How to Make Basketball Better: Throw Out the Free Throw

How to Make Basketball Better: Throw Out the Free Throw

Gerald Green #14 and Markieff Morris #11 of the Phoenix Suns box out DeAndre Jordan #6 of the Los Angeles Clippers during a free throw in the second half of the NBA game at Staples Center on December 8, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.

Why you should care

Because basketball is better than this.

Two of the best basketball teams in the league battle it out as the clock winds down. The score is close, 101 to 103. Sweat drips, the crowd roars. It all comes down to this, these last few minutes — a showcase of the best of basketball.

Just kidding. It’s Hack-a-Shaq time. Which means it’s free-throw time. And an otherwise thrilling game has come to a screeching halt.

Why? Why, with adrenaline pumping through the veins of some of the top athletes in the world, do we instead stop to watch them play a glorified game of H-O-R-S-E? As the stakes get higher and the playoffs heat up, talking heads debate whether basketball needs a new rule banning Hack-a-Shaqs. But what about getting rid of the most boring element of the game and the incentive behind Hack-a-Shaq? Why not eliminate free throws altogether?

Some background: The Hack-a-Shaq is a defensive strategy, whereby the defender will seek out the worst free-throw shooter on the court and bump, swat and slap him until the ref calls a foul, stopping the clock and sending the bad shooter to the free-throw line, where he, statistically speaking, is likely to miss at least one of his two free throws. The logic is that it’s better than Shaq dunking all over your face.

It’s called Hack-a-Shaq, but Shaquille O’Neal was neither the first nor the last player to fall victim to the technique. Wilt Chamberlain, a famously poor free-throw shooter — who even tried to dunk his free throws, leading to the rule that you can’t cross the free-throw line — was hacked before it became fashionable. This season, a new crop of players have become favorite Hack recipients thanks to their sorry stats: DeAndre Jordan of the Los Angeles Clippers (40 percent free-throw shooter — the worst in NBA history), Rajon Rondo of the Dallas Mavericks (45 percent) and Dwight Howard of the Houston Rockets (53 percent) are just a few.

So what does the namesake think of the technique? “It makes a mockery of the game,” O’Neal blurted out on Inside the NBA. “Put your jockstrap on … just play ball. It’s called basketball, not basket-strategy.” But premier coaches like Gregg Popovich of the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs disagree. “You know, it’s a rule,” he told reporters after a game. “I hate it; I hate doing it … but free throws are a part of the game.”

But why? A free throw in many ways is a different skill altogether. And no highlight reel features free throws. No one is paying to watch LeBron shoot an undefended practice shot; we’re paying to watch him spin and slam. Is it something about our puritan natures, that players should be punished for not demonstrating sufficient work ethic in practicing their shot?

In their purest construction, of course, free throws function to deter fouling. They didn’t exist in the game’s original 13 rules, but basketball inventor James Naismith added them soon after, amid some grousing from the fans: “I have often overheard some spectators express the opinion that a game was won by free throws,” Naismith wrote in his book on basketball. “I have always taken the attitude that the game was lost by fouls.” But it’s doubtful he was envisioning the mutant Hack-a-Shaq foul. There are other ways to punish fouling teams: possession changes, points awarded, etc.

And change is not so radical when it comes to basketball. Over the years, the rules have been amended to keep the viewers stoked, from the introduction of the 24-second shot clock to the 3-point shot. It’s true that free throws give players a chance to catch their breath, and perhaps help avoid sloppy, exhausted play. But doesn’t the utterly modern invention of a TV timeout offer that?

As it turns out, some folks might be open to change — at least in the D league, the NBA’s experimental lab. ESPN reported that a few officials are considering the possibility of granting just one free throw rather than two after a foul, to keep the game moving. Meanwhile, this winter the D League stripped Hack-a-Shaqs of their motive by allowing the hacked team to select any player to shoot the free throws. After all, you probably wouldn’t hack if Stephen Curry (91 percent) could shoot them.

Is this how we fix basketball? Give it a shot in the comments section.

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