Pros and Cons of NBA Teams Using 'Hack-a-Howard' Free Throw Strategy

Dan FavaleFeatured ColumnistMarch 17, 2013

Pros and Cons of NBA Teams Using 'Hack-a-Howard' Free Throw Strategy

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    Mike D'Antoni has Dwight Howard's back, which is good, because the Los Angeles Lakers big man has a target on it.

    According to Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com, D'Antoni isn't a fan of the the whole Hack-a-Howard trend that has gained traction ever since opposing NBA teams realized the center doesn't usually hit more than half of his free throws.

    Not just because of Howard's 57.9 free-throw percentage either. Magic Mike went as far as saying he hates it "for the fans."

    Right or wrong, there are irrefutable benefits to putting Howard at the line if you're an adversarial coach. Jacque Vaughn of the Orlando Magic knows what I'm talking about.

    There are also some problems that arise when putting him at the foul line more than anyone else. Vaughn also knows what I'm talking about here as well.

    What it essentially comes down to is the pros outweighing the cons. 

    But do they?

     

    *All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted.

Pro: Howard's Own Foul Troubles

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    The mental side of the NBA game is an important aspect.

    It can't sit well with Dwight Howard when he's standing at the free-throw line and caroming his attempts off every part of the rim. As a competitive being, he wants to be the best, and failing at anything is going to frustrate him—even on defense.

    Though this could be presented as a small victory, Howard has found himself in foul trouble when he's being fouled more at the opposite end.

    Dwight has fouled out five times this season, two of which have coincided with outings that saw him attempt at least 10 free throws. He's also averaging nearly four personal fouls a game when he hoists up at least 10 free throws.

    Short of fouling out and taking himself out of the game, this may not seem like much of an issue. By hitting that four personal foul mark, though—which he's done 14 of the 23 times he's shot at least 10 free throws—Howard's limiting how much of an impact he can make on defense. He's essentially daring opponents to attack the rim in situations where he can't contest them as aggressively.

    Of these 14 four-plus fouls and 10-plus free throw occasions, the Lakers have allowed 100 or more points seven times. Again, some will hardly cringe at such a stat, but Los Angeles is 16-28 when allowing at least 100 points. A .364 winning percentage under such conditions isn't a recipe for success.

    The Lakers are also 18-22 when Howard commits four or more personal fouls in general. 

    Coincidence or not, the more times Howard is sent to the foul line, the more he himself seems to foul. And the more he fouls, the more the Lakers lose.

Con: Team Foul Trouble

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    To put Dwight Howard at the free throw line, you're going to need to foul him. And to foul him, you're going to need to use, well, fouls.

    On the 23 occasions when Howard has attempted at least 10 free throws, teams are using a combined average of 26.3 fouls. The Toronto Raptors currently lead the NBA with 22.9 personal fouls a night, leaving that 26.3 well above the average.

    In those same contests, opposing convocations have about three players (2.95) committing at least four fouls. No one in the NBA currently averages four personal fouls a night and just three average more than 3.5, which poses a problem.

    Most teams don't have the kind of disposable personnel to just come in and hack Howard, And if they do, how many teams have players they deem dispensable that won't actively hurt their squad's performance on the floor?

    I'm inclined to say very few. If you're considered expendable, it's because you don't help.

    Just for kicks, when we take a look at games from this season in which one team commits at least 25 personal fouls while the other commits fewer than 25, we see the outfit that commits 25 or more has a record of 90-150, or a .375 winning percentage.

    Hardly a commercial for fouling in excess, wouldn't you say?

Pro: Howard's Paltry Free-Throw Percentage

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    Dwight Howard is known for his defense, his dunks and his comedic smile, but he's not known for his accuracy at the foul line.

    Los Angeles' center is knocking down just 48.8 percent of his free throws on the season and 57.9 percent for his career. The temptation to put him at the charity stripe and watch him regress to his self-imposed mean is just too tempting for certain factions.

    What if he receives an excessive number of attempts, though? He knocked down 25-of-39 in Orlando. The more looks he receives, the more likely he is to get into a groove, right?

