In a game that reminded me a lot of a certain mid-season Orlando-LA game, last night Scott Brooks instructed his team to foul Omer Asik repeatedly and intentionally, usually off the ball, sending Asik to the line 12 times in the fourth quarter. Predictably, most people hate this kind of basketball. Here's Royce Webb:
But it’s easy to blame a system that puts the game in the hands of the coaches and referees and the rulebook instead of the players.
It’s amazing that it would reward fouling at the expense of those athletes.
I understand some of this, but a couple of things trouble me about this:
- It mentions that the strategy is dumb but in passing. In truth, this strategy was the single most spectacularly stupid thing I have seen a head coach do in the playoffs this year, and possibly of all time. This "strategy" made George Karl not playing any big men seem like Einsteinian wisdom by comparison.
- For this reason, the league does not, in fact, reward fouling. Even if Asik had shot his typical 56% (he shot 13/18, or 72%), fouling Asik would have been terrible. It's true that the league could stand to learn some from FIBA rules, but this is hardly the same as "rewarding" fouling.
Let us assume that Asik would shoot 56%. Now, put yourself in the position of a coach trying to engineer a comeback win. There are some things you must do:
- play great defense. You need to do this because trading baskets isn't going to get you back in the game. You need to get stops; defensive stops lead to transition baskets as well. This sounds like a platitude but it boils down to is that if you are going to make a comeback, your defense will have to be very good.
- really lock up defensive rebounds. Giving the team with the lead second shots will crush your comeback chances.
- score efficiently -- you're probably going to have to run a little hot, and you definitely cannot afford any wasted posessions with bad shots.
- manage the clock. This factor, for obvious reasons, grows in importance as you get closer to the end.
If you fail to do any one of these things, it will be virtually impossible to come back.
By intentionally fouling Asik, it is actually not clear to me if Brooks was trying to do point 1) or point 4). The reasons it is not clear to me is that it is an awful way to acheive either goal. With respect to the clock, he started this "strategy" early on, when that was the least important of these factors. And as for defense, well, by fouling Asik, he a) more or less locks in Houston's eFG% at 56% and b) he completely prevents his team's ability to create a turnover on that possession. Asik is not a good free throw shooter, but he simply isn't anywhere near bad enough to make this worthwile.
Now, I am too lazy to scour basketball reference but I am pretty sure if you looked trough NBA history for teams that shot 56% and never turned the ball over, you'd be looking at essentially the greatest offense of all time. Ask yourself if it qualifies as great defense to give up 1.12 points per possession (actually, more, because of offensive rebounds). By adopting this strategy, Brooks essentially tried to get his team to make a comeback while playing horrible defense on a huge percentage of Houston's possessions.
And that, frankly, goes way beyond "dumb" and into the realm of "I can't believe anyone is stupid enough to try this". To McHale's credit, he was smart enough not to do the Thunder the favor of taking Asik out of the game to prevent the tactic and save the Thunder from Scott Brooks' folly.
Which leads me to the second point: the NBA does not use 1-and-1s, which would reward this kind of play (the eFG% of a 56% FT shooter shooting 1-and-1s is (.56)*1*(.56*1), or 31.36%). Although I agree that the NBA would be better if it were a little more like FiBA, where "intentional" fouls include the kinds like last night where a player off the ball just harmlessly hugged Asik until he got the call. In FIBA games, since by definition the defender was not trying to make a play on the basketball, that would be an intentional foul and result in 2 free throws and the ball back, thus completely eliminating this strategy.
In other words, the FiBA rules save coaches like Scott Brooks from themselves. That wouldn't be a bad thing. But, the current rules are hardly "rewarding" this kind of play. There are just some coaches out there who aren't very good at math who believe that they do.