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Friday, January 29, 2016

Intentional fouls and limiting rules

The NBA practice of intentionally fouling a poor free-throw shooter away from the ball (and the entire play) is spreading. Last week, the Houston Rockets began the second half by having the same player foul an opponent's poor shooter five time in eight seconds. Last night, two different teams fouled someone before he could throw the ball inbounds. This season, 27 players have been subject to the "Hack-a-_____." In October, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced that, although the league has been studying the issue, it was not considering rule changes to stop the practice.

Critics of the Infield Fly Rule often point use this situation to argue against the IFR, insisting that the situations are the same and, if basketball does not require a special rule, neither should baseball. But the argument does not work because the situations are not the same. Like the infield fly, "Hack-a-____" involve teams intentionally acting contrary to their ordinary athletic interests (defenders ordinarily do not want to foul, especially a player who is uninvolved in a play and no threat to score); it gives one team an advantage over the other (statistics of points-per-possession show that a good offensive team is substantially worse off having its worst FT shooter shoot over and over than running its regular offense); and the advantage is great enough that teams have the perverse incentive to keep doing it (hence the reason the strategy is spreading). But "Hack-a-____" lacks the necessary substantial imbalance in control over the play--the fouled team can counter the strategy by making their damn free throws, or at least more of them to render the strategy no longer worthwhile. Limiting rules do not exist to save teams and players from themselves or their own shortcomings.

Instead, any rule to stop this practice would be for aesthetic purposes, not cost-benefit balance. The game becomes ridiculous and boring to watch (watching a parade of free throws is bad; watching a parade of missed free throws is worse). Eventually fans might get sick of what they are watching. To be sure, some aesthetic concerns underlie the IFR; we would rather see players catch easily playable balls than not catch them. But the IFR situation also involves an extreme cost-benefit imbalance. Aesthetics provide the sole basis for eliminating intentional fouls.

An interesting question is what any limiting rule might look like for the NBA. My proposal would be to give the offense a choice following an off-the-ball intentional foul--shoot the free throws or get the ball out of bounds. All fouling would give the defense is a chance to steal the ball on the inbounds play, although steals or turnovers on such plays are relatively rare, while incurring the cost of running up their foul totals. This change should eliminate the perverse incentive; there is no incentive for the defense to intentionally foul when the benefit is a small chance of getting a turnover on the inbounds play, but little or no chance that the offense will choose to have the bad shooter go to the line.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on January 29, 2016 at 09:31 AM in Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink


"Hack-a" doesn't work except against exceptionally terrible free-three shooters. Most teams score more points per possession with a not-so-great free throw shooter taking free throws than running their normal offense -- particularly their normal set offense. Moreover, you will typically have to play offense the next possession against a set defense. It's very hard to fast break after a free throw. The NBA just needs to run the numbers for teams to show them that the strategy isn't a smart one. At best -- at best -- if all of the conditions line up in your favor, the strategy might get you a fraction of a point in increased expected return. It almost never works, and it has almost certainly cost some teams employing it victories. Probably the only time it can work is in case like Drummond, who shoots an ungodly low percentage. But he is perhaps the worst free throw shooter in the NBA in a very long time by a pretty good percentage for someone who takes as many shots as he takes.

Posted by: Skeptical | Jan 29, 2016 11:06:28 AM


I think your initial instinct was right. The strategy only works if your team fields players who are particularly bad at a fundamental skill in the game. The solution is to use more well rounded players, or alternatively, to make sure the Shaq of your team is so good at what he does that it makes up for his poor free throw shooting.

The better instances of intentional fouls to look at are pass interference in football and hand balls to save goals in soccer. In both cases the defenders are in a situation where the offense has a very high chance of scoring, and foul in order to give the offense a good but significantly lower chance of scoring.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Jan 29, 2016 12:17:36 PM

"Aesthetics provide the sole basis for eliminating intentional fouls."

