BAD TIMING: PICK YOUR POISON

February 21, 2018
Nicholas Patrick, Ph.D.

We’re all too familiar with the practice of repeated deliberate fouling by trailing teams during the late stages of basketball games. Normally, such fouling occurs during live-ball play, disadvantaging trailing teams (making late comebacks disproportionately difficult to achieve) because they are limited on who they can foul (the ballhandler, who usually happens to be one of the leading team’s best free throw shooters) and must exhaust precious time while they chase him around.

Years ago, NBA teams found ways to slightly counteract that disadvantage by handpicking the opponent’s free-throw shooter – committing deliberate away-from-the-play fouls while the ball is in play (we see this practice throughout the course of a game, but its ability to conserve time is especially important late in games), committing deliberate fouls before an inbounds pass is entered, and committing piggyback fouls (literally jumping on a particular leading team player’s back while the leading team attempts a late free throw). The NBA has effectively legislated these practices out of the game – good because it makes these unsightly practices less appealing, bad because they don’t offer the trailing team a better alternative.

Unfortunately, NCAA teams are beginning to use these tactics more frequently – in a sample of 100 games over the last month, trailing teams deliberately fouled an opponent before a late-game inbounds pass in seven instances, and committed two deliberate away-from-the-play fouls late in games in two instances. Unless the NCAA takes similar action as the NBA, these practices are likely to become more prevalent.

Of course, we know how ineffective traditional deliberate fouling (where the trailing team commits an on-the-ball foul) is. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, these other creative forms of deliberate fouling aren’t so effective, either – the fouling team did not win any of the games cited above.

To give trailing teams a real chance of completing a late comeback, all with a more natural and entertaining style of play, the NBA and NCAA should implement the hybrid duration format discussed here.

Continue reading to see more detailed information about the game clock’s warping effect on late-game quality and style of play:

This particular sample includes each of the 58 nationally-televised NBA games played January 15, 2018 – February 18, 2018 (three of these games proceeded to overtime, so 61 total 4th quarter/overtime periods are considered), and each of the 100 NCAA men’s games televised live by ESPNU from January 15, 2018 – February 18, 2018 (six of these games proceeded to overtime – including three games that proceeded to double overtime – so 109 total 2nd half/overtime periods are considered)

DELIBERATE FOULING
Trailing teams often commit deliberate fouls late in games in an effort to conserve time. 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
  • Futile: fouling team ends same period with a deficit narrower than its original deficit, but still trailing (and losing, necessarily)
  • Partially Successful: fouling team ends same period in a tie with its opponent, forcing overtime (or an additional overtime)
  • Completely Successful: fouling team ends same period with the lead (and the win, necessarily)

Trailing NBA teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 24 of the 61 sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods, and trailing NCAA teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 58 of the 109 sampled 2nd half/overtime periods.

Overall, the foul-a-thons produced the following underwhelming level of success:

NBA NCAA
Counterproductive 18 (75.0%) 46 (79.3%)
Futile 5 (20.8%) 10 (17.2%)
Partially Successful 1 (4.2%) 1 (1.7%)
Completely Successful 0 (0.0%) 1 (1.7%)

STALLING
Leading NBA teams stalled in the overwhelming majority of the 61 sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods. In many other games, the leading team was deliberately fouled before it had the chance to stall. And in most of the remaining instances, the trailing team overtly conceded the game before the leading team would have normally considered stalling. None of the sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods was truly stalling-free.

Two (1.8%) of the 109 sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods were truly stalling-free:

  • January 24 (OT): Nevada at Wyoming
  • February 2 (OT): Quinnipiac at Iona

In ten instances, a leading NBA team willingly accepted a shot clock violation while stalling in the closing seconds. Two leading NCAA teams willingly accepted a shot clock violation while stalling in the closing seconds.

RUSHED/SLOPPY/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 nine of the sampled NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods ended with a possession that could have tied or won the game. Only two (22.2%) of those possessions was converted (on 0.56 points per possession):

  • January 15: Spurs’ Danny Green misses contested three-pointer off front of rim at Hawks
  • January 16 (4Q): Pelicans’ DeMarcus Cousins misses contested three-pointer off backboard at Celtics
  • January 23: Celtics’ Marcus Smart misses three-pointer off front of rim at Lakers
  • January 29: Nuggets’ Will Barton misses deep pull-up three-pointer wide of basket vs. Celtics
  • February 1: Nuggets’ Gary Harris makes catch-and-shoot three-pointer vs. Thunder
  • February 7 (4Q): Cavaliers’ LeBron James misses stepback three-pointer vs. Timberwolves
  • February 7 (OT): Cavaliers’ LeBron James makes catch-and-shoot fadeaway two-point jumper vs. Timberwolves
  • February 8 (4Q): Wizards’ Bradley Beal misses turnaround, stumbling, fadeaway two-point jumper off bottom of backboard vs. Celtics
  • February 9: Timberwolves’ Jimmy Butler misses three-pointer off back of rim at Bulls

20 of the sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods ended with a possession that could have tied or won the game. Only one (5.0%) of those possessions was converted (on 0.10 points per possession):

