As what is known as the Hack-a-Shaq strategy is fixing to become a major theme of three Western conference playoff series, and because I heard Reggie Miller butcher the concept during his Clippers-Spurs broadcast last night, I am feeling the urge to give my readers my thoughts on this strategy. Here they are:
It’s not too hard to figure out that the Hack-a-Shaq is a good strategy when already in the bonus, against a FT shooter below 50%.
It becomes more complicated when you’re not yet in the bonus — because the ability to take free fouls is quite valuable. It doesn’t cost you even a fraction of a point in equity, and might save you an easy score when you take it. This is why you usually see coaches waiting until the ends of quarters to start it.
It also becomes more complicated as the FT shooter’s % rises towards 50. At 50% the Hack-a-Shaq can be expected to cost you 1 ppp. That is right about where most team’s offensive efficiency is: Clippers 1.09, Warriors 1.08, Mavs 1.06, Spurs 1.05, etc. So how much can you really hope to gain by this strategy?
The answer is this: The Hack-a-Shaq strategy is really only valuable in one situation: When you are losing, and time is limited. It accomplishes two things:
1) Time management. Instead of allowing the opponent to run down the clock, it ends their possession after a few short seconds. Thus allowing you to extend the game by many extra possessions, and giving yourself a much greater chance of getting lucky.
2) Raises the variance. This can be a somewhat difficult concept to grasp for those not schooled as I am in poker and gambling. What raising your variance in basketball basically means is exaggerating the tails of your expected results without necessarily changing your overall point differential expectation. Let’s say that with two minutes left against a relatively equal team, your overall expectation is that neither team will outscore the other, and each team will score 5 points. If you were down by 7 in this spot, that would be very grim news. But if you could find a strategy that would result in more frequent exaggerated outcomes of one team scoring 8 more points than the other, it would obviously pay you to choose this strategy. It costs you nothing if you lose by 8 more points, but you will win the game those times you outscore your opponent by 8. Those times when your opponent struggles at the line and you get lucky with your threes. So again, raising the variance, like time management, increases your chance of getting lucky while not necessarily increasing your expected efficiency.
Because of these two factors, it is possible that the Hack-a strategy could become valuable against 60% and even 70% shooters as time starts winding down. You should be able to see this by the fact that when losing with less than 30 seconds left, coaches start fouling even the best FT shooter on the court. What they are doing, whether they understand the concept or not, is helping their team by raising the variance.
Reggie Miller stated during the Clippers game that he thinks the Hack-a-Shaq strategy only works when you are already ahead in the game. This is of course ass-backwards and utterly nonsensical. Whenever you are ahead in the game as time runs down, your goal should be to run the clock as much as possible, and decrease the variance in outcomes as much as possible. Right?
Hope this makes some sense to you and will be of use when trying to get into the minds of Pop, Carlisle and Monty going forward.
One other note: I suppose I should give my opinion on whether the Hack-a-Shaq is good for basketball, as this is about to become a hot-button topic. My opinion is that it is not only good for basketball, but is ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY for basketball:
It is the only possible defense against teams choosing to play a freakishly giant monster with no discernible basketball skills. Hence the name. (Sorry, Shaq.)
Lesser mortals like DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala are simply collateral damage.
Or, one might argue, they are simply victims of their own lack of application and vanity. (The Rick Barry method is proven, simple and available to all.)
I like everything about the rule: The chess matches it inspires, the exposure of Achilles heels — and genuine fear — in otherwise invincible players, the reversals of fortune, the moments when time stands still and everyone holds their breath while a multi-millionaire NBA star steps up to the line to attempt a simple feat that every schoolkid with a dream has practiced a thousand times.