It’s been a time-honored tradition for teams to foul one of their opponent’s top players (usually) in the dying minutes of a close game, especially if the player is a horrible free throw shooter. Since the latter designation applied to Shaquille O’Neal for all his career, the strategy was so named “Hack-a-Shaq,” though there have been name variations in the years since O’Neal’s heyday. But since the Los Angeles Clippers (DeAndre Jordan) and Houston Rockets (Dwight Howard) both have terrible foul shooters, we’re going to stick with “Hack-a-Shaq” when talking about this late-game strategy, and how it’s played a role in the ongoing Clippers-Rockets playoff series.
Interestingly, Rockets coach Kevin McHale had complained about the Clippers’ Hack-a-Dwight/Hack-a-Shaq tactics, as the team’s strategy to keep fouling Howard in Game 2 wasn’t able to give the Clips the win. In Game 4, however, McHale had his charges do the exact same thing against the Clippers’ Jordan, but mainly in the first half; as a result, Jordan took a whopping 28 free throw attempts in the first half. He finished the game with an abysmal 14-for-34 showing from the line, but once again, Hack-a-Shaq didn’t work. In fact, the Rockets were trounced 128-95 by the Clippers, as Jordan had a standout game despite the lousy foul shooting – he had 26 points and 17 rebounds, while Howard finished with just six points and six rebounds in 18 minutes, missing most of the game due to foul trouble.
As it appears, Hack-a-Shaq doesn’t seem like a very smart strategy after all, and that was pointed out on separate op-eds on The New York Times and The Washington Post. The former publication cited statistics from the 1963-64 NBA season onwards, saying that in games where a player had 25 or more free throw attempts, the team getting sent to the line the most had won 50 out of 74 games. And while it can be said that a lot of those games were won by teams boasting of standouts like Michael Jordan or Charles Barkley – neither of whom had problems from the line – the Times op-ed said that the strategy hasn’t been effective either when used on teams with poor free throw shooters.
One need only look at Jordan and Howard, both of whom have had three games where they attempted 25 or more free throws. In both cases, their respective teams won all those games. And the “namer” of Hack-a-Shaq himself, Shaquille O’Neal, saw his teams go 4-1 when he attempted 25 or more foul shots. In the case of Wilt Chamberlain, the late NBA legend’s teams only went 5-4 when “The Big Dipper” attempted 25 or more free throws, though The New York Times did point out one notable instance where a truly horrible free throw shooting game still ended up with Chamberlain’s team on top.
That took place on December 12, 1967, when Chamberlain’s Philadelphia 76ers beat the Seattle SuperSonics, 118-107. The Sonics had sent Chamberlain to the line 25 times, and he ended up making just six of those free throws – good for a truly laughable 24 percent clip. Still, the Sixers beat the Sonics even with Chamberlain bricking it up from the line, as guard Hal Greer made up for that by scoring 38 points.
So is it really a bad idea to go “Hack-a-Shaq”-ing, knowing that the strategy only works about a third of a time, based on the above figures? Given those stats, including those from the Clippers-Rockets series, it just might be.