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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Hank Egan Explains Gregg Popovich's Thought Process Regarding the "Hack a Shaq"

On several occasions, I have questioned the soundness of the intentional fouling strategy (Hack a Shaq). However, since Gregg Popovich--one of the best coaches in the NBA--is a proponent of this approach I realize that he must see some benefit to it. Cleveland assistant coach Hank Egan was on Popovich's San Antonio staff for eight years, including the 1999 championship season, and much like Tom Thibodeau gets credit for Boston's great defensive prowess Egan also deserves accolades for helping to develop the defense that enabled Cleveland to make it to the NBA Finals last season. Prior to game three of the Boston-Cleveland series, I spoke in detail with Egan about the pros and cons of the intentional fouling strategy.

Friedman: "In the NBA, a possession is considered to be worth about a point on average. Buying that premise, if the person who is being fouled during an intentional fouling situation shoots even just 50% then his team is scoring a point per possession and it seems to me that, from a mathematical standpoint, the team that is doing the fouling is not gaining any benefit--but I know that Gregg Popovich, who is one of the great coaches in the NBA, can do the same calculation that I just did and he employs that strategy anyway. Based on your experience being on his staff and all of your years as a defensive-minded coach, why would a defensive-oriented team that prides itself on stopping the other team without fouling go to a strategy that seems like it does not work mathematically if the fouled player can make just half of his free throws?"

Egan: "It's not just mathematics; it's people. People get discouraged--they can't get into their offense and they lose the flow of the game, so it has a disruptive effect if nothing else. You get a psychological effect--are they going to take this player out because they are worried that he is going to be fouled all the time? It may cost you a point but you are putting pressure on him to perform at the free throw line and hoping that he does not make anything."

Friedman: "Is there a conscious calculation that is made between the mathematics of how much this may cost versus the psychological benefit that one hopes to gain? Does it ever get that specific?"

Egan: "No, but there is an understanding that we are going to do this knowing that it could backfire on us."

Friedman: "So there is a recognition that it could backfire because of the numbers that I described?"

Egan: "Yes, exactly."

Friedman: "In terms of the psychological aspect you brought up and the question of flow, my observation from the outside--and, obviously, I am not an NBA coach--is that the team that is shooting the free throws can set up its half court defense during the stoppage of play and that this can have a bad effect on the offensive flow of the fouling team."

Egan: "Absolutely; that is all part of the risk. That is not a statistic, that is just a fact; it can be disruptive to the game both ways because it takes you out of your running game, it can let the other team get stops--it does all of those things but you are doing this to try to prove to the other team that this player is a detriment to the other team at that particular time. If he misses a couple in a row, even though mathematically he is probably going to make a couple down the road the other team is probably going to pull him. Then you accomplish what you want to accomplish."

Friedman: "In a way, if the other team is going strictly by the math and not letting this get into their heads then they can even tell the guy just make the 50% you normally make, we'll keep you in the game and this is not going to have a bad effect on us. Otherwise, the team that is getting fouled is letting the other team determine their player rotations."

Egan: "But you're not sending a machine up there to the free throw line; you're sending a guy to the free throw line and you're putting pressure on him because he is being exposed in front of everybody and you're hoping to capitalize on that moment."

Friedman: "What interested me when the analysts talked about this on TV is that they said Popovich actually believes in doing this even more when he is ahead. Some coaches use this as a comeback strategy, like Don Nelson tried years ago--we're trailing, so we're going to go into the 'hack a somebody' mode. Popovich uses this when he is ahead and I thought that is interesting because I thought that when you are ahead your defense is working and everything is working, so why would you risk affecting the flow?"

Egan: "I think he is betting on the pressure of the moment. You are talking about 'Hack-a-Shaq,' because that is the guy he hacks."

Friedman: "Right, but it's been done to Ben Wallace and he did it to Tyson Chandler at least once in a recent game."

Egan: "He'll only do it against effective people. Shaq can affect the game, Ben Wallace can affect the game with his defense and rebounding, Chandler affects the game with his defense and rebounding. Popovich is doing this to neutralize the guy, to make the other team think that maybe you don't need him on the floor or don't want him on the floor."

Friedman: "It sounds like what you are saying is--even though we understand that we are dealing with people, not machines--that if the other team understands that this is a mind game and the shooter does not let it affect him then the fouling strategy could backfire due to the numbers."

Egan: "I think that the single most pressure thing in a basketball game is shooting a free throw. You're out there in front of everybody, there is nothing else involved and you are supposed to make it. If you miss it's a big letdown but if you make it you were supposed to make it. That's a great deal of pressure. If you hack Shaq he may make a free throw the first time but if you keep fouling him during the course of a game you are exposing him to this pressure."

Friedman: "You're hoping for a cumulative effect."

Egan: "Yes, you're hoping there will be. You're taking a risk. You know it, you think it's a calculated risk, but you are taking a risk."

Friedman: "That's what I am getting at, what you just said and you've used the word 'risk' a couple times. There is a risk to this strategy and when people talk about this they don't mention what I said about the numbers and what you are acknowledging, that there is a risk that is involved. It could backfire and I don't think that people realize that the threshold is just 50 percent."

Egan: "I think that it could (backfire). Pop can do this now with the team he has because they are not going to lose their poise. If you are doing this with a team that does not have their stuff together and is not a mature team that has been together a while and you get away from your game plan then you are making your team think that the only way we can win is by hacking this guy."

Friedman: "That could be psychologically discouraging."

Egan: "Yeah."

Coach Egan later told me that the Spurs did not use the intentional fouling strategy during his years with the squad precisely because at that time the Spurs were not as poised and mature as the current San Antonio nucleus that has won multiple championships together. I think that Coach Egan's explanation of Popovich's thinking about the intentional fouling strategy also provides some insight into Popovich's general mindset in terms of applying psychological pressure against the opposing team's coaching staff and one of its star players. Such nuances are part of the reason why the Spurs have been so consistently successful for the better part of a decade while rival teams (most notably the Suns) have no championship trophies but plenty of excuses and plenty of stories about the big fish (championship) that they had on their fishing rod but that managed to get away at the last minute.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:34 AM

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