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We're All Sick of Free Throws, Right?

The free throw is an aesthetic blight on a beautiful game, but it's not like there's a whole lot to be done about basketball's dirty little necessity.

by Colin McGowan
Mar 9 2015, 2:50pm

The free throw is a wretched thing. If the rules of basketball are meant to facilitate beauty, it's a systemic flaw that, some 46 times per NBA game, a player steps to a line 15 feet from the basket and takes an unguarded shot. A free-flowing exercise pauses for a few moments and becomes more like bowling or darts than it was intended to be. There is no obvious way around this problem. What else is to be done when one player grabs another as he moves in to score?

If a rule is around for long enough, it's bound to be exploited in one fashion or another, and we appear to be reaching a point at which the foul rules aren't accomplishing what they were devised to do. They never totally have—when has the possibility of giving away two shots from the charity stripe ever stopped someone from wrapping up a driving opponent?—but recently, the prevalence of the hack-a-whomever tactic has begun a conversation in which people in and around the NBA are considering whether the rules need a redraft. Apparently, DeAndre Jordan's brave struggle-face as he clanks his seventh consecutive freebie is poignant enough to drive change.

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The alteration itself is simple and has been proffered elsewhere: if fouls exist to help the offensive team score, and any foul on a horrible free throw shooter does the opposite of that, then the offensive team should be given the option to have the ball out of bounds with a refreshed shot clock whenever the defense grabs someone off-the-ball as he jogs up the court. Adam Silver, to hear the kool-aid sippers tell it, is an enlightened ideas man, so the rulebook should have some version of this change in it by next October. The Jordan brick-fests and subsequent kvetching are soon ending.

This ends badly for everyone save the opposing team. Image via Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

More interesting is the reason rules transmute over time. Gregg Popovich, who is given to pushing the sport's regulations to their limits, justifies his use of hack-a-whomever by stating that "free throws are part of the game." He has qualms about it, though: "If they have people who don't shoot free throws, you try to take advantage of it. The goal... is to win. Does it look bad? Does it look ugly? It looks awful." This perhaps explains Popovich's broad appeal, in that it reveals him to be both a pragmatist and an aesthete. But his pragmatism, not his taste, is what factors most heavily into his coaching decisions. This is the central problem of rule-making: the aim of the folks who run a sport—to render the game fair and enjoyable to watch and play—is incongruous with the aims of the coaches and players who abide by those rules, who are setting out to win whatever way they know how. What can be circumvented will be circumvented, prettily or otherwise.

The inverse of hack-a-whomever is embodied by James Harden, who draws fouls like a bug zapper draws fly carcasses. The crucial difference between the two is you can sit on your porch with a beer and have a halfway enjoyable time watching pests meet their electrified death, but Harden on his free throwing-est nights can be a snooze. It's not as if he has figured out something his peers haven't—that getting to the line is an easy way to score—but his game is built, in a way that, say, Russell Westbrook's isn't, around getting shoved, hip-checked, and slapped, then converting a bunch of shots while his teammates and opponents laze along the edge of the paint. There's a grim anti-panache to it, like Harden is a data set that learned how to Euro-step. It's great basketball, but only technically.

Foul limits and the good sense of officials to swallow their whistles if the game is getting stoppage-heavy mean that we will likely never have the discussion of whether something needs to be done about players like Harden working their tediously efficient magic. But that doesn't render what they do much more appealing than Andre Drummond getting hugged and rainbowing the ball off the back rim for five minutes straight. That, no matter whether they are taken well or poorly, the free throw is boring is a testament to its boringness. It is the most lamentably necessary aspect of a frequently majestic game. It's the basketball equivalent of paperwork. It exists because it must, but the scarcer it is, the better.

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