A STOPPED CLOCK WOULD ALWAYS BE RIGHT (DURING THE LATE STAGES OF BASKETBALL GAMES): 2015-2016 SEASON REVIEW

October 22, 2016
Nicholas Patrick

On the Scale of Self-Assuredness (where 0 = Just Spitballin’ and 10 = I’ve Got It!), writer rates this idea as a 10.

I’ll get right to the point: I believe basketball (and I mean every league that facilitates organized basketball, including the NBA, NCAA, FIBA, WNBA, NBA D-League, NFHS, AAU, recreational/intramural/youth leagues, etc.) should abandon its game clock. By doing so, basketball would become the most fair and exciting sport played in this world.

Basketball’s game clock provides exactly one benefit to the sport (a significant benefit, at that) – it allows games to be played within a relatively predictable and narrow range of actual time (most NBA games last about 150 actual minutes; most NCAA games last about 120 actual minutes; etc.). I believe basketball can and should continue to reap this benefit by using a game clock for most of each game, but not for the entirety of any game.

After all, the game clock’s detrimental effects greatly outnumber and outweigh its single benefit. The game clock’s overbearing influence warps the style, quality, palatability, and overall excitement of play during the late stages of games, in the following ways:

  • Compels trailing defense to commit repeated and deliberate fouls
  • Compels leading (and in some cases, tied) offense to stall
  • Forces trailing (and in many cases, tied) offense into sloppy/rushed/incomplete possessions, especially during a game’s final possession
  • Compels trailing team to overtly concede game (whether by choosing not to commit a deliberate foul while on defense and/or choosing not to play at a frantic pace while on offense, etc.)
  • Dampens celebrations and introduces anticlimax during clock reviews
  • Adds unnecessary controversy through clock malfunctions and operator errors
  • Reduces the likelihood of a late comeback (from a deficit of any size) and dampens arena atmosphere by making a late lead disproportionately safe
  • Dampens arena atmosphere during late stages drawn out by frequent interruptions of play (deliberate fouls, timeouts with tangible incentives, clock reviews, etc.)
  • Leads to an unceremonious ending, and in many cases, the complete absence of a signature moment to define even the most competitive and/or highly-anticipated game
  • Necessitates overtime periods (which rarely match – and hardly ever exceed – the excitement provided by the end of regulation)
  • Compels leading defense to allow uncontested lay-ups (out of fear of committing a clock-stopping foul)
  • Compels teams to intentionally miss free throw attempts (whether trailing team hoping to maintain possession, or leading team hoping to disadvantage opponent with an unfavorable final shot)
  • Warps final score and margin of victory (by precipitating such an unnatural style of play)
  • Punishes trailing team for having committed too few fouls earlier in final period (whenever fouls-to-give remain at the time deliberate fouling begins)
  • Poses dilemma for dominant team (about whether continuing to score exemplifies poor sportsmanship)
  • Leads to greater number of foulouts (by players committing fouls deliberately and/or committing fouls in overtime)
  • Compels teams to employ ridiculous and unsightly strategies (trailing offense rolling inbounds pass with game clock stopped, leading offense vacating lane during free throw attempts so as not to commit foul during possible rebound, leading offense throwing ball directly into air to exhaust final seconds, etc.)

And so, I propose that basketball implement a hybrid duration format (part-timed, part-untimed) for every game. An NBA game would look something like this (replacing the last three minutes of game-clock-focused play with a comparable amount of game-clock-free play):

  • Timed portion: At least 45 minutes of timed play (this would include three complete, 12-minute quarters, and at least nine minutes of timed play in the fourth quarter; after this threshold is reached, play continues naturally until the next timeout/dead ball/made basket)
  • At this juncture, a target score would be set (equal to the leading team’s score plus seven)
  • Untimed portion: Play would resume, without a game clock, until one team matches or exceeds the target score

For example, consider if Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals had been played under the hybrid format:

  • Timed Portion: After 45+ minutes of timed play, the next timeout/dead ball/made basket (which happened to be a foul committed by the Warriors’ Steph Curry on the Cavaliers’ LeBron James) would have ended the timed portion, with the game tied, 89-89
  • At this juncture, the target score would be set at 96
  • Untimed Portion: Play would resume without a game clock, and the first team to reach 96 points would be declared the NBA champion

An NCAA game would look something like this (replacing the last four minutes of game-clock-focused play with a comparable amount of game-clock-free play):

  • Timed portion: At least 36 minutes of timed play (this would include a complete, 20-minute first half, and at least 16 minutes of timed play in the second half; after this threshold is reached, play continues naturally until the next timeout/dead ball/made basket)
  • At this juncture, a target score would be set (equal to the leading team’s score plus seven)
  • Untimed portion: Play would resume, without a game clock, until one team matches or exceeds the target score

