For a second there, I thought Mark Jackson was doing something interesting and perhaps even mathematically sophisticated — the sort of thing Spurs coach Gregg Popovich pulled against the Warriors in a San Antonio win last week.
The Spurs were up 95-90 with 2:02 to go in that game as Golden State brought the ball up seeking to pull closer, when suddenly Richard Jefferson wrapped Kwame Brown in a bear hug in the middle of the court. Brown, a career 57 percent foul shooter who has gotten worse from the line the longer he’s been in the league, did not have the ball; Popovich wanted his team to intentionally foul Brown, even though doing so would give Golden State a chance to make up points with the clock stopped.
Popovich’s move made me perk up amid a typically delirious Wednesday night in the NBA, because very smart math people around the league have told me this is the kind of thing — fouling a bad free-throw shooter while ahead late in games — teams should do more. It sort of makes sense when you think about it. Over the long haul, the average NBA team scores about 1.07 points per possession, though that number falls a bit when you take out fast breaks and consider just half-court chances. Send a 50 percent foul shooter to the free throw line, and your expected outcome over a large sample size would be to yield exactly one point per possession. Sometimes the guy will miss both, and sometimes he’ll make both, but even that worst-case scenario isn’t as bad as yielding a three-pointer in the last minute or two of a game you lead by five or six points.
And if you’re a good offensive team like San Antonio, fouling as Popovich did in that game gives an added bonus: Your team gets the ball back sooner, giving you an extra chance to add the 1.1 points per possession your elite offense typically scores.
So I took interest again Thursday night when Jackson, his team up 29-21, had Jeremy Tyler wrap up Howard off the ball with eight seconds left in the first quarter. Were the Warriors, among the teams most aggressively pursuing advanced stats, allowing some high-level math to guide their thinking? If so, it didn’t make as much intuitive sense to me as the Popovich strategy. Sure, the Warriors were sending a bad foul shooter to the line, but they were ahead early in the game, and they fouled with just eight seconds left, meaning the value of Golden State’s subsequent possession was surely lower than the value of a full 24-second possession.
Still, it seemed as if there was something interesting at work, and Haralabos Voulgaris, a professional gambler who has created his own proprietary advanced NBA analytics, applauded Jackson for thinking outside of the box. (Voulgaris also approved when the Spurs hacked Brown last week.)
It turns out, of course, that Jackson was not making a clever or interesting analytical call based on a standalone end-of-quarter situation. He had the Warriors foul Howard the entire game, sending Howard to the line 39 times, breaking Wilt Chamberlain’s league record. Players can of course set negative records in other sports — most errors, or most interceptions — but how rare is it for a player to set a record for “earning” an opportunity (free throws) precisely because he is so bad at converting that specific opportunity?
In any case, Howard hit 21-of-39 free throws, good for 54 percent — better than his season mark entering last night’s game but worse than his career mark of about 59.5 percent.
That’s where the math begins to turn against Jackson. If Howard hits 60 percent of his free throws, as we’d expect over the long haul, the math says hack-a-Howard becomes a losing strategy. Hitting 60 percent from the line works out to 1.2 points per possession, a more efficient scoring rate than any team has every put up in a full NBA season. And that doesn’t account for the fact, noted by Voulgaris and others last night, that by hacking Howard, the Warriors basically forfeited any chance of creating their own fast-break chances out of those Orlando possessions.
Of course, a single game is not a large sample size, and perhaps Jackson believed Thursday night’s single game was the right sort of small sample size in which to try a strategy that would fail over a longer period. Howard was shooting 42.5 percent from the line entering the game, and if he continued hitting at that rate, the math would have smiled upon the hackery. But anyone with basic statistics knowledge could tell you to trust Howard’s seven-season track record of hitting 59.5 percent of his foul shots over a 10-game cold streak from this season.
There were other factors doubtlessly guiding Jackson. Brown was out, and though he has somehow become known as an elite post defender despite allowing 48 percent shooting in post-up chances last season (per Synergy Sports), he would have been Golden State’s only shot at covering Howard one-on-one. Andris Biedrins can give it an honest go, but David Lee and Ekpe Udoh really can’t (through no fault of their own), and it sure looked like Howard post-up attempts were going to produce monster per-possession scoring numbers for the Magic. The Warriors also struggled to contain the Magic’s Howard-centric pick-and-roll attack, which produced open looks both inside and on the perimeter.
All of those elements pushed Jackson into a short-term strategy that doesn’t make all that much long-term sense. Points for creativity, though.