There likely won’t be another NBA game this season where every point legitimately counted as much as Game 1 Monday night between the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs.
The thriller went to double overtime before the Spurs won, 129-127. And by the time it was over, pretty much no one but Gregg Popovich and Andrew Bogut remembered the second-quarter stretch in which Bogut made one of four free-throw attempts upon twice being fouled deliberately in Popovich’s ongoing Hack-a-Shaq strategy.
It certainly helped San Antonio’s cause a little and led to Bogut being subbed out of the game, though about 501 other things—including numerous terrible Manu Ginobili plays before one glorious one—decided the game more.
And with that instant classic, indisputably fantastic NBA playoff game as our frame of reference, let’s pause for a moment and consider what a waste it would have been if Popovich had felt so inclined to make the game into a Bogut free-throw parade.
Because he could have, and all of us would’ve been denied that wonderful night of basketball drama.
What’s scary is that because Popovich didn’t do it and put the spotlight on one of the game’s most fundamentally wrong rules, it might well persist and muck up future games. It would cost the NBA and its fans wonderful nights of basketball drama before the league comes to its senses.
One can only hope that the NBA’s competition committee will advocate changing the rule as soon as this offseason and the league’s board of governors follow that recommendation with an official vote.
The easy solution is to expand the current rule, which has been in place since 1967 courtesy of Wilt Chamberlain’s bricks ruining the flow of that era of NBA ball: The fouled team to choose any of its players on the floor to shoot one free throw and also gets possession when a foul away from the ball occurs in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime.
The solution is easy because the goal is to prevent the fouling team from gaining an advantage by doing it—and never getting the ball is a pretty strong deterrent. The broader damage caused by the tactic—ruining the flow of the game—would be erased because no one would do it. The game would be played properly.
That’s the real reason why the NBA needs to act here. It’s easy to say the bricklayers should just learn to make free throws, which are also part of the game. But the whole thing is pure trickery that fits right in with used-car salesman Don Nelson trying anything he could to win without having to teach his team to play defense.
The crux of this issue is the game itself, which doesn’t get played when Popovich is ordering guys to go hug Shaquille O’Neal, Dwight Howard or Bogut as they go seek position on the court.
Hack-an-Andrew makes obvious sense (and props to Pop for being an innovator in yet another way: introducing an “an” into the “Hack-a” lexicon).
Bogut shot 1-of-5 (20 percent) on free throws in the first round against Denver, 50 percent for the regular season and 44 percent in his last full-service season of 2010-11 before a major injury to an ankle that is again giving him real problems.
As long as the rules allow, Popovich is going to pick his spots to try it, as he did in the first round against Howard even though the Spurs dominated the Lakers in every way.
Interestingly, one of the 10 charter members of the new competition committee formed by the NBA a year ago is Los Angeles general manager Mitch Kupchak, who has an obvious interest in abolishing the tactic if Howard re-signs.
Another of the 10 committee members is Warriors owner Joe Lacob, who told the San Francisco Chronicle on the day he bought the team three years ago: “Our goal is that we don’t always think about the Lakers as the prime Western franchise. We want the Warriors to be that. San Francisco is every bit as big and as important a market as L.A.”
Even though the premise of the new competition committee is to seek the best for the league as a whole through its members’ knowledge and wisdom, it’s hard to envision Lacob wanting to protect Howard as he leads the Lakers toward their next era of greatness—especially after Lacob’s coach, Mark Jackson, hacked Howard to historic proportions last season (39 foul shots, an NBA record that Howard tied this season at Orlando in another Hack-a-Dwight game).
The rest of the competition committee, for the record, is comprised of one owner in Dan Gilbert (Cleveland Cavaliers), three general managers in Bryan Colangelo (Toronto Raptors), Kevin O’Connor (Utah Jazz) and Sam Presti (Oklahoma City Thunder), three coaches in Rick Carlisle (Dallas Mavericks), Lionel Hollins (Memphis Grizzlies) and Doc Rivers (Boston Celtics) and one member of the NBA players’ association. The charter members are expected to continue on through next season, according to an NBA spokesman.
Will Popovich’s of Bogut this series, so closely aligned with Lacob after the controversial trade of fan favorite Monta Ellis to Milwaukee, affect the bigger picture in Lacob’s eyes? There’s little doubt that NBA commissioner David Stern, always keenly aware of the need to keep the game fast and pleasing to the eye, wants the hacking excised from the game, but the power rests with the committee.
And for the moment, the lasting mainstream demonstration of the strategy was a case for the status quo. Houston’s Omer Asik made favored Oklahoma City pay for doing it in Game 5 of that series, sinking nine of 14 free throws.
See, just make the free throws, the purists say.
But this is about far more than helping some big lugs who can’t shoot.
It’s about protecting the game.
Kevin Ding has been a sportswriter covering the NBA and Los Angeles Lakers for OCRegister.com since 1999. His column on Kobe Bryant and LeBron James was judged the No. 1 column of 2011 by the Pro Basketball Writers Association; his column on Jeremy Lin won second place in 2012. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
Follow Kevin on Twitter @KevinDing.