What is the Hack-a-Shaq strategy in basketball, and where did the name come from?

What is the Hack-a-Shaq strategy in basketball, and where did the name come from?

Helix Odhiambo
June 7, 2023 at 3:08 PM

Like many other sports, basketball has strategies that teams use to gain an advantage over their opponents. One of the most common is the Hack-a-Shaq play which many NBA coaches have utilised to contain their rivals. The strategy focuses on the opponent's poor free-throw shooter.

Did Hack-a-Shaq work?
A fan of the Miami Heat holds up a sign about Dallas Mavericks' Jerry Stackhouse's foul on Shaquille O'Neal during their 2006 NBA Finals on 18 June 2006 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. Photo: Jesse D. Garrabrant
Source: Getty Images

The tactic received a lot of criticism because of the increased number of intentional fouls that slowed down the game. To solve the problem, the National Basketball Association (NBA) introduced new Hack-a-Shaq rules to penalise offenders.

How does Hack-a-Shaq work?

Many experts say it is a winning strategy with simple probability and weighted averages. It involves fouling the worst free-throw shooter in the opposing team. The tactic's purpose is to stop the rival team since the target player would probably miss a lot of free throws. The team that made the foul can get the ball back faster and launch a counter-attack.

What is a Hack-a-Shaq foul?

Is Hack-a-Shaq legal?
Vlade Divac (12) of the LA Lakers defends against Dennis Rodman of the San Antonio Spurs during the 1995 NBA Playoffs at the Alamodome on 8 May 1995 in San Antonio. Photo: Andrew D. Bernstein
Source: Getty Images

It is a foul committed when a player intentionally impedes another one on the opposing team. The foul usually happens off the ball, and the fouled player takes free throws. So, where did Hack-a-Shaq come from? Who created Hack-a-Shaq?

The origin of Hack-a-Shaq explained

When did Hack-a-Shaq start? Former Dallas Mavericks coach Don Nelson is the person who invented Hack-a-Shaq in 1997. Nelson experimented with the famed idea of stopping Dennis Rodman when the Mavericks faced Rodman's Chicago Bulls on 29 December.

Rodman was one of the best rebounders and defenders during his time, but shooting from the field was one of his weaknesses. His shooting percentage (38.6%) was one of the Bulls' weak points that Nelson wanted to exploit. He would limit the Bulls' offensive strength by attacking Rodman and taking them out of the game.

Did Hack-a-Shaq work?

Who invented Hack-a-Shaq?
Milwaukee Bucks coach, Don Nelson, instructs his players during the NBA Pacific Division basketball game against the Los Angeles Lakers on 23 November 1986 at The Forum arena in Inglewood, Los Angeles, California. Photo: Otto Greule Jr.
Source: Getty Images

Nelson's plan failed to stop the Bulls as Rodman scored 9 of his 12 attempts from the line, handing the Mavericks their 12th straight defeat. Despite the failed experiment, Nelson continued to use the tactic against other players, including Shaquille O'Neal.

Name origin

The tactic acquired its name from the legendary Shaquille O'Neal, who became a top victim of the strategy against opponents. Nelson frequently used it to stop O'Neal, and many teams also began to adopt the idea when facing the Hall of Famer.

Was Hack-a-Shaq effective against O'Neal?

Does Hack-a-Shaq work?
Shaquille O'Neal (32) of the Suns shoots a free throw against the Spurs during the 2008 NBA Playoffs at the AT&T Center on 29 April 2008 in San Antonio, Texas. Photo: Noah Graham
Source: Getty Images

The idea worked in some instances against O'Neal. Since he was fast, fouling him was one of the best ways to slow him down. Shaquille was among the worst free-throw shooters in the NBA, a record that most opponents capitalised on by fouling him.

O'Neal's teams won 22 out of 25 playoff series from 2000 to 2006 (Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat), proving the ineffectiveness of the tactic. Two of the three series he lost were to teams coached by Larry Brown, who preferred to play the 'right way' rather than fouling Shaq.

Hack-a-Shaq Popovich

In 2008, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich used the tactic against Shaquille during their game against the Phoenix Suns. Before the game, Popovich, NBA's best-paid coach, joked with reporters about implementing the idea in the game's first possession.

Hack-a-Shaq Popovich
San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich (L) during their 2008 Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Phoenix Suns. On the right is Shaquille O'Neal (32) of the Suns, tackled by Tim Duncan (21) of the Spurs. Photo: Noah Graham, Nathaniel S. Butler (modified by author)
Source: Getty Images

Spurs' Hack-a-Shaq on O'Neal came five seconds into the game as Popovich's words came true. Former Suns player Michael Finley executed the Hack-a-Shaq five seconds record by wrapping his arms around Shaquille, forcing the play to stop early in the match. Shaq immediately looked at Popovich and received two thumbs-ups from him while they laughed.

Is Hack-a-Shaq legal?

The strategy is legal in NBA, and most teams continue using it against opponents. Besides O'Neil, other victims of the tactic include DeAndre Jordan, Josh Smith, Dwight, Andre Drummond, Andre Roberson, Tiago Splitter, and Ben Simmons. In 2012, Gregg Popovich successfully executed the same tactic against LA Clippers. Gregg ordered his players to foul Reggie Evans and distracted the Clippers. Fortunately, his plan worked as Spurs won the match.

The NBA later introduced some rules to reduce the times it happens in a match or a season. So, how and when did Hack-a-Shaq rule change?

Hack-a-Shaq rule explained

NBA's Hack-a-Shaq new rule
Alperen Sengun (28) of the Houston Rockets tangles with Josh Richardson (7) of the San Antonio Spurs in the first half at AT&T Center on 8 December 2022 in San Antonio, Texas. Photo: Ronald Cortes
Source: Getty Images

How did the NBA stop Hack-a-Shaq? The American basketball league adopted new rules in the 2016/2017 season following an amendment by the council on 12 July 2016. NBA's Hack-a-Shaq new rule states that defending team players could not foul a player without a ball until 46 minutes of play.

The Hack-a-Shaq rule of 2016 also restricted players from fouling opponents in the last two minutes of each quarter. Previously, the law applied to the final two minutes of the fourth quarter or during overtime. The punishment of the Hack-a-Shaq call remains a free throw to the fouled player and their team retaining possession of the ball.

Despite the strict rules, NBA coaches and players still use the Hack-a-Shaq strategy to counter opponents. The tactic continues to get criticism because it kills the spirit of the game. The frequent stops make the match uninteresting.

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Helix Odhiambo
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