    Not necessarily.

    Howard has attempted at least 10 free throws 23 times this season and has shot better than 50 percent from the line in 15 of those performances. And he's hit on at least 60 percent just nine times.

    For most, that's a ratio they can live with. Even at his best, Howard seems like a coin toss at the free-throw line.

    If I'm the opposition, watching him take two foul shots is a lot more comforting than watching him overwhelm his defender for a monstrous dunk or kick out to Steve Nash or Kobe Bryant for an open trey.

Con: More Free Throws = More Points

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    Free throws are the closest thing the NBA will have to freebies so, theoretically, the more free throws Dwight Howard attempts, the more points the Lakers (and the behemoth) should score.

    Knowing that the Lakers rank 19th in defensive efficiency, they need all the points they can get.

    Despite his poor conversion rate from the charity stripe (48.8 percent), Los Angles has eclipsed 100 points in 14 of the 23 games that Howard has shot at least 10 free throws. When the Lakers surpass that 100-point plateau, they're 24-10 on the season.

    Howard's horrid free-throw percentage aside, you don't want to pave the way for the Lakers to score 100-plus points, especially when they've had success when hitting such a mark.

    His 48.8 percent clip implies that his presence at the line will only hurt Los Angeles, but if you put him there enough, say 39 times, and he hits 20 or 25, that's still 20 or 25 extra points on the board.

    The message, then?

    Foul Howard with caution.

Pro: Lakers Record When Dwight Shoots Lots of Free Throws

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    Just because the Lakers tend to score more when Dwight Howard hits the free-throw line doesn't mean they win more.

    Traveling back to those 23 games in which Howard has attempted at least 10 free throws we discussed previously, we come to find that Los Angeles is 11-12 in those instances. The Lakers are also 4-7 against teams above .500 when their All-Star tower is sent to the charity stripe on at least 10 occasions.

    This toes along the lines of his poor shooting percentage from the foul line, but it's worth mentioning.

    Putting the ball in Howard's hands takes it out of Steve Nash or Kobe Bryant's possession, two exceptional free-throw shooters. If you have to foul someone down the stretch, you want it to be Howard.

    The mere threat of hacking Howard also poses some problems for the Lakers.

    In a close game, they can be apt to diverting the ball elsewhere, keeping it away from Howard. Though such logic makes sense, the Lakers cannot remove him from the floor altogether—he's too valuable on defense—so they're forced to essentially play a man down on offense or ignore their most prolific post presence.

    Unless they throw caution—or rather, his free-throw percentage to the wind—and involve him anyway, which, as we can see, often helps their foes more than it helps them.

Con: Lakers Record When Howard Scores More Points

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    There is a reason Hack-a-Howard has spurred so much debate.

    In so many ways, we can see how it benefits the opponent because of how the Lakers fare when he shoots more free throws. What we also understand (and alluded to earlier) is that more free throws means more opportunities to score more points, for Dwight Howard specifically. And for opposing defenses, that's a problem.

    When Howard attempts at least 10 free throws, he's averaging 18.6 points per game. By most accounts, that's a low number considering he's being sent to the stripe 10 times. 

    Even so, the Lakers have found success when Howard is able to score.

    On nights when the big man totals 18 or more points, the Lakers are 18-9, not exactly Miami Heat-dominant, but nine games over .500.

    Forcing Howard to take the foul line excessively (minimum of 10 attempts) paves the way for him to drop at least 18 more easily. He's scored at least 18 points in 15 of the 23 contests he's been sent to the line 10 times.

    And thus, for Hack-a-Howard advocates, we have yet another predicament.

Pro (?): Kobe Doing Too Much

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    Whenever Dwight Howard is at the free-throw line, he tends to miss more than most, which only puts even more pressure on his teammates. None more so than Kobe Bryant.

    The Black Mamba has played in 22 of the 23 games in which Howard has shot at least 10 free throws and is averaging just under 30 points in those contests.

    To be honest, Kobe dropping 30 isn't ideal, but the Lakers have struggled to find success when he does. Los Angeles is just 13-16 on the season when the Mamba hits the 30-point mark.

