Philadelphia 76ers rookie sensation Ben Simmons, the clear frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, has been a driving force of the team’s success this season. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NBA draft is scoring 18.7 points per game in addition to 7.2 assists, 9.5 rebounds and 2.1 steals each night. And the advanced metrics such as win shares and value over replacement point to him being the most valuable member of the franchise during this campaign. But like all supermen, he has a weakness — he has difficulty making free throws — and the Washington Wizards exposed it to the world Wednesday night.
The Wizards, down by as many as 24 points in the third quarter, used the “Hack-a-Shaq” strategy — intentionally fouling a player possession after possession — on Simmons throughout much of the fourth quarter, sending him to the line an NBA-record 24 times in the fourth.
“When you’re down 24, anything’s in play,” Wizards Coach Scott Brooks said after the game. “You’re just trying to do whatever it takes to give us a chance to cut the lead. His free throw percentage is not good at the moment, so it gave us a chance to stop the clock and shoot threes while hopefully they missed free throws.”
Simmons made just 12 of those attempts, giving the Wizards a chance to narrow the gap. But it ultimately failed, the 76ers won 118-113, and is not likely to be a winning proposition for other teams going forward.
With Simmons shooting 55.4 percent from the free-throw line, fouling him yields two shots and 1.11 expected points. The 76ers score 0.93 points per possession in the half court overall — most intentional fouls occur on half-court possessions — with Simmons producing 0.82 points per opportunity in the half court with the ball. So even with Simmons being a below-average free throw shooter (NBA average is 76.6 percent this season), it is not always a benefit to keep sending him to the line. Simmons’s free throw rate would have to drop to 40 percent or worse for Hack-A-Simmons to be effective.
Plus, intentionally fouling Simmons allows Philadelphia to set up its defense, which isn’t a good idea, either. The 76ers have the ninth-best defense in the NBA this season and hold opponents to an effective field goal percentage of 50 percent after a foul, not much higher than what the 76ers are allowing overall this season (49.1 eFG% against, fourth-best in the league).
And finally, Philadelphia does a good job of chasing down offensive rebounds. As a team they grab 6.3 contested offensive rebounds per game, the sixth-most this season, which accounts for 21 percent of all offensive rebound chances. Seven-foot center Joel Embiid is among the league’s best at grabbing and converting offensive rebounds, scoring 1.4 points per possession, which is fifth out of 29 players with at least 25 putback opportunities this season. Embiid is also drawing a foul on one out of every six attempts, the eighth-best mark among this group.
There may be some nights where the Hack-a-Simmons strategy works, but for now, all it does is slow the game down.
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