For example, consider if the 2016 NCAA Men’s Championship game had been played under the hybrid format:

  • Timed Portion: After 36+ minutes of timed play, the next timeout/dead ball/made basket (which happened to be a North Carolina three-pointer) would have ended the timed portion, with Villanova leading, 67-64
  • At this juncture, the target score would be set at 74
  • Untimed Portion: Play would resume without a game clock, and the first team to reach 74 points would be declared the national champion

A number of factors could be adjusted if necessary, and variations could be used at different levels of play, but the idea is to abandon the game clock just before it compels teams to deviate from the basic objectives of the sport. This strikingly simple change would be strikingly sound, too. It would strengthen the game clock’s lone benefit, while eliminating or alleviating ALL of its aforementioned detrimental effects:

  • Trailing defense would not need (or want) to commit repeated and deliberate fouls, and could instead play legitimate defense (hybrid format could also indirectly lead to elimination of Hack-a-Shaq fouls, because NBA, etc. could realistically commit to handling all deliberate fouls by the book – as intentional/flagrant fouls that provide no incentive for committing such fouls)
  • Leading (or tied) offense would not stall, and would instead play assertively
  • Trailing offense would never need (or want) to rush possessions, and could instead make its best attempt to score
  • Trailing team would never concede game through style of play, and all on-court players would instead battle to the end
  • Late-game clock reviews would never be necessary, and could never dampen end-of-game celebrations
  • Late-game clock malfunctions and operator errors would never be possible, and could never add unnecessary controversy
  • A legitimate late comeback would be proportionately likely, compelling more fans to remain present and engaged through the end of each game
  • Late stages of game would proceed at a palatable pace, compelling more fans to remain present and engaged through the end of each game
  • Every game would end with a made basket, ensuring it would have at least one signature moment to define it
  • Every exciting game would be guaranteed an exciting finish, by eliminating the possibility of an anticlimactic overtime
  • Leading defense would never intentionally allow uncontested lay-ups
  • With appropriate rules modifications, neither team would ever need (or want) to intentionally miss a free throw attempt
  • Usefulness of various statistics would be restored, including final score and margin of victory, by allowing a more familiar style of play to continue through the end of each game
  • Trailing team would never be punished for committing too few fouls
  • All scoring would be guilt-free
  • Players would never foul out by committing a deliberate foul meant primarily to stop the clock and/or by committing a foul in overtime
  • Teams would not need (or want) to employ overly-timid and/or underly-dignified strategies

I love basketball as much as the next fan, but cold hard facts reveal the necessity of a rules change. Consider data collected from every nationally-televised NBA game played during the 2015-2016 regular season and postseason, and data collected from every NCAA men’s basketball game televised on ESPNU during the 2015-2016 season and every 2016 NCAA Tournament game. Overall, this includes data from 339 NBA games (and 21 overtime periods, for a total of 360 4th quarter/overtime periods), and 362 NCAA games (and 30 overtime periods, for a total of 392 2nd half/overtime periods).

DELIBERATE FOULING
Trailing NBA teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 157 of the 360 sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods. The effectiveness of this strategy can be categorized in the following ways:

  • šCounterproductive: fouling team ends same period with a deficit equal to or greater than its deficit at the time of the first deliberate foul; 130/157 (82.8%)
  • šFutile: fouling team ends same period with a deficit narrower than its original deficit, but still trailing (and losing, necessarily); 22/157 (14.0%)
  • šPartially Successful: fouling team ends same period in a tie with its opponent, forcing overtime (or an additional overtime); 5/157 (3.2%)
  • šCompletely Successful: fouling team ends same period with the lead (and the win, necessarily); 0/157 (0.0%)

Trailing NCAA teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 209 of the 392 sampled 2nd half/overtime periods.

  • Counterproductive:  165/209 (78.9%)
  • Futile:  28/209 (13.4%)
  • Partially Successful:  12/209 (5.7%)
  • Completely Successful:   4/209 (1.9%)

STALLING
Leading NBA teams stalled in the overwhelming majority of the 360 sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods. In many other games, the leading team was deliberately fouled before it had the chance to stall. And in many of the remaining instances, the trailing team overtly conceded the game before the leading team would have normally considered stalling.

In only three instances (0.8%) did circumstances align to allow a truly stalling-free 4th quarter/overtime period.

Only seven of the 392 sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods (1.8%) were stalling-free.

SLOPPY/RUSHED/INCOMPLETE POSSESSIONS
The game clock further contributes to an ugly brand of basketball by forcing the trailing (and in some cases, tied) team to attempt ugly shots. This effect is strongest during the final possession of a 4th quarter/2nd half/overtime period.

Consider that 49 of the sampled NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods ended with a possession that could have tied or won the game. Only two of those possessions (4.1%) were converted.

