The Analytics Guys Were Fine with the Hack-a-Ben Routine (Which Washington Used Four Years Ago in a Record-Setting Fourth Quarter)

Photo Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

You an analytics guy, bo?

Data can be good or bad depending on how it’s used. Sometimes you’ll see people write off numbers entirely, which is dumb, while other people go numbers-heavy and don’t take non-quantifiable things into context, which is equally dumb. There’s always a sweet spot for data that falls somewhere in the middle.

For this exercise, let’s take a look at what the analytics guys say about last night’s hack-a-Ben Simmons free throw routine:

Couple of thoughts here:

  1. There were multiple sets of intentional fouls, so you could input different things into the “time remaining” box.
  2. Ben is a 61% free throw shooter this year, but was 0-9 coming into game three and hit one of three foul shots before going 4-8 down the stretch. He’s now 5-20 in the series, which is a healthy 25%.
  3. Larger data samples are always better than smaller data samples. In this case, Washington probably just said “fuck it, he’s out of form right now, so we’re gonna try it.
  4. You want regular offensive possessions against a terrible Wizards defense, not free throws. Can’t shoot three pointers from the foul line.
  5. Going three straight possessions with your four other players just standing there watching free throws can take them out of rhythm and junk up the flow of the game.
  6. You have to account for playing in the playoffs, on the road, which makes the situation more challenging for an individual player. There are always going to be things that you can’t package into a nice data set. It is what it is.

Anyway, according to the formula, if Simmons was hitting at his season average, then Hack-a-Ben is a bad routine. But he’s been totally out of form at the line this series and so Washington went and gave it a try. It sort of worked, but the bigger story was about the Sixers not getting any stops down the stretch, which was complicated by the fact that Joel Embiid was out, Simmons was in foul trouble, and he went down to play small ball five during that stretch. He brings so much less value defensively when he can’t be on the perimeter guarding a guy like Bradley Beal.

RE: past iterations of hack-a-Ben, you may recall that crazy Wizards/Sixers game from 2017, when Simmons went to the foul line a bazillion times in the fourth quarter. Scott Brooks started fouling with five minutes or so remaining in the game, which resulted in Ben taking 24 free throws in the fourth. He hit 12 to finish 50% in that stretch, but knocked down 6 of 8 closer to the two minute mark and the Sixers pulled away for a five-point win.

 

Afterward, in answering a series of questions about it, Brett Brown mentioned that they tried doing this to Doc Rivers and DeAndre Jordan in a 2016 win against the Clippers:

Do coaches use this tactic reluctantly?

“You feel a bit like you’re cheating the game. You feel a little bit that you’re taking something away from the fans. But the bottom line is you’re doing it to win. And we will all do anything we can, within the rules, to find a way to win. We had great success doing that to DeAndre Jordan last year when we beat the Clippers. The thing I believe is that it’s such a copy cat league. It’s so well-coached and well-scouted that you would expect this to happen more and more. This is gonna be part of Ben’s growth and as a team we’ll learn how to deal with it better as well.”

Did you ponder taking Simmons out of the game?

“Oh yeah.”

Was it the way he was missing free throws?

“No, it’s just the general notion. I’ve been doing this for a long time and you know it’s not going to go away. So you sit there and think about it. You walk that slippery slope of ‘how do I help my team win? how do I help a player grow?’ Sometimes they don’t connect as easily as you’d like. This one didn’t.”

To put a bow on this, there are some hack-a-Ben games that are worth going back and studying. And Doc had a bit of a thing with DeAndre Jordan and intentional fouls during his Los Angeles days. It’s probably worth getting some Clippers fans in here and having them shed more light on how he handled those situations.

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