Earlier this season, on March 12 to be exact, Dwight Howard tied his own NBA record for most free throws shot in a game with 39 attempts against the Orlando Magic.
In most cases, earning records is a good, even great accomplishment. In this case, it was not. The statistic was glaring, especially since Howard only made 25 of the 39 free throws for a 64.1 percentage on the evening.
As Howard’s former home, the Orlando Magic know Howard’s game extremely well. Looking for a way to win in that game, Orlando exposed possibly the Lakers’ biggest weakness on the court and sent Howard to the line.
Ironically, Lakers fans praised Howard’s performance from the line. After all, he shot over 15 percent better than his regular season average of 49.2 percent. But is this really something people should be commending?
During the 2012-13 regular season, Howard shot 721 free throws and made only 355 of them. The 721 attempts are the most free throws shot by a center in the league by a long shot. DeMarcus Cousins from the Sacramento Kings shot the second highest amount of free throws of any center in the NBA and he took 423. In the NBA as a whole, Howard ranks second in free throws per game with 9.5.
With such a poor free throw percentage, teams have become smart, creating the Hack-a-Howard phenomena. It’s not completely new; it wasn’t rare that opponents would hack former Laker Shaquille O’Neal (of course termed Hack-a-Shaq). Unlike with Shaq, who was grabbed once he received the ball, teams are now fouling Howard off the ball.
Intentional fouling off the ball can only be done until the final two minutes of the game, at which point it is no longer allowed. Up until that point, Howard becomes an extreme liability on the court.
In the defense of Howard, he isn’t the only one being hacked. DeAndre Jordan of the Los Angeles Clippers is receiving the same treatment, as he is one of the worst foul shooters in the league at a dismal 38.6 percent from the charity stripe. However, Howard draws much more attention, partly because of his star status, partly because he’s a Laker and also because the Clippers have a backup for Jordan, whereas the Lakers have no solid sub for Howard. As a result, Jordan shot just 249 free throws this season, about a third of what Howard shot.
Many basketball fans (Lakers’ fans specifically) are questioning if a rule should be implemented to stop the hacking, but really, there is no answer. Fouling off the ball is not allowed in final two minutes of the game, putting an end to the Hack-a-Howard, but to make a rule where you can’t foul off the ball during the entire game would be ridiculous and would question the integrity of the game.
There’s already a six-foul disqualification rule for a reason. Fouling off the ball happens and is valid. Besides, there is no reason to make a rule for basically one player. What L.A. fans need to realize is that the rule is not the problem, Howard is.
Free throws are about three key concepts: mental toughness, muscle memory and hard work. A player has to put in the time at the gym to get it right.
This year, Howard made approximately $20 million. There is absolutely no reason that a player making millions of dollars should get away with this. He’s being paid to play a sport that he should love and if being paid that much, to do it well. Let’s be honest, a high school basketball player, on average, shoots a better percentage than Howard. Hire a coach or do whatever you have to do, but there is no excuse to make less than half of your free throws.
So do I like the Hack-a-Howard strategy? No. After all, basketball is a game for entertainment.
However, I’m not going to deny it as a valid strategy. Basketball is about exploiting your opponent’s weaknesses and while Dwight brings a lot of positive aspects to the game, he is a downright horrible free throw shooter.
Therefore, Hack-a-Howard is a valid option for teams. If down, you save time on the clock, earn more possessions and, chances are, you’re going to have the opportunity to gain ground on the Lakers. In his 76 games this season, Howard missed an average of five free throws per game. That can give any team the momentum it needs to turn the ball game around. And if you do have a lead, you’re taking away the option of the Lakers finding a better and more reliable shot, like from Kobe Bryant.
Basketball is about making other team adjust and the Lakers will have to do that. If a team starts to hack, take Dwight off the floor. That’s what the Clippers do with Jordan. However, Howard’s contract ends after this year and he will become a free agent, so the Lakers have to keep him happy and, as a result, leave him on the floor.
Really though, allowing Howard to stay on the floor does nothing for his team. His teammates, coaches and the city of Los Angeles clearly have no confidence in him, so it’s not helping to build team chemistry. The missed free throws simply cause frustration. Plus, they’re obviously not helping the Lakers win ball games.
If you must, keep Howard happy for this season, but if the Lakers (or whatever new team) re-sign him, they should put him on the bench when opponents start to hack. He doesn’t deserve to be on the floor if he can’t make free throws. It’s not any different from the end of a ball game and you’re up one with the ball, so you put your best free throw shooters on the floor. If Howard’s not one of them, sit him on the bench.
From an early age, players are taught that free throws can win or lose games. Howard needs to figure that out if L.A. wants to win.
This article is an online exclusive and did not appear in the print edition of the Daily Nexus.
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