Hack-a-Shaq is a basketball strategy initially instituted in NBA by the Dallas Mavericks coach Don Nelson to hinder the scoring ability of the opposing team by continuously committing fouls against opposing players with weak free throw percentages.

Nelson initially devised the strategy for use against the Chicago Bulls, specifically power forward Dennis Rodman, who was a poor free throw shooter. However, it ultimately became better-known for its implementation against center Shaquille O’Neal. The name of the strategy is sometimes altered to reflect the player being fouled, for example ‘Hack-a-Howard’ for Dwight Howard.

The ‘Hack-a-Shaq’ name was originally used during O’Neal’s college playing days at LSU and during his NBA tenure with the Orlando Magic. At that time, however, the term referred simply to opposing teams employing an especially physical style of play in defending against O’Neal. Teams sometimes defended him by bumping, striking, or pushing him after he received the ball in order to ensure that he did not score easily with layups or slam dunks. Because of O’Neal’s poor free throw shooting, teams did not fear the consequences having personal fouls called against them when using such tactics. However, once Nelson’s off-the-ball fouling strategy became prevalent, the term ‘Hack-a-Shaq’ was applied to this new tactic, and the original usage was largely forgotten.

Committing repeated intentional personal fouls is a long-standing defensive strategy used by teams who are trailing near the end of the game. The downside of the tactic is that it results in the fouled team being awarded free throws. The typical NBA player makes a high enough percentage of his free throws that, over time, opponents’ possessions that end by their taking free throws will yield more points than those possessions in which the opponents must actually execute their offense against a standard defense.

For example, even the highest scoring teams in the NBA average only approximately 1.1 points per possession overall. If such a team instead shot two free throws on each possession, they could equal their offensive output even while only making 55% of those free throws. However, even the poorest free throw shooting teams in the NBA typically make around 70% of their free throws. Therefore, intentionally fouling repeatedly is not generally the best way for a defense to assure that its opposition scores the fewest possible points.

However, the potential advantage of such fouling is that it stops the game clock. If a team is trailing with time running out in the game, the strategy may be their only hope, as they cannot afford to allow time to elapse from the game clock while playing a standard defense, especially with the winning team looking to simply hold onto the ball until time runs out without even attempting to score. Instead, they must foul as a means of terminating the opposing team’s possession as soon as possible. Also, the effectiveness of this strategy is heightened as fatigue and pressure can affect the ability of the free-throw shooter.

When this strategy was originally employed in the NBA, the trailing team often made a point of fouling the opposition player who was the poorest free throw shooter in the game at that time, even if that player did not possess the ball. Fouling ‘off the ball’ in that way, however, eventually became a problem for the league when Wilt Chamberlain—a player of superstar caliber but an atrocious free throw shooter—entered the NBA.

Wilt Chamberlain was such a great player and dominant force that he would be certain to be on the floor in late-game situations if the score was close. However, he was such a poor free throw shooter (51%) that if the opposition needed to employ intentional fouling late in the game, Chamberlain would always be that team’s target. Just as the opposition was eager to send Chamberlain to the free throw line because of his ineptitude there, Chamberlain himself was reluctant to go for that same reason. This led to the spectacle of virtually an entire other game being held away from the ball and almost completely outside of the basketball game being played, as Chamberlain essentially played a de facto game of tag with defenders, attempting to run from and dodge them as they chased him trying to foul him.

The NBA decided to address this undesirable situation by instituting a new rule regarding off-the-ball fouls—that is, committing a personal foul against an offensive player who neither has the ball nor is making an effort to obtain it. The new rule stated that if the defensive team commits an off-the-ball foul within the last two minutes of the game, the offensive team would be allowed to keep possession of the ball after the awarding of either one or two free throws. Since the entire reason for employing intentional fouling as a strategy was to quickly terminate the offensive team’s possession, this new rule, when in effect, forced the team using intentional fouling to foul only the offensive player who had the ball. The current version of the rule carries an even more punitive penalty for a violation–not only does the victimized team maintain possession but it is permitted to select any player they want to shoot the awarded free throw, obviously choosing the most proficient free throw shooter on their squad.

In the late 1990s, however, Don Nelson theorized that if an especially bad free throw shooter were targeted every time, then intentionally fouling him repeatedly might actually yield fewer points per possession for his team than would playing a typical defense against them. Since Nelson would be employing the strategy even in the absence of any late-game need to stop the clock, he would be free to use it with greater than two minutes left to play. Thus, the off-the-ball foul rule would not apply. So Nelson’s innovation was not the creation of the strategy. Rather, his innovation was to take a strategy whose primary purpose had always been simply stopping the clock, and employ that strategy in an entirely different fashion: with a primary purpose of minimizing the opposition’s scoring.