    While it's a trend the Lakers have been able to reverse as of late (7-3 in his last 10 games dropping 30-plus), putting Howard at the foul line forces Kobe and crew to make some very tough decisions.

    If Big Dwight is missing his supposed gimmes, the Lakers will want to keep the ball out of his hands. Less Howard means more Bryant, and more of Kobe hasn't always translated into victories.

    Which is something Hack-a-Howard proponents will keep in mind.

Con: Inconsistent Results

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    Popular as Hack-a-Howard seems, few teams in the NBA foul him religiously. And the ones that do have generated mixed results.

    Six different opponents have sent Howard to the foul line at least 10 times on two or more occasions, and no faction has come away with dominant results. Not any worthy of declaring a definitive trend anyway.

    The Portland Trail Blazers have allowed Howard to attempt at least 10 free throws three times this season, and their record in such contests is 1-2. The Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers and Magic have all done it twice, each posting a record of 1-1.

    Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers are 2-0 under similar circumstances, making them the only team to have embraced Hack-a-Howard on multiple occasions and come out above .500.

    For any team considering the employment of this strategy, that's not a poster sample size, nor is it one that has yielded encouraging results.

Pro: Howard's Back and Shoulder

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    To be clear, I'm not condoning the act of instilling physical affliction on anyone.

    Now that we've got that out of the way, though, the state of Dwight Howard's back and shoulder is still of some concern.

    Back and shoulder issues have plagued him all season, and he has been forced out of games at the hands of aggravating said injuries. And when he's not in the game, the Lakers are clearly vulnerable.

    Take Los Angeles' January 30 bout against the Phoenix Suns. Howard was forced to leave in the middle of the fourth quarter after being hit on the way up with the ball.

    Though a foul wasn't called, hitting Howard with any extra force these days means more than it did 18 months ago. Phoenix overcame a deficit in the featured game above, solely because of his absence.

    Los Angeles is 3-3 in the six games it has played without Howard and is allowing 109.3 points per 100 possessions when he's off the floor. Should that number ever stick, it would rank 27th in defensive efficiency.

    The math here is then simple: Fouling or hacking Howard in general provides a greater chance that he's removed from the game due to injury (especially nowadays). And without him on the floor, the Lakers just aren't as dangerous.

    A slightly sadistic "pro," yes, but a "pro" nonetheless.

Con: It Really Isn't Fair to the Fans

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    Mike D'Antoni is right.

    One of the reasons he is so against the Hack-a-Howard strategy is his concerns for the fans.

    Whether you believe his stance is genuine or not, it's nearly impossible not to concur.

    As D'Antoni stated, fans don't pay a premium on ticket prices to come to games and watch Dwight Howard, or anyone else, shoot free throws (via Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com):

    After the game, D'Antoni said Orlando coach Jacque Vaughn's tactic created an inferior product for the paying customers in the seats.

    "I hate it for the fans," D'Antoni said."They can come to practice for free and watch them shoot 40-50 foul shots. They don't even have to pay for tickets. I'll invite them all."

    Aside from taking D'Antoni up on his offer, you should understand that when you're paying hundreds of dollars to see the Lakers play, $10-plus for two hot dogs and probably the same (if not more) for one cocktail, you don't want to see the game slow down like that.

    If teams want to run half-court sets and deprive fans of the thrill that comes with dunks in transition, then fine. But don't take away the pleasure of watching, you know, actual basketball.

    Honestly, how is the crowd going to feel at a playoff game (should the Lakers make it) if they pay all this money to watch Dwight shoot free throws at an embarrassing clip? Save for a few air-ball tales, no epic recounts of basketball games begin with: So I was watching Dwight Howard shoot this free throw...

    Coaches and players alike are primarily concerned with winning, but being cognizant of what the fans came to see is arguably just as important.

    Stopping play and tainting the pace of any given contest by putting Howard at the free-throw line excessively isn't fair to the fans. If Blake Griffin suddenly decided to stop dunking in games for fear of his shoes being untied, that wouldn't be fair either.

    Just like this.