On Jan. 12 in Oakland, Calif., Mark Jackson had his Warriors foul Dwight Howard so many times, on purpose, that the Orlando center broke Wilt Chamberlain’s record for most free-throw attempts in a game.
On Tuesday night in Memphis, Golden State’s Klay Thompson made a layup to cut the Grizzlies’ lead to four points, 98-94, with 33 seconds to go. Watching on TV, I glanced around the court, trying to find the worst Memphis free-throw shooter on the floor to see if the Warriors had any chance to force the ball his way.
Surely, the Warriors would foul. The general debate about tanking is not of much interest to me, but if there is one team that is indisputably happy to lose games, it is the Warriors. Other teams can improve their draft-lottery odds by losing, though the lottery is set up in a way that some teams can’t improve their chances of moving up all that much. The proposition is more black-and-white for Golden State, which either keeps its first-round pick or loses it to Utah if the pick falls outside the top seven. (Note: The fact this pick conundrum stems from a trade in which Golden State acquired Marcus Williams makes it extra hilarious.)
The players on the court are playing hard, and Jackson has said again and again that he simply cannot stomach the idea of losing games in any fashion. But the franchise, by trading Monta Ellis and Ekpe Udoh for two players it would not use this season, engineered tanking from above. The still-unofficial decision to shut down Stephen Curry for medical reasons accomplishes the same goal.
But Jackson wants to win. David Lee plays hard. Charles Jenkins and Jeremy Tyler are fighting for their NBA careers. Thompson is playing to prove himself a worthy second option. And so the Warriors, down by four points with 33 seconds left on Tuesday, would surely foul.
Only, they didn’t.
Jackson sat in his chair, looking disinterested, and people on Twitter immediately went crazy. Haralabos Vouglaris, a high-stakes gambler who spends much of his waking time studying the NBA in sophisticated mathematical ways, called the Warriors’ decision “a travesty” and a “textbook tank job.”
The best-case scenario using Jackson’s path here is being down by four points — a two-possession deficit — with about 10 or 11 seconds to go, provided you track down the missed shot almost immediately and call a timeout to advance the ball. From there, you need to score basket No. 1 within four or five seconds, whether it’s a quick two (the higher-percentage play) or three-pointer. Then you’ve got to foul, and if you’ve gone the quick two route, you must hope the opponent misses at least one free throw. At that point, you’ll get the ball back with (if all has gone unbelievably well) about five seconds left, needing a game-tying bucket. A second timeout to advance the ball is essential.
The alternative worst-case scenario is going down by six points with 31 or 32 seconds left, assuming an immediate intentional foul.
The only relevant question should be: Which path gives a team the best chance to win? I’m not a mathematician, but it struck me as obvious that the Warriors should have fouled. Voulgaris, better at math than I’ll ever be, obviously thought the same, and several stats-oriented folks I asked Wednesday morning unanimously agreed that the Warriors made a mistake — if their goal was to win the game. The Warriors ended up getting a stop and the ball back with 11 seconds left. Nate Robinson then missed a three-pointer, and that was that.
I’d be careful accusing Jackson of tanking the game. He really does hate to lose, and late-game situations are one of those places where the gap between NBA-bred coaches and Wall Street/M.I.T.-trained analysts remains pretty large on lots of teams. Remember, it was mathematically unsound for Jackson to have his team endlessly foul Howard, but Jackson “felt” the rhythm of that particularly game called for such a mathematically unsound strategy.
Regardless, it was the wrong decision, one that made the Warriors’ long odds of winning even longer.