Nelson first employed the tactic against Dennis Rodman of the Chicago Bulls in 1997. Rodman was shooting free throws at 38% on the season entering that game. The strategy could not be used over the entirety of the game, since each player is disqualified from the game upon commission of his sixth personal foul. However, Nelson felt he could still employ the strategy at selective times by assigning a little-used player to commit the fouls—one whose contributions the team would not particularly miss upon his fouling out. In so doing, the theory went, Rodman’s horrific foul shooting would result in the Mavericks actually giving up fewer total points during those Bulls possessions than they would give up by playing a standard defense against the Bulls’ efficient offense, led by Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

In that game, Rodman shot 9-for-12 from the free throw line, completely nullifying the strategy, and the Bulls went on to victory. Given its ineffectiveness on that occasion, the strategy was then largely forgotten, aside from the fact that Maverick player Bubba Wells, whose assignment it had been to foul Rodman, set the all-time NBA record for fewest minutes played (three) before fouling out of a game. However, Nelson revisited the strategy in 1999, this time against Shaquille O’Neal. And this time, some other NBA coaches chose to follow his lead.

Just as had been the case with Chamberlain decades earlier, the using of off-the-ball intentional fouling against O’Neal became somewhat problematic for the NBA. During the 2000 NBA Playoffs, there were two games in particular, one involving the Portland Trail Blazers and one involving the Indiana Pacers, in which the Hack-a-Shaq defense was relentlessly employed by those two teams against the Lakers. As a result, there was some discussion of expanding the off-the-ball foul rule to encompass more than just the final two minutes of the game, or instituting some other rule change which would discourage its use.

Ultimately, though, the NBA decided at that time not to adopt any new rules designed specifically to discourage the Hack-a-Shaq strategy. One factor cited in that decision was that the Lakers won both of the aforementioned games. Since the strategy had not worked well enough to provide a win for either of the teams that had used it, there seemed to be reason to hope that its use would not become widespread. But, increasing displeasure on the part of fans and the media with the continued use of the strategy in ensuing seasons—particularly in high profile playoff games—prompted the league in 2008 to revisit the possibility of a rule change. But, once again, discussion of the issue at the league’s competition committee meeting that year failed to yield adequate support.

While playing, O’Neal’s attitude toward the strategy was generally one of defiance, claiming that he would make the most crucial free throws ‘when they count,’ and that the strategy simply would not work against him. O’Neal reached a low point in his free throw shooting during the 2000–01 season, finding himself at a miserable 38% on the season in December 2000. At that time, the Lakers hired Ed Palubinskas to help coach Shaq. O’Neal shot almost 68% over the last 15 games of that season, and finishing the last home game of the regular season against Denver making 13 of 13 from the line.

O’Neal managed to consistently shoot free throws slightly better for the next two seasons than he had earlier in his career. However, he only managed to break 60% over a full season just one time: in the 2002–03 season. And after that season, his free throw shooting got much worse, remaining consistently below 50%. Despite his regression, O’Neal eschewed the idea of any further special coaching to improve his free-throw shooting.

O’Neal called Nelson ‘a clown’ for using the strategy. In response, in his next game against O’Neal, Nelson showed up wearing a clown nose. During the 2008–09 preseason, O’Neal expressed his disapproval of San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and his team’s use of the Hack-a-Shaq during the first round of the 2008 playoffs: ‘The only thing I call cowardly is when you’re up by 10 and do it. That’s a coward move and [Popovich] knows that and I’ll make them pay for it. [The strategy] doesn’t work. You know San Antonio tried it but they went home a couple weeks after we went home. I just have to go to the line and hit them and make them pay, and I will, I’m not worried.’

The merits of the strategy have been debated, with detractors arguing that in addition to its making the game unpleasant to watch, using it also violates ‘the spirit of the game,’ puts the team employing the strategy more quickly into a team foul penalty situation, and shows weakness or underconfidence in that team’s defensive abilities.

Since its initial appearance, many coaches have become reluctant to use the strategy amid those criticisms of it, as well as doubts about its ultimate effectiveness in minimizing scoring. One contributing factor to those doubts is that players sometimes show a penchant for making a greater percentage of his free throws when the Hack-a-Shaq strategy is being employed against them than they do on the whole. Some have theorized that sending O’Neal to the foul line repeatedly over a short period of time, as the Hack-a-Shaq strategy did, ran the risk of allowing him to ‘get into a rhythm’ in shooting his free throws.

These factors, combined with the fact that there are only handful of important players who shoot free throws poorly enough to even make the use of the strategy a viable option, have meant that the Hack-a-Shaq strategy has not found commonplace usage in the NBA. However, as no rule change has been instituted against it, the strategy is still seen occasionally, and it remains as an option for use against any player who is a key component of his team, but still a notoriously poor free throw shooter.

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