AP Basketball Writer
MIAMI — San Antonio’s first play of the 2008-09 season was designed and executed perfectly. Spurs’ center Tim Duncan didn’t bother jumping for the opening tap, conceding it to Phoenix’s Shaquille O’Neal. Five seconds later, Michael Finley wrapped his arms around O’Neal for an intentional foul.
O’Neal was livid. That is, until he saw Spurs coach Gregg Popovich breaking into hysterics and giving him two thumbs up.
Yes, Hack-a-Shaq used to be a laughing matter. It isn’t anymore.
The increasing strategy of fouling bad foul shooters on purpose to send them to the line and slow their team’s offense to a crawl has raised the ire of everyone from booing fans to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. The antics will likely be something the league tries to curb in the coming months.
But no one seems to know how, and not many seem sure the rules need changing to protect the free-throw challenged.
“It’s ugly, but I’m going to do it,” Popovich said. “If you don’t want me to do it anymore, learn how to shoot a free throw.”
O’Neal is retired, but Hack-a-Shaq — or as it can also be called these days, Hack-a-Dwight, Hack-a-Dre, Hack-a-DeAndre and Hack-a-Hassan — is still around in its aesthetically awful glory. It can turn games into free-throw contests, many coaches and players openly dislike it and it primarily targets a few who are notoriously bad at the foul line.
“I hate it,” Popovich said.
“I hate it,” added Miami guard Dwyane Wade.
They’re not alone, though not everyone speaks with such venom.
“In baseball you can walk a player,” Atlanta’s Al Horford said. “There are different things you can to do impact the game. If they want to change it, it’s their call but it doesn’t bother me.”
If the league was to change things, one option would be to have such fouls carry the same penalty a flagrant does, two shots and retained possession.
“I think that sets a horrible example for kids, honestly,” Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said. “You can’t protect guys because they can’t shoot free throws. We’re getting paid a lot of money to make a damn free throw, dude. I think it sets a bad precedent.
“I wouldn’t change it.”
And really, only a few guys are worth even trying to use the ploy against.
With a 35 percent success rate so far in 2015-16 Detroit’s Andre Drummond — an All-Star — is on pace to have the worst free-throw-shooting season in NBA history, after narrowly avoiding that dubious distinction last year. And if he’s not careful, the Los Angeles Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan could soon rank as the worst foul shooter the league has ever seen.
Houston’s Dwight Howard and Miami’s Hassan Whiteside have also been frequent targets this season — seemingly at any cost.
When opposing teams are at the free throw line, players have jumped on the backs of poor shooters to ensure the officials see — and call — the foul.
“If I’m watching playoff games between the Clippers and Spurs, and if they’re hacking DeAndre, I kind of don’t want to watch the game anymore,” Indiana’s Lavoy Allen said. “But if we’re playing DeAndre, it’s good for us. But I would like to see some change to that. It messes up your game and slows it down and makes it boring to watch.”
Of the 137 players with more than 100 free-throw attempts this season entering Wednesday, only five — Drummond, Houston’s Clint Capela, Jordan, Golden State’s Festus Ezeli and Howard — are below 55 percent from the line. Reigning NBA MVP Stephen Curry from Golden State shoots significantly better from 3-point range, usually guarded no less, than Drummond, Capela and Jordan do from the line.
“That’s the thing,” San Antonio’s David West said. “It’s a basic skill that a lot people neglect. … If that’s where guys are deficient or have a weakness, I don’t think it there should be an outside attempt to save them.”
Then there’s this element: Hack-a-whoever rarely brings a win.
The Spurs won thanks in part to it in December, when they trailed the Clippers by four in the third quarter and started hacking Jordan.
Atlanta benefited in December against Houston, the tactic helped keep the Rockets to one field goal in the final 8 minutes. Houston blew a 10-point lead and lost.
But such examples are rare, and the fact remains that one of the basic principles of competition is finding weakness in opponents.
“There’s no way you can make the game perfect,” Minnesota coach Sam Mitchell said. “I’m all about tweaking it to make it as good as possible. But when it comes down to the skill of players, it’s on the players and coaching staffs and organizations to try to get players better at certain aspects. And at the end of the day, it comes down to that guy in the mirror. Get in the gym and work at it.”
And before any change gets made — if one comes at all — Popovich hopes the league considers what the unintended consequence may be.
“In your gut, you know there’s no place for it,” Popovich said. “But on the other hand, you’re competing and you take advantage of things, weaknesses of the other team. If you have guys who can’t shoot, they’re not going to guard him.
“I’m not sure what the answer is. The league’s trying to figure it out. We’re all trying to figure it out. It’s a tough one.”