January 13, 2014 • From the BenchWinning Hoops

Prevent ‘Hack-a-Shaq’ with better coaching

by Kevin Hoffman, Editorial Director

Free throws are not difficult, and any basketball player who commits a moderate level of their time practicing them should be “average” at worst. The distance doesn’t change, defense is nonexistent — it doesn’t get easier.

Nobody needs me to stand here and harp on the value of free throws, because you’ve witnessed games won and lost by a player’s ability to hit their foul shots. With that in mind, teams still forego practicing them on a regular basis.

Last season, three of the teams that made the NCAA men’s Final Four ranked in the top 20 for free throws made. At least a handful of other teams kept their seasons alive by their abilities to hit clutch free throws at the end of games. They were prepared for the situation.

But sometimes, whether it’s a lack of practice or a case of the “yips, players just can’t knock down their free throws. That doesn’t mean we should change the game to accommodate their lack of skills.

One of the biggest discussions during the NBA offseason is the “Hack-a-Shaq” strategy, in which teams foul their opponent’s subpar free-throw shooters to neutralize that team’s ability to make the most of their possessions. This was a hot topic during the postseason when teams used the strategy against the Los Angeles Clippers, fouling DeAndre Jordan at will — he shoots below 40 percent from the line.

Some in the league want to create a rule preventing such a strategy. They say it makes the game unwatchable, and NBA owners are always nervous about anything that might hurt ticket sales.

While fouling your opponent’s weakest free throw shooter is a risky approach, taking advantage of the other team’s weaknesses is part of what sports are all about. Discover what they do poorly, and exploit it. If poor free-throw shooters are liabilities to your offense, then you should adjust accordingly.

“There will be a lot of discussion about the fouling, as there should be, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told the San Antonio Express-News after the season. But principle wise, I feel really strongly that it’s a tactic that can be used. If someone can’t shoot free throws, that’s their problem. As I’ve said before, if we’re not allowed to do something to take advantage of a team’s weakness, a trade should be made before each game. ‘We won’t foul your guy, but you promise not to block any of our shots.’ Or, ‘We won’t foul your guy, and you allow us to shoot all uncontested shots.'”

Popovich is right, and regardless of how owners want to frame the argument, coaches should be allowed to deploy “Hack-a-Shaq” all they want. If you don’t want your best player around the rim to be fouled on a regular basis, teach them how to shoot.

That’s what it all comes down to. Maybe your best player can’t hit free throws, or maybe they’re weak with their left hand. Encourage players to strengthen their entire skill set, and during practice focus on the most vulnerable aspects of their game.

The best way to keep opponents from attacking your weaknesses is to have as few of them as possible. That responsibility lies with the coaches, and rules shouldn’t stand in the way.