Nothing's more foul than the intentional foul:
The league banned Hack-a-Wilt in 1967. It should ban Hack-a-Dwight today.
What kind of league provides an incentive for low-life coaches to bring brisk, free-flowing games to a screeching halt with intentional fouls? When I become NBA dictator, off-the-ball intentional fouls (and maybe on) will be penalized by giving the fouled team three points. The fouling team gets the ball and play resumes immediately. No fuss, no muss, no free throws stopping play. And, of course, no more intentional fouls.
Commissioner David Stern should have been raising holy hell a dozen years ago, asking why the NBA — the supposed premiere basketball league in the world — can't measure up to the NCAA and other associations that don't tolerate this boring, boorish nonsense. All it takes is a penalty that guarantees the tactic is never attempted.
Way back in 2000, in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals a national TV audience was subjected to dreary Mike Dunleavy sending Shaq to the line for 25 free throws in the fourth quarter alone. Less than three weeks later, Larry Bird gave his Pacers defense the same vote of no-confidence by sending Shaq to the line a playoffs record 39 times in Game 2 of the Finals. Stern's response three days later? "We're not planning to rush out and enact some Hack-a-Shaq antidote. We've been very slow to rush to make changes in our game."
By the spring of 2012 tortoise Stern was finally willing to consider a change. He cajoled the league's Board of Governors, a.k.a. the owners, who must approve every rule change (because no one knows more about basketball than a bunch of middle-aged and older white dudes who made their millions in some other line of work), to agree to a streamlined Competition Committee, which is the body that makes recommendations to the Board. Instead of the established but unwieldy band of 30 general managers, the committee would be trimmed to a mixed 10-man group. Among other issues such as flopping, Stern encouraged the committee to address off-the-ball intentional fouls and to consider extending to the first 46 minutes of an NBA game the current rule that, in the last two minutes only, gives the fouled team the right to choose any of its five players on the court to shoot one free throw, after which that team retains the ball.
So far, so good. Then Stern made the huge mistake of giving coaches three of the 10 seats. Joining Doc Rivers, Rick Carlisle and Lionel Hollins on the committee was a representative from the Players Association, Keyon Dooling; two owners, Dan Gilbert of Cleveland and Joe Lacob of Golden State; and four general managers, Bryan Colangelo of Toronto, Sam Presti of Oklahoma City, Mitch Kupchak of the Lakers and Kevin O'Connor of Utah. Count me unimpressed.
Left out of the mix were insightful outsiders with an independent perspective. I doubt anyone has written more perceptively or prolifically on improving the game and the officiating that has deteriorated so badly on Stern's watch than I, yet somehow my phone didn't ring. In a sane world, seven of the ten seats would have been reserved for my ilk or of my choosing, drawn from the likes of ex-player deep-thinkers such as Bill Russell, Jim Barnett, Chet Walker and yes, Tommy Heinsohn (superb when he's not wearing his Celtic-homer hat); veteran journalists with good basketball values (e.g., Jack McCallum, Mark Heisler and Bob Ryan); and retired refs who enforced the superior traveling, palming, dislodging, block/charge, moving-pick and face-guarding rules of the 1970s and early 1980s (e.g., Jack Madden and Jake O'Donnell). I'd also consider active coach Rick Adelman, a long-time voice of sanity on fixing the bizarre free-throw rebounding rules and other matters.
I don't know what went on behind closed doors, but I presume the coaches successfully lobbied their Competition Committee colleagues not to deprive them of the right to call attention to their tactical and strategic brilliance.
"It's fair to say there was a strong sense that we shouldn't cut down on the toolbox that coaches have available to them, despite what may seem the unseemliness of the way it goes down," Stern said. "But that's just one of the things that you do if you want to win and it works."
Stern sometimes forgets that one of the most important jobs a commissioner has is to protect the game from coaches. Far too many are win-at-all-costs jerks who don't care squat about the game. That is why the commissioner in the 1950s approved the 24-second shot clock. Yes, that change took something out of the coaches' precious toolbox, but it also put an end to lunatics ordering stalls in hopes of improving their win-loss record even if it meant draining every last ounce of entertainment from the sport. Which is more important?
