It’s been five years since the NBA tweaked its rulebook to try and reduce the number of Hack-a-Shaq fouls against poor free-throw shooters. The name of the strategy comes from superstar center and notoriously awful foul shooter Shaquille O’Neal. But it lived on through other players who could break a rim with a foul shot, such as Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan. Legendary San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich wasn’t too proud to employ the strategy.
He used it extensively during the first round of the 2008 NBA Playoffs against the Phoenix Suns. In five games, O’Neal shot 64 free throws. He made 32, and San Antonio waltzed through the series with a 4–1 win. It was what happened the next time the Spurs and Suns met that crossed the line into absurd territory. Coaches are always looking for the most negligible advantages. An opponent unable to execute a fundamental such as shooting a free throw is undoubtedly an advantage.
Terrible free-throw shooting is as old as the NBA itself
Shaquille O’Neal’s biggest flaw as a basketball player was a simple one. He couldn’t make free throws consistently. He tried different techniques, but nothing ever helped. He was a career 52.7% shooter and is second in NBA history with 5,317 misses from the stripe.
He and Wilt Chamberlain are the only players in NBA history to clank more than 5,000 foul shots. Chamberlain is still king with 5,805 misses and shot 51.1% for his career. Shaq is among the bottom 10 all-time in free-throw percentage, but he isn’t in the bottom five, so there’s that. The rogue’s gallery of players with the wrong stuff at the line includes:
- Ben Wallace (41.4%)
- Chris Dudley (45.8%)
- Andre Drummond (47.0%)
- DeAndre Jordan (47.5%)
- Chamberlain (51.1%)
The rule changes in 2016 came about in response to teams engaging in heaping helpings of Bang-a-Drummond and Demolish-Andre tactics. Drummond holds the NBA record for most misses in a game with 23; Jordan is tied with Chamberlain for second on that list with 22. While it makes games challenging to watch, it’s hard to question the logic of coaches like Gregg Popovich lathering, rinsing, and repeating.
Gregg Popovich responds to questions about Shaquille O’Neal strategy as only Pop could
After his Spurs hacked Shaquille O’Neal early and often during the 2008 playoffs, there were naturally questions about what strategy coach Gregg Popovich would employ during the team’s first meeting of 2008–09.
No one had to wait long; the Suns and Spurs opened the season against each other in San Antonio.
Phoenix won the opening tip. San Antonio’s Michael Finley wrapped up O’Neal immediately after that, but the officials took a few seconds to realize what was happening. They called Finley for the foul five seconds in, and the Suns took the ball out of bounds.
The reveal came when Popovich turned to O’Neal and grinned while putting both thumbs up. His assistants were openly laughing. Shaq did, too, when he realized the joke. O’Neal only shot eight free throws (making five) on the night, and Phoenix beat San Antonio, 103–98. Maybe Pop should have fouled him more.
The rule change didn’t eliminate the Hack-a-Shaq, but it did limit it
Before the 2016–17 season, the NBA already had rules regarding off-the-ball fouls in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime. In those situations, the penalty was one free throw plus the fouled team retained possession of the ball.
The amendment in 2016 extended the policy to the last two minutes of each quarter. Additionally, it clarified inbounds situations. Any foul before the ball is passed results in the same penalty as if it occurred in the last two minutes of the period.
Having to watch free throw after free throw doesn’t make for great television. Miss after agonizing miss further chips away at the aesthetics of the game. In all, the amended rules were a good measure.
That didn’t make it any less fun when Gregg Popovich and Shaquille O’Neal got a few laughs out of the situation.