No. Permitting intentional fouls to be used for strategic purposes undermines the spirit of competition and the reason that sports have rules in the first place. The essential contest of basketball is which team can make more baskets in the time allowed. Some rules are designed to make moving the ball and scoring more difficult (traveling, double dribble), or reward more difficult scoring attempts (3-point line). But other rules limit teams' ability to prevent opponents from attempting to make baskets by means other than ordinary defensive play (shot clock, goaltending). Rules against fouls limit the scope of permissible play and foul shots are intended to deter impermissible play. When fouls are used intentionally as a matter of strategy -- either to stop the clock or to prevent the opponent from running its regular offense -- it defeats the deterrent purpose of the foul rule and encourages conduct outside the bounds of permissible play. If this is mere aesthetics, why have fouls at all? You could give each team the option, as soon as it loses possession, to stop the opponent's offense by signaling the ref and pointing to the player it would rather have take a free throw. Of course that would be a stupid game, but it's no different than hack-a.

Posted by: Jacq | Jan 29, 2016 12:49:09 PM

Fouls are used strategically all the time--by a trailing team to stop the clock, by a team leading by 3 in the closing seconds to prevent a tying 3. Hack-a-____ is an extension of that, although carried to the nth degree because the person being fouled doesn't have the ball and now, isn't even on the court. Fouls are designed to deter physical contact by imposing a cost on the team that made the contact. But if the team finds that the cost is less than the benefit, the deterrence falls out. I'm not sure that is inconsistent with the spirit of the rules as it is working within the rules and recognizing their limits.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jan 29, 2016 1:17:37 PM

It's not working within the rules. It's expressly violating the rules based on a cost-benefit analysis of the consequences. In the Rules, a personal foul is defined as illegal contact, fouls are described as infractions, and the consequences are described as penalties. These terms matter. I teach my kids to play by the rules and to exercise sportsmanship. "Playing by the rules" does not mean figuring out if you're better off taking the penalty if you break the rule.

Posted by: Jacq | Jan 29, 2016 2:24:45 PM


While I'm leaning in the direction of your understanding, it's not the only way of looking at fouls, and it will vary from game to game.

I'll go to a whole other genre of game, X-Wing miniatures. In this game we might think of overlapping other ships and obstacles as a kind of foul. Generally speaking, the competition is about executing unobstructed maneuvers in order to gain a positional advantage over the opponent. When you hit another ship or obstacle a penalty is applied (the maneuver is not completed as intended, damage is taken, etc).

Just as with intention fouls, there is intentional collision of ships to gain a strategic advantage (often to end up in a position otherwise not possible with your set of legal maneuvers -- which in turn can cause the enemy to collide and suffer a penalty).

In X-Wing, no one would consider this to be outside of the rules. Instead, it's seen as just more advanced strategy and there is nothing unsportsmanlike about it. It's viewed as a positive aspect of the game, largely because it increases the number and variety of strategic choices a player can make -- these are good things in a strategy game.

We could conceive of basketball in a way were intentional fouls are indeed part of the game. (Legally) blocking a player is a way to try to force a worse player to take a shot or to have a player take a shot from a worse position. An intentional foul is a way of achieving the same objective. It's possible to look on having multiple ways of achieving this goal favorably. However, we generally like basketball because it presents a specific sort of physical contest. Intentional fouls exist outside of that specific physical contest, and that's what we have a problem with.

There's nothing inherently wrong with the intentional foul, just as there's nothing inherently wrong with hitting an opponent in the face. We don't want to see punches to the face in basketball because that's not the sport they're playing -- but we're absolutely fine with it in boxing because that is the sport.

[And I suppose a response to this might be that punches are fouls in basketball but not boxing, but I think that's just a semantic distinction. There are rules, some events are called fouls, and some have penalties. Whether or not something is called a foul isn't determinative though, as we can easily conceive of a game where fouls are considered a positive, desirable aspect. Intentional grounding in football may be an example; it is a foul, but we often recognize it as a legitimate option to protect the quarterback or for clock management. Similarly, no one seems to be too upset when a team takes a delay of game penalty to run as many seconds off the clock as possible or to get better position on a close field goal or punt. These are fouls, but also treated as "working within the rules."]

