-DJ Strategy