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Hey J.A., It seems that 90 percent of NBA news is coming out of your humble little town, so it's no surprise the Lakers are in the middle of more. Commissioner David Stern spoke last week about his disdain for the hack-a-whomever strategy and suggested the rules be changed to keep it out of the game. So, Shaquille O'Neal got hacked regularly and won anyway. Then other, less-profile players get hacked too. But now that it's negatively affecting the league's glamour franchise, the commish wants it out for good. Funny how that works, huh? Stern has never liked the maneuver, but is it problematic enough to change the rules and bail out guys who can't nail even half their free throws?
These were the best words to come out of David Stern's mouth in a long time. If he can't get a replacement team in Seattle or find a suitable arena for the Kings, the least he can do on his way out is get rid of this abominable loophole in the rules. I hate away-from-the-ball intentional fouls, no matter who uses them or whom they're used against. They have nothing to do with basketball. It's like a combination of an intentional walk and one of those ice-the-kicker timeouts called at the last second. And don't give me the "he should make his free throws, it's about fundamentals" argument. You know what else is a fundamental of the game? Playing defense for 24 seconds without committing a foul. The NBA even made it easier by allowing zone defenses in 2001. And you still can't get a stop without resorting to a gimmick? Nah, man. D up.
In principle, I agree with that. The game is damaged when it's slowed down to a crawl because a team is gambling that a poor free throw shooter will help keep them in it. It's desperation at its worst. But the basketball purist in me (did I just say that?) doesn't want to excuse a player who's so bad at the most basic of basketball skills. If a player doesn't have a left hand, he's forced to go left. If a guy can't shoot from distance, he's left alone on the perimeter and dared to shoot. The other option here -- one Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni seems to be refusing -- is simply taking out the horrible free throw shooter. If Shaq could be taken out of a game for this, why can't Dwight Howard? The only reason this is considered a "loophole" is because no one had the chance to really implement it before. For the sake of the product, though, I wouldn't mind the rule being adjusted. That can't happen until next season, barring some special Stern ruling. So the question now is, has the free throw thing gotten in Howard's head? Dwight seems to shrink when the other teams challenge him to shoot free throws. He's kind of a mess right now.
It's definitely in his head. The other day, the Lakers' first game against Utah was on TV in the locker room and on-screen Dwight was about to head to the free throw line, which caused real-life Dwight to turn his head as if it were a gory scene from a slasher movie. Like Shaq, he's fine in practice but gets too self-conscious when he's at the line in games. I've always believed that it wouldn't take a rule change to get rid of these away-from-the-ball fouls (I refuse to use a generic Hack-a-[blank] term, just like I won't automatically add a "gate" suffix to any scandal). All there has to be is a reinterpretation of flagrant fouls. A flagrant 1 foul is defined simply as "unnecessary." What's more unnecessary than fouling a player who doesn't have the ball, isn't going after the ball and isn't even setting a screen for the ball handler? So anytime a defender wants to hug up on a guy who is simply trying to jog upcourt, hit 'em with a flagrant. Two shots, plus possession. That will put an end to this.
The more I think about it, the more I doubt there will be full agreement from the competition committee to eliminate this strategy. This is such a specific problem; in today's game, it basically comes down to Howard. Think about it: If Clippers opponents foul DeAndre Jordan or Spurs opponents foul Tiago Splitter, it's a relatively easy choice to take either one out of the game if he's missing free throws. Howard is the only player good enough that the choice becomes a dilemma. So let's play this scenario out: If the Lakers make the NBA Finals (I know, I know, it's never gonna happen because of the curse of Phil Jackson) and somehow lose because the hack-a-strategy worked to perfection, then essentially the change will have been made, at least based on perception, strictly to bail out Howard. It'll be the Dwight Howard rule. And if the NBA let it happen when teams did it to Shaq, who's on the Mount Rushmore of NBA big men, why would the league suddenly be OK with changing it for Howard's sake? The other part about that is this: If the rule is changed for intentional off-the-ball fouls, there's no way to keep a team from fouling him once he actually does touch the ball. That way the Lakers either have to keep the ball out of Howard's hands, or the opponent just waits to foul him once he touches the ball. Either way, Howard becomes a relative nonfactor and the Lakers are in a lose-lose scenario.
The NBA has a history of making rule changes for the sake of one player. Even the league's own website acknowledges the reason for doubling the width of the lane in 1951 is "primarily attributed to the dominance of George Mikan." Shaq would tell you they brought in the zone because of himself. Yes, we're talking about a tactic used primarily on one guy. But that guy plays on a team that's on national TV a lot. If David Stern is concerned enough about the TV product that he's willing to fine a team $250,000 for not trotting out its best players, he should do his best to ensure teams are playing their best brand of basketball. Wimping out and ruining the flow of the games doesn't qualify.
Ooohh, I'm torn on that one. Yeah, Stern is responsible for making the game the best possible product for fans, but this is going a bit too far for one player's fatal flaw, isn't it? Mikan was dominant. Dwight's the opposite of that on the free throw stripe. The foul line owns him. Here's what really matters in all this, at least in the short term: Howard isn't going to be able to escape the foul line this season. In fact, now that it's obviously working, it'll probably occur more often. If the Lakers finally get right, and he's still shooting less than 50 percent from the stripe, good luck convincing teams that intentionally fouling him isn't the way to go. Now, our own Henry Abbott tells us the strategy doesn't work, but in an offense that's built on tempo, I tend to believe it has larger effects than just the math of the misses. What we know for sure is that it isn't going away. So sorry to say this, J.A., but get used to it -- again.