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Five Solutions to the NBA's Intentional Foul Plague

The NBA Playoffs have been marred by an outbreak of annoying (and ineffective) intentional fouling. It's a problem, and we have five different solutions for it.

by Corbin Smith
May 13 2015, 1:20pm

Photo by Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Leave aside that it is an act of violence against basketball and annoying as hell—intentionally fouling a poor free throw shooter, as first the Spurs and now the Rockets have done to the Clippers' DeAndre Jordan, almost certainly doesn't really work. A 50 percent foul shooter like Dwight Howard, converting at his normal rate, produces 1 to 1.2 points per possession, a mark that would put any team in the upper half of the NBA on the year.

Take a player even worse than that, like Jordan and his delectable .417 career free throw percentage, and the hacked team also gets to try for an offensive rebound and set their defense, annihilating the fouling team's opportunity to get out in transition. It doesn't just ruin one team's flow—it ruins both, not to mention the evening of everyone that wanted to watch some basketball, and wound up watching this instead.

Read More: I Challenge Sam Hinkie To A Game Of One-On-One

Generally, a defense based entirely on hacking was a sideshow. Once every month or so, a TNT Game would get torn apart, eyes would roll, grumps would make half-hearted demands to end the practice over the Internet, and everyone would go to bed. There was one game where Mark Jackson intentionally fouled Dwight Howard while the Warriors still had a lead. The lead was wiped out and Dwight Howard slid into a luxurious 45-point night spent primarily at the line. And now the Houston Rockets have, in the face of all conceivable statistical evidence and sense, car-bombed an entire second round series against the Los Angeles Clippers by sending DeAndre Jordan, a career (whatever, it's bad) free throw shooter, to the line over and over and over. The war has become a new normal.

Hacking is an act of desperation, boiling over with symbolic resonance. "We will do anything to win," it says, rather smugly. To which the only answer is: no you won't, Coach Addressing Media After The Game, you will do anything to keep up the appearance of attempting to win. This is less a strategy than attempt at assertion: a patriarch, the older male totem, slicing off the game's ears to maintain an illusion of control. This sort of mindset that has kept humankind and the United States in particular in a perpetual state of war, and made the postseason a good deal harder to watch. Only when we topple the patriarchs will we have both world peace and truly watchable basketball.

Or we could do one of these things:

It's subtle, but DeAndre Jordan is actually being fouled in this photo. — Photo by Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

IN THE BONUS, REWARD AN INTENTIONALLY FOULED SHOOTER WITH TWO SHOTS AND INBOUNDS POSSESSION OF THE BALL

Simple stuff. If your team doesn't get possession after free throws, you won't have any initiative to foul. But what is intentional? When does roughing up a screener on a pick-and-roll cross the line into "intentional?" Is breaking up a fast break "Intentional?" Who would ever want to task, say, Joey Crawford with assessing intent in the moment? This solution is direct and has precedence in the game: intentional off ball fouls are punished in this way during the last two minutes of every quarter. It will not be terribly elegant in execution, but it will not be worse.

IN THE BONUS, THE INTENTIONALLY FOULED PLAYER CAN CHOSE TO SHOOT OR TAKE THE BALL OUT

Here we run into the same problem with defining what "Intentional" means. Ideally, we could take a Potter Stewart approach and let the refs call it as they see it. There will be mistakes, there will be complaints, there will be unpleasant solutions. That will be awful, but it will also be progress.

AWARD A TECHNICAL FOUL TO SOMEONE

Who? Well, it depends. The NBA will be taking someone's money here, so they need to take a good hard look at their relationship with the Players and Coaches unions, and see where they can best take a relational ding.

THE GHOST OF JAMES NASMITH DESCENDS AND GENTLY SCOLDS THE OFFENDER

"This is not my vision!" says the kindly shade in a disappointed tone. "I wanted an indoor game that promoted health and good spirits, and also the manifestation of the works of Jesus Christ in our bodies! I am not angry, for I am a benevolent man whose spirit form has left anger behind. I am just sad to see what has become of my beautiful invention, my magnum opus, my life's work, in this moment. What about fair play? Sportsmanship?"

At this point, the players and the coaches and the crowd begin crying, as they realize the intrinsic values of all of these things. The connect with a deeper purity in themselves, and also in basketball. The demon of winning and losing—that necessary monster that lives in us all, poisoning our hearts even as it keeps us alive—screeches in horror and pain. We realize we are better off not submitting to his (for the demon is a man) every whim, and we dedicate ourselves to a version of sport that is more idyllic and truthful. Naismith's words have changed us forever. The only problem with this plan is that it will take a goddamn fortune to get him out of heaven for a season. The rates for such a thing, even month-to-month, generally include human sacrifice.

SURE, GO AHEAD AND HACK... BUT YOU'LL HAVE TO EAT A SERVING OF CREAM OF WHEAT IN THE TIME IT TAKES TO SHOOT THE FREE THROWS

Every time a player intentionally fouls someone to send them to the line, the fouling team's coach has to eat a cupful of farina cereal cooked with 2 percent milk, colloquially known as "Cream of Wheat." If they don't finish it in the time it takes for the free throws to be shot, they will have to eat another cup, right there.

This might keep the practice of intentional fouling in the game, but every time, a coach will have to perform an interpersonal calculus: Can I finish this Cream of Wheat fast enough? How much Cream of Wheat have I eaten? Does this win mean so much to me that I will willingly vomit Cream of Wheat on the court? Coaches with lactose intolerance, such as Jason Kidd, Flip Saunders, and Erik Spoelstra, will likely give up hacking altogether. Brad Stevens, who has in his life literally only eaten milk and milk products, will not change his behavior at all.

In conclusion, we must smash intentional fouling and also the patriarchy, for a better world and less irritating basketball.