81 of the sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods ended with a possession that could have tied or won the game. Only seven of those possessions (8.6%) were converted.

Even if we broaden the definition from actual buzzer beater possessions to potential buzzer beater possessions (any possession where the offense is tied or trailing by 1-3 points, with the shot clock turned off), NBA teams converted only 20 of 109 such possessions (18.3%) and NCAA teams converted only 53 of 220 such possessions (24.1%).

CONCEDING
Trailing NBA teams conceded 268 of 339 sampled games (79.1%) by choosing not to foul deliberately (on at least one late possession when the strategy would have been advisable) while on defense and/or by choosing not to play at a frantic pace (on at least one late possession when the strategy would have been advisable) while on offense and/or by removing its best players from the game. This does not include a number of instances when teams conceded by choosing not to use all of its available timeouts (to automatically advance the ball into the frontcourt).

Trailing NCAA teams conceded 250 of 362 sampled games (69.1%) by choosing not to foul deliberately while on defense and/or by choosing not to play at a frantic pace while on offense.

CLOCK CONTROVERSIES
The final three minutes of all 360 sampled NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods included 12 clock reviews, malfunctions, and operator errors. The final four minutes of all 392 sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods included 43 clock reviews, malfunctions, and operator errors.

INTERMINABLE FINAL STAGES
The final minute of 49 sampled NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods lasted ten actual minutes or more. The final minute of 41 NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods lasted ten actual minutes or more.

UNCEREMONIOUS ENDINGS
The final moment of a given basketball game can usually be categorized in one of five ways:

  • Meaningful made basket (also known as a buzzer beater!)
  • Unsuccessful meaningful possession (when offense trails by 1-3 points)
  • Meaningless (made or missed) shot attempt (when offense already leads, or trails by four points or more; this category also includes additional instances when a player clearly intended to take a meaningless shot, but when time expired before shot could be released)
  • Leading player stalls (in most cases, casually dribbling or holding the ball; in especially close games, this might include a player/team actively evading its opponent’s attempt to commit a deliberate foul)
  • Trailing player stalls (the most striking form of conceding)

The 339 sampled NBA games and 362 sampled NCAA games ended in the following ways:

NBA NCAA
Meaningful Made Basket  0 (0.0%) 6 (1.2%)
Unsuccessful Meaningful Possession  28 (8.3%) 44 (12.2%)
Meaningless Shot Attempt  49 (14.5%) 63 (17.4%)
Leading Player Stalls  205 (60.5%) 232 (64.1%)
Trailing Player Stalls  57 (16.8%) 17 (4.7%)

ANTICLIMACTIC OVERTIMES
Let’s now consider all 4th quarter/2nd half/overtime periods (not just those at the true end of a game), and categorize possible period endings a little differently than in the previous section (listed in decreasing order of excitement):

  • Made basket to win
  • Made basket to tie
  • Unsuccessful meaningful possession (by tied team or team trailing by 1-3 points)
  • Meaningless possession (when offense already has lead, or trails by four points or more)

21 overtime periods were played in sampled NBA games. The ending of 17 of those periods (81.0%) failed to match the excitement of the preceding period’s ending. The ending of four of those periods (19.0%) managed to match the excitement of the preceding ending. None of those periods ended in a more exciting fashion than the preceding period.

30 overtime periods were played in sampled NCAA games. The ending of 14 of those periods (46.7%) failed to match the excitement of the preceding period’s ending. The ending of 15 of those periods (50.0%) managed to match the excitement of the preceding ending. Only one of those periods (3.3%) ended in a more exciting fashion than the preceding period.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Any overtime period, necessarily, follows a nearly-impossible-to-follow act – a 4th quarter/2ndhalf/earlier overtime period that was, by definition, as competitive as can be.

UNCONTESTED SHOTS
Leading NBA teams allowed at least 50 uncontested field goals during sampled games. Leading NCAA teams allowed at least 71 uncontested field goals during sampled games.

INTENTIONALLY MISSED FREE THROW ATTEMPTS
A trailing team will sometimes intentionally miss a free throw attempt if circumstances are just right (have one free throw attempt remaining, during closing seconds of game, usually trailing by exactly two or three points) as a way to continue a crucial late possession. A leading team will sometimes do the same under a similarly restrictive set of circumstances (have one free throw attempt remaining, during closing seconds of game, usually leading by exactly one or two points) as a way to saddle its opponent with an extremely unfavorable ensuing final shot

The effectiveness of the intentionally-missed-free-throw strategy can be measured by its immediate success (whether a trailing team indeed gathered an offensive rebound; whether a leading team indeed saddled its opponent with a subsequent shot less favorable than it would have faced if the free throw had been made) and its ultimate success (whether a trailing team indeed overcame its deficit; whether a leading team indeed protected its lead). The contrasting success of these strategies further illustrates the disproportionate difficulty of overcoming a late deficit (and the correspondingly disproportionate ease of protecting a late lead)

A trailing NBA team employed the strategy three times during sampled games, and was immediately successful only once, and never ultimately successful. No leading NBA team employed the strategy.

