Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The great Roman gladiator Maximus once asked, "Are you not entertained?!"
Well to answer your question, Maximus, not really. And neither is Bill Simmons.
"The goal of the league is to be entertaining first and foremost," the Grantland boss said in his latest podcast. "And I don't like watching the Rockets because I don't want to watch Dwight Howard shoot 18 free throws."
Correction. Last week against Golden State, Howard actually took 20 free throws. He made 12 of them.
But Howard isn't the only one putting us all to sleep. How about last night when the free-throw challenged Blake Griffin went to the line 13 times? Or a few nights earlier when his teammate DeAndre Jordan made five out of 14 while the rest of us cringed?
Bill's right. This isn't basketball. It's chess. And who would pay to watch that?
But as usual, Simmons has a solution. Here's an idea he got from one of his readers.
"Every time somebody gets fouled off the ball, the team should have a choice. Either you can take the two free throws or you just get the ball back with 14 seconds left on the shot clock."
Hmmm ... interesting. So interesting, in fact, that I've decided to devote the rest of my column to this boldly inventive, probably-never-going-to-happen idea. Buckle up. We're going to a land where Hack-a-Howard doesn't exist. Follow me.
1. It wouldn't impact Dwight's scoring as much as you think
Really, this applies to all big men who struggle with shooting free throws but we'll focus on Dwight because he's the one who will impact the most fantasy teams.
Let's begin by stating the obvious. Howard is a lousy free throw shooter. He's actually borderline horrific. His 55.7 percent success rate (a six percent improvement from last year, if you can believe it) is fourth-lowest among qualified free throw shooters. Only DeAndre Jordan, Josh Smith and J.J. Hickson have been worse this season.
But even if he isn't particularly good at it, free throws do account for a major portion of Howard's scoring output (31.4 percent of his points this year have come at the line). Since the rule isn't in place yet, there's no way of knowing how big of an impact it will have. But for argument's sake, let's suppose the ban on Hack-a-Howard reduces Howard's free throw production by about 50 percent. Keep in mind only Kevin Durant is averaging more free throw attempts per game this season.
Getting rid of half of Howard's attempts, while assuming he shoots the same percentage, would reduce his scoring average by almost three points per game (17.6 ppg to 14.8). Suddenly Howard, who is No. 2 among centers in ppg this season, would fall to fifth behind DeMarcus Cousins (who he was already trailing), Al Horford, Nikola Pekovic and Spencer Hawes.
None of that is good news. Unless, of course, you're looking at the big picture. Howard's failures at the line have nothing to do with him physically. It's all mental. Shaquille O'Neal, another notoriously bad free throw shooter, would tell you the same thing. Howard makes 80 percent of his shots in practice but when he gets to the line in a game, he freezes up.
Anyone who has ever watched Dwight knows how real this fear is. As Howard's free throw shooting has gotten worse over the years, he's become more and more tentative on offense. Plain and simple, he doesn't want to shoot the ball if he thinks he's going to get fouled. And who can blame him? It's embarrassing to miss free throws night after night.
So just think of how Simmons' new rule would change Howard's psyche. It would feel like a tremendous weight has been lifted. No more worrying about embarrassing himself, no stress of getting smacked around every time he touches it. Howard would become a more confident, more aggressive version of himself. His shots would go up (he's only taking 10.7 per game this season) and that alone, would offset what ever production he'll be losing by making fewer trips to the line. Overall, I think it would help Howard immensely. The mental component of the game cannot be overstated.
2. Scoring would probably go down across the league
If the alternative to shooting free throws would be getting the ball back with 14 seconds left on the clock, time of possession would be much longer. Fewer possessions usually equals less scoring.
You saw this exact scenario unfold in last night's NFL game in Denver. San Diego played keep away from the Broncos, which led to a much lower-scoring game than we were expecting. The shot clock offsets that somewhat in basketball but we still see teams milk the clock almost every night.
Though 14 seconds is plenty of time to run your offense, it's far from a guaranteed two points. Even at Howard's worst, he's usually making one out of two. In the end, taking the gamble and putting your worst shooter at the line might actually be safer than running your offense, especially when you're as turnover prone as the Rockets have been this year (17.8 giveaways per game is second-worst in the NBA).
3. ... or maybe it wouldn't
Let's flash back to Houston's 122-111 win over Denver last month. That night, Hack-a-Howard was in full force, resulting in 33 personals for the Nuggets and a season-high 24 free throw tries for Howard. He actually made most of them for a change (17-of-24), which is probably why the Nuggets ended up losing.
On the one hand, fouling Howard gave the Nuggets more possessions, which in turn led to more scoring opportunities. But in terms of individual success, it hurt guys like Kenneth Faried and J.J. Hickson who were being asked to foul Howard practically every time Houston had the ball. Both players got into foul trouble and had to be rotated in and out of the lineup.
If the Hack-a-Howard scheme went away, there's a good chance neither player would have gotten into foul trouble. They could have stayed on the court longer, which would have led to more points. And maybe that extra time on the court would have allowed Hickson and Faried to find their rhythm offensively, leading to better efficiency. When you're only in the game for one and two- minute spurts, it's obviously a lot tougher to get anything going. So maybe scoring would even out if the Hack-a-Howard strategy were put to rest.
4. It would make basketball way easier to watch
Hack-a-Howard slows the game down and it forces us to watch "professionals" embarrass themselves by bricking shot after shot. Plus, it's kind of a lame way to get back in the game if you're coming from behind. You should win because you're the better team, not because you clobbered some helpless center who has difficulty making a 15-foot shot. It ruins the integrity of the game.
All of these things would go away if teams had the option to continue their possession instead of having an inferior free throw shooter go to the stripe. It would be more entertaining and that's the goal isn't it?
5. But it's probably never going to happen
Former guard and current ESPN analyst Jalen Rose makes a strong argument. "I think [Hack-a-Howard] is a good thing for the game because it actually helps what I consider level the playing field for players who are 6'11 and used to shooting two-foot layups and monster dunks."
Fouling players on purpose may be the only way to stop players like Howard and Griffin from taking over the game. Without it, centers would become too powerful and guards and wings would start to get phased out of the game.
And though it's a nice proposal, the plan to eliminate Hack-a-Howard is not without its flaws. For example, what would happen in the fourth quarter? When you're down eight in the last two minutes, the only way you can win is to foul and hope the other team misses its free throws. If all fouling did was put 14 seconds back on the clock, how would teams be able to come back? It would be almost impossible.
There would have to be some kind of restriction on when this 14-second rule would be in place and when you make things that complicated, sometimes it's better to just scrap the whole thing altogether.
Of course, the easiest solution of all would be for Howard to improve his free throw shooting. But we all know that's not going to happen.
So for now, Hack-a-Howard will live on. Try not to fall asleep, Bill.