On Wednesday night, DeAndre Jordan played his first game against the Mavericks since spurning the team to return to the Clippers this summer. Dallas was not glad to see him. That was why ESPN broadcast the game: to see how the crowd treated Jordan, to hear what outlandishly overstated thing Mark Cuban would say before the game, to watch Doc Rivers find another way to exonerate his player of any wrongdoing.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Wednesday's entertaining game between the Clippers and the Mavericks was that thousands of fans excitedly anticipated what is generally considered the most aesthetically displeasing part of NBA basketball. Dallas fans were keyed up to see DeAndre Jordan take a bunch of intentional fouls, and throw up a bunch of doomed knuckleball free throws.
Hack-A-DeAndre (or Hack-A-Drummond, or Dwight, or whoever) was a regular occurrence when Shaquille O'Neal was dominating the NBA in the early 2000s. The strategy was motivated by two related factors: Shaq was nearly unstoppable near the basket and also a supremely poor free throw shooter. Making him shoot two free throws instead of giving up a dunk isn't doing the math; it's doing the simple arithmetic. Shaq hated it, but he also saw it as a validation of his dominance.
Shaq is now busy providing intermittently coherent basketball analysis with Chuck and Kenny, but the intentional fouling trend has survived and become widely reviled among basketball people. Imagine the scenario as they do: beautiful basketball is being played for three quarters—all alley-oops, three-pointers, break-neck transition scoring, perfectly executed backdoor cuts, and alternating momentum—and then a player who doesn't even have the ball is fouled, intentionally, by a player pleading with the refs to notice him doing so. The game stops. Dude clunks two free throws. The next time his team has the ball he is fouled again. This continues. A game that was on pace to last a crisp two hours and thirty minutes will now go well over three hours; what was free-flowing is now stop-and-go traffic.
Today's coaches use intentional fouls not just to stop a dominant player like Shaq but as an alternative to defending a good offense. As intentional fouling has increased, the backlash has surged—but, besides how annoying it is to watch, why now?
"It feels like a bigger deal because everybody is kind of watching it together with Twitter and a hive-mind kind of develops," theorizes Jonathan Tjarks, NBA columnist for RealGM. Ian Levy, an editor at Hardwood Paroxysm, chalks it up to a growing culture of solutionism among NBA fans and writers. "Instead of just appreciating the NBA, warts and all, there seems to be a perception that if we all dig in and get our hands dirty, we can make a perfect league," he says.
Agree with them or not, these people care about the NBA, its aesthetics and entertainment value, and even its ethics. Intentional fouling doesn't deliver much on any of those fronts—unless, that is, you were in the crowd in Dallas on Wednesday.
"I'm hoping everybody will boo him every time he touches the ball," Robbin Root said after trying to get ESPN cameras to acknowledge her fan-made sign 30 minutes before tip-off.
Root represented the majority consensus at American Airlines center Wednesday. The fans were angry with Jordan not so much for going back on his decision but for not communicating with Mark Cuban after having agreed to sign with Dallas. They thought it was unprofessional and uncouth, and they thought Jordan was kind of a jerk.
These fans weren't just OK with the concept of intentionally fouling Jordan; they were psyched about it. "They should send him to the free throw line as much as possible," Keith Dunlap said from his seat before the game. "Put the pressure on his shoulders. I think he's shown in previous seasons that he can't handle that. Just like when the pressure was on him in free agency—he couldn't handle that either."
Cuban had plenty to say about Jordan and the Clippers before the game. When asked if he had a firm stance on Hack-A-Whoever, he was adamant that a rule change was out of the question: "If you can't do something that my six-year-old can do then we shouldn't legislate the game around it." If Jordan were a Maverick today, Cuban might feel differently. But he also had a point.
"Usually I feel like it sucks the life out of a game," said longtime Mavericks and NBA fan Rebecca Levy. "But tonight, given the circumstances, bring it on."
From the moment he began warming up until the final buzzer, Jordan was booed every time he touched a ball. At one point during warm-ups, he began shooting free throws. He gave up a few seconds after air-balling one. The crowd loved it.
The game was competitive from the start, keeping the crowd fully engaged. With 4:38 left in the first quarter, Rick Carlisle sent rookie center Salah Mejri to check in. Mejri, who was signed from Real Madrid this summer, had played less than 12 minutes all season. Some of the fans in the American Airlines Center understood what was happening. The cheering began.
Mejri immediately fouled Jordan and the crowd went nuts. They quieted down after Jordan made the second shot. Still, Rivers took Jordan out of the game.
Mejri, who would be used for the same purpose later in the game, was still getting settled into his role with the Mavericks. "I'm still learning," he said after the game. "Today, I didn't know that you had to go to the middle of the table to ask for a substitution. In FIBA rules, you just go near the table and they see you."
For the record, as a center, Mejri's opinion on intentional fouling is simple: "You have to practice your free throws. It's like if you have a player who's not a good defender, you're going to attack him," he said. "If you don't know how to shoot free throws, I'm not going to let you get easy twos. I'm going to foul you."
Taking Jordan out ended the fouling. The game was still competitive when the Mavericks gave up the lead, trailing 99–97 with 5:25 left in the fourth quarter. Carlisle again went to Hack-A-Jordan, which resulted in two missed free throws and a raucous crowd of high-fiving and screaming fans.
They implemented the tactic again with 4:59 left in the game, and again half a minute later. With 4:11 left, Rivers once again sat Jordan on the bench and didn't bring him back until less than two minutes remained. The tactic had, in effect, rendered Jordan a liability, and helped the Mavericks, who were able to get a few crucial rebounds in the meantime, grab control of the game. There's no telling if the crowd played a part in Jordan's struggles, but they certainly didn't seem to help.
Critics of the Hack-A-Dude strategy often point toward the losing record of teams implementing it, but that fails to acknowledge that teams typically use the tactic when they are already trailing, and thus more likely to lose the game regardless. Rivers chose to take Jordan out, and this is a crucial point. Jordan played only 27 minutes in Dallas, and shot 3-of-9 from the line. Despite the Hack-A-Jordan, there was plenty of beautiful basketball on display in the game, most notably a vintage 31-point effort by Dirk Nowitzki and strong bench play from both teams. More to the point, the Mavericks won, 118-108.
The Mavericks' consolation prize replacement for Jordan at center, Zaza Pachulia, sealed the game with two free throws. He had 10 points and 10 rebounds. Jordan had nine points and 11 rebounds. After the game, Carlisle was asked about Pachulia's intensity and effort. "Our guy is a 90 percent free throw shooter," he responded. Not exactly subtle, and not quite on topic. But not wrong, either.