A trailing NCAA team employed the strategy twice during sampled games, and was immediately successful only once, and never ultimately successful. A leading NCAA team employed the strategy twice during sampled games, and was immediately successful once, and ultimately successful both times.

FOULS-TO-GIVE DISADVANTAGE
During the final three minutes of sampled NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods, a trailing team committed a deliberate foul when its opponent was not yet in the bonus (and, consequently, did not serve deliberate fouling’s primary purpose of sending the leading team to the free throw line) in 41 periods, essentially punishing the trailing team for having committed too few fouls earlier in the period.

During the final four minutes of sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods, a trailing team committed a deliberate foul when its opponent was not yet in the bonus in 13 periods.

FOULOUTS
During sampled games, 23 NBA players committed a sixth foul deliberately and/or during overtime. During sampled games, 84 NCAA players committed a fifth foul in a similar fashion. (This does not include players who fouled out while committing a legitimate foul, but who had committed at least one deliberate foul earlier in period.)

UNSIGHTLY STRATEGIES, ETC.
During sampled games, trailing NCAA offenses rolled 155 inbounds passes.

During sampled games, leading NCAA offenses vacated the lane in 277 instances during the last free throw attempt of a trip.

SO WHAT ARE THE DRAWBACKS OF THE HYBRID FORMAT?
There are no drawbacks. Many will initially lament the end of the buzzer beater phenomenon. But with the earlier periods of every basketball game still governed by a game clock, the possibility of highlight-reel, period-ending circus shots will still exist. As for game-ending buzzer beaters, consider that of 339 NBA games sampled during the 2015-2016 season, none of them ended with a meaningful made basket. Of 362 sampled NCAA games, only six games ended with a meaningful made basket.

But even this snapshot is too generous to the current format. Five of those game-ending buzzer beaters broke a tie (only one game-ending buzzer beater was released with the offense trailing – February 24, Oregon State vs. Washington). Yawn. Under the current format, an offense in such a situation must only contend with the watered-down pressure of a make-and-win-OR-miss-and-head-to-overtime shot. Tie games under a hybrid format would feature the much greater pressure of a make-and-win-OR-miss-and-immediately-get-back-to-play-defense-for-your-life shot.

Yes, in addition to all of the other benefits presented by a hybrid format, it would also introduce true sudden death situations to basketball! And considering the near-coin-flip likelihood of scoring on any given possession (a positive trait shared with football’s former sudden death) AND the rapidity with which possession is exchanged (a positive trait shared with hockey’s sudden death), basketball’s sudden death would be, verifiably, the most unpredictable and exciting situation encountered in any sport.

You can find more about the need for a hybrid duration format in basketball, and the format itself, here:
Time’s Up for Basketball’s Game Clock: Part 1-3
A New Beginning for Basketball’s End: Part 1
A New Beginning for Basketball’s End: Part 2
A New Beginning for Basketball’s End: Part 3
A Stopped Clock Would Always Be Right (During the Late Stages of Basketball Games): 2014-2015 Season Review
Ball Don’t Comply: Shorter Shot Clock, Same Unsightly Late-Game Strategy
Ball Don’t Comply: Introducing Piggyback Fouling
Ball Don’t Comply: An Unforgettably Forgettable NBA All-Star Game
Ball Don’t Comply: When an NBA Shutout Comes as No Surprise
Time’s Up for Basketball’s Game Clock (Research Paper Exhibited at 2016 SPEIA Basketball Analytics Summit)
Ball Don’t Comply: How a Hybrid Duration Format Would Provide an Endless Supply of Shining Moments
Ball Don’t Comply: A Career-Defining Championship Deserves a Career-Defining Moment
The Basket Inefficiency: An International Phenomenon
The Basket Inefficiency: The Blare of a Horn vs. The Swish of a Net
The Basket Inefficiency: The Commissioner Says It’s Broke – Let’s Fix It
The Basket Inefficiency: Belt Pack Malfunctions Happen
The Basket Inefficiency: 1.1 Seconds We Can Never Get Back
The Basket Inefficiency: A Hybrid Has Its Day
ESPN/Zach Lowe: NBA Watching The Basketball Tournament’s Innovative Approach to Crunch Time
The Basketball Tournament: The Man Behind the Elam Ending
The Basketball Tournament Podcast: The Elam Ending
Hang Up and Listen Podcast (18:30-38:30)
NPR Only a Game Podcast: May 19, 2017 (21:45-30:45)
The Basket Inefficiency: Shake It Off