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Why the Hack-A-Howard Strategy Doesn’t Work on Houston Rockets

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Since Dwight Howard arrived in 2013, the Houston Rockets have been the target of the Hack-a-Howard strategy more than a few times.

It’s getting to be late in the game and the Houston Rockets are winning by a few points, ready to make a push to close it out. The opposing coach thinks through his options on how to make a late game run. He calls a time-out and instructs his players to foul Dwight Howard. He’s a pretty bad free throw shooter (51.8%), so the coach takes the bet that he’ll miss lots of them and hopes that his team can knock down some shots and tighten up the score a bit. Let the hacking begin.

The previous scenario has happened too many times to count it seems over the last few years in Houston, and it’s made the game a lot less fun to watch for basketball fans. It ruins the flow of the game and takes away highlight opportunities, making it less appealing to the casual fan.

But it’s a good strategy though, right? It may be ugly but it works, right? Nope. Wrong.

When opponents foul Dwight, Houston has the advantage in nearly every statistical category.

Statistically, if a team could get off a jump shot every single possession (no turnovers the whole game) and shoot 50% from the field, it would be considered a very good thing. That team would average one point per possession and waste no possessions all game. Only nine teams in the league have an adjusted FG% of over 50%, and those teams still turn the ball over about 12 times a night.

If Dwight shoots just 50% from the charity stripe (lower than his season average) and gets fouled every time down the court, his team will average one point per possession, just like the imaginary team that has zero turnovers and shoots 50% from the field. Basically, to benefit from hacking Howard, a team has to shoot better than average and not turn the ball over at all.

As a Rockets fan, I say hack Dwight all day long. Houston’s AFG% currently sits at 49.7%, so theoretically the Rockets’ offense is better off with Howard shooting free throws every time. If teams had enough players to foul him for the entire contest and chose to do so, each possession would be so fast that Houston would average well over 100 possessions per game and thus score well over 100 points per game.

Opponents wouldn’t be able to keep up: teams have shot over 50% against the Rockets just seven times so far this season, with most of them taking place in November when the team hadn’t figured itself out as much as it has by now. Hacking Howard also puts the other team at a disadvantage with foul trouble. Coach Doc Rivers had his team (LA Clippers) start fouling intentionally in the second quarter on Saturday, and it led to Blake Griffin having to play nearly the entire fourth quarter timidly with five fouls. When opponents foul Dwight, Houston has the advantage in nearly every statistical category. 

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Apart from the statistical side of things, there is one intangible advantage that Houston has when coaches turn to the Hack-a-Howard strategy. Teams generally score best when they find a rhythm or get streaky and start feeding off each others energy. This phenomenon usually gets teams playing faster and things seem to happen quickly. That’s why coaches often call time-outs as soon as they see the opposition getting hot from the field – they want to slow things down. When the clock is stopped for free throws every possession, teams aren’t as able to find that unexplained rhythm.

The Rockets aren’t bothered by that issue for two reasons. First, they’re shooting free throws. When teams hack Howard, he shoots the one shot in basketball where players are required to be slow and methodical about it. Meanwhile, the opponent takes the ball down the court and has to create some sense of flow, which is hard to do when they’re stopping and standing around for 30 seconds or more every time they would normally be playing defense.

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Secondly and on that same note, the Houston Rockets are more accustomed to finding that flow out of nowhere than any other team. Houston shoots more free throws per game than any other team (29.3), and therefore is used to the frequent stoppage of play. The San Antonio Spurs are one of the most faithful teams to the Hack-a-Howard strategy, and they shoot the second fewest free throw per game in the league (19.5). They put themselves at a disadvantage when they slow the game down in a way that seems normal to the Rockets.

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To be clear, I do not like the Hack-a-Howard strategy. It’s is no fun to watch and isn’t what James Naismith had in mind when he thought up the sport. However, I don’t hate it as much as I did before I took a hard, analytical look at it. It is ugly, but it puts the Rockets in good position to win games. I’d rather see two teams battle it out and play hard basketball that doesn’t involve millions of free throws, but if intentional fouls are what teams choose to be their fate, so be it.

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