It all started with "Hack-a-Shaq." Though, intentional fouling then was a bit different than today's methods.
Hack-a-Shaq -- which, incidentally, is the only clever use of the "hack-a-(insert player's name here)" phrase that announcers continue to use, despite it being more groan-inducing than calling the latest scandal "whatever-gate" -- had two basic principles: one, whenever Shaquille O`Neal touches the ball, foul the bejesus out of him so he can't dunk in your face; and two, hope he misses his free throws.
Shaq was a dominating presence inside, a guy so physically imposing that if he caught the ball below the free throw line, you were already in trouble. He was a guy who could bully anyone out of his way and take the ball to the rim. He was also a terrible free throw shooter, shooting 55.7% for his career. It made sense to stop him from doing the thing he was very good at by making him do the thing he was not as good at. It slowed down the game, sure, but didn't ruin the flow of the game.
There were ways to combat hack-a-Shaq, the same way hack-a-Shaq was meant to combat his offensive abilities. Shaq's teams didn't want him going to the line, they wanted him to dominate inside, so simply chucking the ball into the post wasn't going to work. His teammates could frequently find ways around it by shooting from the outside, driving and dishing, or leaving shots for Shaq to rebound and put back.
In the late '90s, Don Nelson came up with the idea of simply fouling O'Neal consistently. This would not allow Shaq's teams to set up their offense. His theory was that, since O'Neal was such a poor shooter from the line, forcing him to shoot free throws rather than giving anyone else on the floor the chance to do anything would yield less points. It was basically, in my opinion, Nelson saying he had no faith in his team's defense.
Today's methods are more closely aligned with Nelson's strategy. They consist of finding the worst free throw shooter on the floor at any given time and slapping him on the chest. It doesn't matter where he is on the court or if he even has the ball. Just find him and foul him. This tactic has been employed against Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan, Festus Ezeli, and more. Of course, this plan only works for 46 minutes, as the NBA has a rule that any off-the-ball foul committed in the final two minutes of a game, when most intentional fouling occurs in order to stop the clock, results in two free throws plus possession of the ball.
Intentional fouling is a strategy, and a good one at that. It still screams "I don't trust my defense" to me, but it is a chess move. The problem is that chess is boring to watch. Free throws can be exciting in the waning seconds of a tight game. There's pressure, and one shot could change the outcome. However, watching shooting practice between two guys who can barely make half of them for the majority of the game is not exciting. It's awful. It kills the flow of the game.
Perhaps the most frustrating part is that the answer is right in front of them.
The two-minute rule was initially instated because teams would intentionally foul Wilt Chamberlain, a career 51% free throw shooter, at the end of close games to make sure he was the one shooting the potentially game-winning free throws. Chamberlain would run around the court, trying to avoid being fouled. It looked like a game of tag while the ball was on the other end of the court. It was embarrassing for the league.
Well, so is this. While the two-minute rule stopped teams from fouling the worst shooter on the court during close games, teams just started it doing it all the time. The obvious answer should be to extend the rule through the whole game. Intentional fouling is used as a way to gain possession back, so take away that option. Once someone finds a loophole in your system, you need to close it.
I don't know why the strategy has gained such notoriety recently. Be it an abundance of poor free throw shooters, a growing lack of confidence in defense, or what, it needs to stop. It is killing my passion to watch the game I love.
Kids, practice your free throws.