In 1966-67, Sam Smith reports, Chicago's Johnny "Red" Kerr (a good guy but with at least one jerk-like tendency) became the first known NBA coach to try to win through off-the-ball intentional fouls. His target was Wilt Chamberlain.
"Down six to Philadelphia with about four minutes left," Smith writes, Kerr "called for it and Wilt was fouled away from the ball three times and missed his free throws. Wilt, by far the strongest person in the league and perhaps most sensitive, started running away from the ball, screaming at Bulls players, 'I'll break your nose if you foul me.'" Philly coach Alex Hannum "finally took out Wilt and the 76ers hung on to win, but the league was furious and passed a rule for the next season — since overturned — making the tactic a technical foul."
Now that is the way to run a league, though I wonder if the change wasn't in fact imposed immediately or at least by the start of the playoffs. The 76ers won the crown, and I don't believe there was any off-the-ball intentional fouling, despite Wilt shooting a woeful .388 that postseason. I know of no old-timers (me included) who regret being deprived of seven years (1967-73) of playoff Hack-a-Wilt, five of which ended with him in the Finals.
I don't know when the incentive to commit off-the-ball intentional fouls was reinstated or why on earth the ignoramus(es) thought it was a good idea, but I'd like to know. Rather than have a rule that encourages Avery Johnson, Gregg Popovich, Mark Jackson (who sent Dwight Howard to the line a regular-season record 39 times in a nationally televised game last season) and quite a few others to embarrass opposing big men who struggle at the stripe — and there have always been such players — what the NBA needs is something that gratuitously embarrasses coaches. I'm not sure what that would be, but I'm open to suggestions.
On Dec. 3, Orlando's Jacques Vaughn ordered a batch of off-the-ball intentional fouls against Dwight Howard. The next night, Toronto's Dwane Casey targeted Denver's Javale McGee. The night after that, Houston's Kelvin Sampson targeted Howard. Earlier this season, Oklahoma City's Scott Brooks ordered fouls on DeAndre Jordan, and Portland's Terry Stotts got Jordan and Blake Griffin in the same game. Add exciting Pistons rookie Andre Drummond and perhaps others to this season's list. Golden State's Andris Biedrins is a sad shell of his former self in part because of this stupid rule, as noted in a sensitive analysis by Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard.
If the fouling team is at home, many fans in the stands get a sadistic kick from the routine. But hardly any fan who doesn't have a rooting interest in the outcome wants to watch this garbage.
Maybe public-address announcers who don't care for this could say after each intentional foul, "This stoppage of play is proudly presented by David Stern and the wise men of his Competition Committee: Doc Rivers, Rick Carlisle, Lionel Hollins, Keyon Dooling, Dan Gilbert, Joe Lacob, Sam Presti, Bryan Colangelo, Kevin O'Connor and Mitch Kupchak." Each guy's photo would be displayed on arena big screens as his name is announced. Broadcasters — many of whom despise Hack-a-Whomever — could do the same.
Incidentally, Kupchak played collegiately for a kook who had to be legislated against: Dean Smith, who fortunately has been a good-deed doer off the court (a champion of civil rights for African Americans in the 1960s, when such a stand generated considerable hostility in North Carolina) to compensate for the harm he's done on it. Though his four-corners stall was mercifully banned, his other sterling innovations — group hugs after every free-throw attempt and five defenders always on the lookout for an opportunity to fall down — have had remarkable staying power.
I don't know if the Competition Committee voted 10-0 to retain off-the-ball intentional fouling for the first 46 minutes of the game, but by shining an unwanted spotlight on its members we'll soon find out if any objected or abstained, and who were the most gung-ho on retaining it.
The one good thing about Hack-a-Whomever is it really pisses off the Hoop Gods, something I wrote about back in 2008. Coaches intent on showing the world just how darn clever they are ended up out of the league or out of luck, with few exceptions. Oh, you don't remember Larry Krystkowiak and Sam Vincent?