A couple weeks ago, I argued that the hack-a-Howard strategy could work on a player who shoots 50% from the line. My post was timely; four days later, Mark Jackson instructed his Warriors to foul Howard repeatedly. Howard attempted 39 free throws (an NBA record) and made 21 (54%). The Warriors lost the game, and commentators hammered Jackson for ruining the flow of the game and being afraid to face up to the opposition. Magic coach Stan Van Gundy didn’t really complain but refused to foul 51% career free throw shooter Andris Biedrins in retaliation. However, the Warriors still had a chance to win with 3 minutes left against a far superior opponent. To me, that looks like a success.
What do the numbers say about Jackson’s decision? Well, Howard is having a tough year at the line, shooting 46%, but he’s a 59% shooter for his career. Based on this year’s low number, hack-a-Howard generates 0.46*2 = 0.92 points per possession. The Magic average 93.0 possessions and 96.9 points per game for an offensive efficiency of 1.042 points per possession, fourth best in the league (efficiency numbers courtesy of teamrankings.com). The Warriors are 27th in the league in defensive efficiency, allowing 1.038 points per possession. Based on this year’s foul shooting, Jackson made a good call. The Magic were almost sure to score more than 0.92 points per possession if Howard were not hacked. But since Howard shot 54% from the line, the Warriors ended up allowing 0.54*2 = 1.08 points per possession when hacking.
No team in the NBA averages more than 1.045 points per possession. Even for the wimpy Warriors, hacking Howard seems like a poor option after yielding so many points. Perhaps Jackson was hoping to capitalize on the psychology of Howard’s free throw line struggles this year, but Howard has shot right around 59% every year, and will probably get his average above 50% again this year. At those numbers, hacking is generally not worthwhile.
I had a different question after the game: why didn’t the Warriors foul Howard every time? If Jackson truly believed in his strategy, he could have used a bench warmer to foul the Magic into the bonus on their first possession of each quarter, and then started hacking-a-Howard as long as he remained on the floor. With 12 guys dressed, the Warriors had 72 fouls to work with. Jackson waited until the ends of quarters instead, when the Magic had crept into the bonus at their own pace.
Perhaps Jackson was going for a modified hack-a-Howard by having his team foul only on the Magic’s high percentage possessions when Howard got the ball. I describe this as the Man Hugger — intentionally fouling to prevent all dunks and layups, especially by poor free throw shooters. This strategy has much more potential. As usual, Howard is shooting 58% from the floor this year, which generates 0.58*2 = 1.16 points per possession. Given this rate, it would be smart to eliminate Howard’s shots from the field by man hugging him whenever he gets the ball. Many teams employ this strategy already to some degree. Unless Howard’s free throw shooting improves, we will probably see it more and more.