A STOPPED CLOCK WOULD ALWAYS BE RIGHT (DURING THE LATE STAGES OF BASKETBALL GAMES): 2016-2017 SEASON REVIEW

October 14, 2017
Nicholas Patrick, Ph.D.

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 G-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 5 of the 2017 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 three-pointer made by the Cavaliers’ JR Smith while being fouled) would have ended the timed portion, with the Warriors leading, 124-113
  • At this juncture, the target score would be set at 131
  • Untimed Portion: Play would resume without a game clock, and the first team to reach 131 points would win the game

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 2017 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 shooting foul committed by North Carolina’s Isaiah Hicks on Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss) would have ended the timed portion, with North Carolina leading, 62-60
  • At this juncture, the target score would be set at 69
  • Untimed Portion: Play would resume without a game clock, and the first team to reach 69 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 2016-2017 regular season and postseason, and data collected from every NCAA men’s basketball game televised on ESPNU during the 2016-2017 season leading up to the 2017 NCAA Tournament, and every 2017 NCAA Tournament game. Overall, this includes data from 351 NBA games (and 19 overtime periods, for a total of 370 4th quarter/overtime periods), and 363 NCAA games (and 20 overtime periods, for a total of 383 2nd half/overtime periods).

DELIBERATE FOULING
Trailing NBA teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 146 of the 370 sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods. The effectiveness of this strategy can be categorized in the following ways:

  • Counterproductive: fouling team ends same period with a deficit equal to or greater than its deficit at the time of the first deliberate foul; 120/146 (82.2%)
  • Futile: fouling team ends same period with a deficit narrower than its original deficit, but still trailing (and losing, necessarily); 22/146 (15.1%)
  • Partially Successful: fouling team ends same period in a tie with its opponent, forcing overtime (or an additional overtime); 4/146 (2.7%)
  • Completely Successful: fouling team ends same period with the lead (and the win, necessarily); 0/146 (0.0%)

Trailing NCAA teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 229 of the 383 sampled 2nd half/overtime periods.

  • Counterproductive:  176/229 (76.9%)
  • Futile:  43/229 (18.8%)
  • Partially Successful:  9/229 (3.9%)
  • Completely Successful:   1/229 (0.4%)

STALLING
Leading NBA teams stalled in the overwhelming majority of the 370 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 six instances (1.6%) did circumstances align to allow a truly stalling-free 4th quarter/overtime period.

Only four of the 383 sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods (1.0%) 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 54 of the sampled NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods ended with a possession that could have tied or won the game. Only five of those possessions (9.3%) were converted, on 0.22 points per possession.

57 of the sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods ended with a possession that could have tied or won the game. Only five of those possessions (8.8%) were converted, on 0.23 points per possession.

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 32 of 150 such possessions (21.3%), on 0.61 points per possession. NCAA teams converted only 37 of 164 such possessions (22.6%), on 0.63 points per possession.

CONCEDING
Trailing NBA teams conceded 270 of 351 sampled games (76.9%) 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 252 of 363 sampled games (69.4%) 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 370 sampled NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods included 26 clock reviews, malfunctions, and operator errors. The final four minutes of all 383 sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods included 44 clock reviews, malfunctions, and operator errors.

INTERMINABLE FINAL STAGES
The final minute of 50 sampled NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods lasted ten actual minutes or more. The final minute of 46 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 351 sampled NBA games and 363 sampled NCAA games ended in the following ways:

NBA NCAA
Meaningful Made Basket  3 (0.9%) 3 (0.8%)
Unsuccessful Meaningful Possession  32 (9.1%) 34 (9.4%)
Meaningless Shot Attempt  46 (13.1%) 64 (17.6%)
Leading Player Stalls  226 (64.4%) 234 (64.5%)
Trailing Player Stalls  44 (12.5%) 28 (7.7%)

 

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)

19 overtime periods were played in sampled NBA games. The ending of 11 of those periods (57.9%) failed to match the excitement of the preceding period’s ending. The ending of seven of those periods (36.8%) managed to match the excitement of the preceding ending. Only one of those periods (5.3%) ended in a more exciting fashion than the preceding period.

20 overtime periods were played in sampled NCAA games. The ending of 10 of those periods (50.0%) failed to match the excitement of the preceding period’s ending. The ending of seven of those periods (35.0%) managed to match the excitement of the preceding ending. Only three of those periods (15.0%) 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 65 uncontested field goals during sampled games. Leading NCAA teams allowed at least 67 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 seven times during sampled games, and was immediately successful three times, and never ultimately successful. One leading NBA team employed the strategy during sampled games, and was immediately and ultimately successful.

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

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 26 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 11 periods.

FOULOUTS
During sampled games, 22 NBA players committed a sixth foul deliberately and/or during overtime. During sampled games, 87 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 204 inbounds passes.

During sampled games, leading NCAA offenses vacated the lane in 311 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 351 NBA games sampled during the 2016-2017 season, only three of them ended with a meaningful made basket. Of 363 sampled NCAA games, only three games ended with a meaningful made basket.

But even this snapshot is too generous to the current format. Three of those six game-ending buzzer beaters broke a tie (only three game-ending buzzer beaters were released with the offense trailing – March 5, Jazz at Kings (OT); March 24 (East Regional Semifinal), Florida vs. Wisconsin (OT); April 9, Lakers vs. Timberwolves). 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
A Stopped Clock Would Always Be Right (During the Late Stages of Basketball Games): 2015-2016 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
Bad Timing: Reducing Timeouts Just Ain’t Enough
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
Did You See That?/Zach Drapkin: Breaking Down TBT’s Elam Ending
ESPN/Joe Lunardi: Is It Time for a Different Way to End Basketball Games?
SportsBeat KC Podcast: July 14, 2017
Freakonomics’ Tell Me Something I Don’t Know: September 6, 2017

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