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Big Cactus Takes His Hacks

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Shaquille O'Neal's propensity for providing notable sound bites generally comes off as good-natured.  He's a goofy dude, and he's also one who has been a rather successful basketball player over the course of his tenure in the Association.  Sure, every now and then, the guy goes a bit too far (see: summer lyricism regarding one Mr. Bryant), but by and large, the Artist Formerly Known As the Big Aristotle is a lot of fun, though he is now past his prime as a basketball player.

But when it came to the issue of the Hack-a-Shaq this week, O'Neal just settled for being dopey.  According to an ESPN report, O'Neal told a Phoenix radio station this week, "The only thing I call cowardly is when you're up by 10 and do it...That's a coward move and [Spurs coach Gregg Popovich] knows that and I'll make them pay for it." 

The Hack-a-Shaq caused its share of ripples once more among NBA observers this past spring.  But no matter which side of the fence one stands on regarding what the league should or shouldn't do, it seems silly to blame those who utilize the system effectively rather than the system itself.  And don't get me started on this guarantee nonsense.

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Actually, quick about-face.  Let's get the guarantee nonsense out of the way early: This is a guy who shoots 52.4 percent from the foul line for his career and has failed to break 50 percent in four of his last five regular seasons.  He is a 50.1 percent shooter from the line for his postseason career, and he has not only failed to break 50 percent in four of his last five playoff appearances, but he failed to break 40 percent in two of those seasons as well.  This guy has been in the league for 16 seasons.  We're not dealing with a small sample size here.  Shaquille O'Neal has done a lot of things well on the basketball court.  Shooting free throws isn't and hasn't ever been one of them. 
Making promises about making people other than his teammates and coaching staff pay with his free throws is silly.  Next issue.

That next concern is Shaq's "coward" remark about those who use the Hack-a-Shaq while leading, particularly the Spurs.  If there is a problem to be had with the Hack-a-Shaq technique in the first place (and that's not the contention here by any means), that's a problem to take up with the rules committee.  There is at least an argument to be made for the idea that the ploy makes the game less watchable for fans (something the league might be concerned about) or that, as former Columbia Missourian and Meadville Tribune reporter Bill Powell always insists, there's something about the tactic of fouling intentionally and away from the ball throughout the course of the game that drains the sport of some of its purity.  The validity of that claim seems uncertain - who decides what truly constitutes basketball purity? - but there is a discussion to be had there.

That doesn't seem to be as much the case with regard to judging the teams who employ the Hack-a-Shaq under the system as currently constructed.  The primary goal of the teams in this league shouldn't be to be more watchable or to maintain some standard of purity.  Those are the league's problems.  The teams are supposed to be concerned with winning basketball games.  One of the ways to do that is to focus on exploiting the weaknesses of opponents.  Over the course of his career, Shaquille O'Neal has been a really good basketball player.  Patently good.  One of the best of all time good.  Shaquille O'Neal is also a really bad foul shooter.  Patently bad.  One of the worst of all time bad. 

Thus, attacking Shaquille O'Neal's foul shooting is a good way to beat his teams.  The rules allow for teams to do a certain amount toward exploiting that weakness of his.  If putting Shaq at the line is the alternative to having to stop Steve Nash or Amare Stoudemire, it likely isn't the cowardly play but rather the smart play, no matter the score margin.  It isn't against the rules.  It isn't dirty.  It isn't cheating.  It isn't cheap.  And if Shaq wanted to put a stop to it, he could do just that by hitting his foul shots consistently.   

Whether the Hack-or-Shaq should be addressed by the league is up for debate (and we'd love to hear your thoughts on it).  Calling out teams as cowards for playing effectively within the rules seems misguided. 

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