As a watcher and lover of basketball, I despise few things more than the hack-a-whoever strategy. It bogs down play, it makes a potentially thrilling game a monotonous shuffle to the free throw line and it does not even work most of the time.
Yet when the alternative is letting a healthy Dwight Howard completely dominate your post defenders or allowing two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Steve Nash to carve you up while Shaquille O’Neal on the floor, intentionally fouling is an admirable strategy because it reveals a willingness to at least try to do something.
So throughout the Clippers’ win streak, which hit 13 straight games with Sunday’s blowout win in Phoenix, I found myself watching the highlights or reading the box score and yelling at my computer screen: “Why aren’t you fouling DeAndre Jordan?” It would make sense, and it is preferable to the “Let Chris Paul throw lobs to Blake Griffin” defense that everyone seems to be running against the Clippers these days. Jordan is a 41 percent free throw shooter, and although he takes less than seven field goal attempts per game, fouling a poor foul shooter away from the ball was part of teams’ game plans well before Gregg Popovich started doing it to screw with Shaq’s head.
And still, game after game, the “free throws attempted” column next to Jordan’s name reads single-digits or even zeroes. After watching Jordan take only two foul shots in Sunday’s debacle against the Suns, I had just about enough and decided to do some quick research to uncover the truth for a very annoyed column.
As they say, the truth shall set you free.
Because I am contractually required to watch every Celtics game, I have watched only three full Clippers games during the streak: a 105-104 win over Utah on Dec. 3, an 88-76 win over Detroit on Dec. 17 and the 103-77 beatdown of Phoenix. The latter two games were relatively lopsided, so it did not seem odd that Jordan played a total of zero minutes in the fourth quarter of both. OK, the Pistons game was a three-point contest at the beginning of the fourth quarter, but the Clippers immediately went on a 12-4 run. I figured coach Vinny Del Negro simply decided to keep Jordan on the bench for an extended rest at the end of a four-game road trip.
Then I discovered that, blowout or nail-biter, Jordan sitting out the final 12 minutes is standard operating procedure. He averages more than 25 minutes per game but only 4.8 minutes per fourth quarter. The last time he appeared in the fourth quarter of a game was back in that Dec. 3 game against the Jazz — and still the Jazz never sent him to the line. (He even made the game-altering block in the final seconds.) But Tyrone Corbin‘s late-game foibles are another topic for another time.
Granted, Del Negro has not had much reason to play any of his starters of late — nine of their 13 straight wins have been by double-digits — but that makes the Clippers’ strategy even more extreme. Not only do they generally not play Jordan down the stretch in tight games, when his poor foul shooting could be a liability. They basically do not play him down the stretch at all, even with wide leads, when presumably he would get an opportunity to gain some experience taking free throws in the fourth quarter, in a game that counts in the standings, with very little riding on it.
This is remarkable to me. The Clippers are taking a guy they have deemed, based on salary, to be the third-most important member of their roster, and are essentially cutting his potential production by 25 percent. They are saying, “Listen, D.J. We really love your shot-blocking, even if there is no statistical evidence that it makes us better defensively, and we really love the thought of giving you almost $11 million a season for the next three years, but we are really worried you’re going to lose a game for us.”
For once, I am going to explicitly point to the tagline below and ask any Clippers fan or somebody else who has watched the team more extensively this season to let me know what they think of this, and if the approach is as severe as it looks.