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Jan 29, 2016 2:56:54 PM


The hand-ball example is a good one, because the team is making the cost-benefit decision to make the opponent "earn it" by making the penalty kick. A goal is likely, but perhaps less certain. Pass interference is interesting because the NFL takes a different approach than college--the NFL removes the perverse incentive by making it a spot-of-ball penalty (this works for everything except, perhaps, throws into the end zone), while college leaves-in the incentive for an intentional P/I on anything over 20 yards.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jan 29, 2016 3:06:02 PM

""Playing by the rules" does not mean figuring out if you're better off taking the penalty if you break the rule."

I don't see why this must be the case. The sanction imposed for violating a prohibition is as much a part of the "rules" we play by as the prohibition itself.

As Derek says, there are times when there is a benefit to doing what we ordinarily do not want to do in a game or are not expected to do in a game--whether it is intentionally fouling or taking a delay of game penalty or using hands in soccer or intentionally not catching a batted ball. All of that is part of the game. The rules--all of them, including the penalties/sanctions--are designed to have the game played a certain way. To the extent the game is not being played consistent with that vision, change the rules.

I am assuming, btw, that you also oppose intentional late-game fouling by the trailing team or by a team up 3 in the final seconds--both of these involve incurring the penalty because the team could be better off with it. If not, what is the meaningful difference?

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jan 29, 2016 5:01:33 PM


You might want to watch some more NFL games, because there's definitely a perverse incentive to catch interference. If you realize the receiver is not only going to catch the ball, but is also likely to continue running and score a touchdown, you interfere with the catch. You take the spot penalty and hope the goal-line defense will do its job and save your team 4 points (by forcing a field goal kick instead).

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Jan 29, 2016 6:06:11 PM


It happens that I am among those who disagrees with the infield fly rule. I think your criteria for distinguishing it -- whether the team doing the "bad" thing has complete control over the outcome, is question begging. Moreover, players do have some control over whether they hit pop flys with runners in scoring position, so I don't see the issue. But that's not why I wrote. I wrote to note that the aesthetic reasons for eliminating the current NBA fouling rules cut in both directions, which is in fact why those rules exist in their current form. The rule you propose would essentially mean that a whole bunch of games are mathematically over with several minutes left. That would make the end of games even more boring than they are now. In fact, it could lead to a further problem that is actually an analog to the infield fly rule, which is an intentional shot clock violation. Keeping the game within reach until the final minute or two is an aesthetic aspect of the game the NBA wants to preserve, which is why they resist changing the rule. Among the options for making a game competitive for close to 48 minutes, one that requires the exertion of basketball skill by the team with a lead is not so bad, I think better on balance than a solution that purely eliminates the fouling incentive without also providing some means for the team that is losing to shorten the shot clock. I think if I had my druthers I'd suggest experimenting with some parallel to a power play: for fouls within the last X minutes, when over the limit, the fouling team is down a player for one possession. Then you could play around with what happens when you foul someone during a power play (5 on 3? One shot and possession? etc.)

Posted by: JG | Jan 30, 2016 6:29:34 PM

The pop-up isn't the point of control; it's what happens after the pop-up is hit. And I don't believe it's question-begging, if you play out the defense's options as opposed to offense's options once the ball is in the air. The defense always has a "first-mover" advantage. But that is a longer idea.

I'm not sure how my rule would lead to games being mathematically over. My proposal was explicitly for off-the-ball intentional fouls. And then only for outside the last few minutes of the game, when such fouls are penalized by two FTs and the ball. My rule does nothing about intentional on-the-ball fouls by a team trying to come back. So I am not eliminating anything other than the sort of ridiculousness created by Hack-a-Blank.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jan 30, 2016 6:39:51 PM

My preferred solution would be to, just like you have the bonus and double bonus thresholds for total fouls, add a third threshold (either time or number of fouls) at which free throws can be taken by any member of the fouled team currently on the court.

Posted by: BL | Feb 1, 2016 10:27:18 AM

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