  • January 16: LSU’s Tremont Waters misses running long three-pointer off backboard vs. Georgia
  • January 24 (2H): Nevada’s Caleb Martin misses three-quarter-court heave off backboard at Wyoming
  • January 24 (OT): Time expires before Nevada’s Caleb Martin can attempt running long three-pointer at Wyoming
  • January 27: Missouri State’s Jarrid Rhodes misses double-pump three-pointer vs. Southern Illinois
  • January 28: Time expires before Georgia Tech’s Jose Alvarado can attempt catch-and-shoot transition three-pointer vs. Clemson
  • January 31 (2H): Texas’ Kerwin Roach II misses halfcourt shot wide of backboard at Texas Tech
  • January 31 (OT): Texas Tech’s Keenan Evans makes stepback long two-point jumper vs. Texas
  • February 2 (2H): Iona’s Roland Griffin fumbles ball on drive to basket vs. Quinnipiac
  • February 2 (OT): Time expires before Quinnipiac’s Isaiah Washington can attempt full-court heave vs. Iona
  • February 4 (2H): Georgia Tech’s Ben Lammers’ full-court heave lands well short of basket at Boston College
  • February 7: South Florida’s David Collins misses catch-and-shoot three-pointer at Connecticut
  • February 10 (2H): Time expires before Oregon State’s Tres Tinkle can make lay-up vs. Washington
  • February 10 (OT): Washington’s Jaylen Nowell airballs halfcourt shot short of basket at Oregon State
  • February 10 (2OT): Washington’s Sam Timmins’ inbounds pass deflected away at Oregon State
  • February 12 (2H): Prairie View A&M’s Dennis Jones misses halfcourt shot off backboard vs. Jackson State
  • February 13: South Carolina’s Justin Minaya airballs three-pointer at Tennessee
  • February 14: Southern Methodist’s Jahmal McMurray misses halfcourt shot off front of rim vs. Memphis
  • February 15: Connecticut’s Jalen Adams misses driving scoop lay-up off backboard vs. Tulsa
  • February 16: Northern Kentucky’s Dantez Walton’s full-court heave lands 25 feet short of basket at Wright State
  • February 17: Texas Tech’s Brandone Francis airballs pull-up three-pointer at Baylor

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 still converted only six of 26 (23.1%) such possessions (on 0.92 points per possession), and NCAA teams converted only 14 of 58 (24.1%) such possessions (on 0.69 points per possession).

CONCEDING
Trailing NBA teams conceded 42 of 58 sampled games (72.4%) 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 taking its best players out of 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). This includes at least one instance when a team conceded while trailing by six points or fewer.

Trailing NCAA teams conceded 74 of 100 sampled games (74.0%) by choosing not to foul deliberately while on defense and/or by choosing not to play at a frantic pace while on offense. This includes at least 16 instances when a team conceded while trailing by six points or fewer.

Such close games would never be conceded under a hybrid format.

CLOCK CONTROVERSIES
The final three minutes of all 61 sampled NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods included 16 clock reviews/errors/malfunctions, including:

  • February 5 Mavericks at Clippers: a threeminute review reset the clock from 0.2 to 0.4 after the clock failed to stop immediately on step out of bounds (caused three-point game to end with an absolute whimper)

The final four minutes of all 109 sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods included 30 clock reviews/errors/malfunctions, including:

  • February 6 Boise State at New Mexico: a three-minute review confirmed that time had expired before New Mexico committed a deliberate foul while trailing by two points, providing a most anticlimactic ending; more notably, the foul itself – which would not have been committed if not for the influence of the game clock – was so aggressive that it sparked a bench-clearing confrontation
  • February 10 (2OT) Washington at Oregon State: a two-minute review reset 0.1 to 0.3 after clock failed to stop immediately following Oregon State made three-pointer; this was a true buzzerkill – Oregon State initially thought they had made a walk-off shot, sparking a celebration that was immediately squashed, as officials dutifully ran out on the court, blowing whistles and demanding that everyone stop celebrating so they could conduct a review that only served to drain excitement and delay the inevitable
  • February 15 Tulsa at Connecticut: a five-minute review reset 1:13 to 54.0 after officials discovered that game clock had mysteriously frozen at 1:49 for 19 seconds

INTERMINABLE FINAL STAGES
The final minute of ten NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods lasted ten actual minutes or longer, including:

  • January 17 Nuggets at Clippers: 10:59 (zero made field goals)
  • February 14 Warriors at Trailblazers: 11:34 (0)

The final minute of 11 NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods lasted ten actual minutes or longer, including:

  • January 25 South Florida at Tulane: 15:49 (5)
  • January 26 Saint Peter’s at Rider: 11:30 (0)
  • February 5 Southern at Jackson State: 13:28 (0)

UNCEREMONIOUS ENDINGS
The final moment of a given basketball game usually falls into one of five categories:

  • 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 58 sampled NBA games and 100 sampled NCAA games ended in the following ways…

NBA NCAA
Meaningful Made Basket 2 (3.4%) 1 (1.0%)
Unsuccessful Meaningful Possession 4 (6.9%) 10 (10.0%)
Meaningless Shot Attempt 7 (12.1%) 19 (19.0%)
Leading Player Stalls 37 (63.8%) 63 (63.0%)
Trailing Player Stalls 8 (13.8%) 7 (7.0%)

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 a 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)

Three overtime periods were played in sampled NBA games, and can be categorized as follows:

  • Ending of overtime period failed to match the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 2, including:
    • February 8: Wizards did not have possession within three points of lead for final 2:08 of overtime, en route to six-point loss vs. Celtics
  • Ending of overtime period managed to match the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 0
  • Ending of overtime period exceeded the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 1

Nine overtime periods were played in sampled NCAA games, and can be categorized as follows:

  • Ending of overtime period failed to match the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 4
  • Ending of overtime period managed to match the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 4
  • Ending of overtime period exceeded the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 1

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 two uncontested field goals during sampled games. Leading NCAA teams allowed at least 15 uncontested field goals 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 five periods – essentially punishing the trailing team for having committed too few fouls earlier in the period! – including:

  • January 16 (OT): Celtics’ first deliberate foul did not send Pelicans to the free throw line; time expired before Celtics could foul after ensuing inbounds pass

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 nine periods, including:

  • January 18: Murray State’s first three deliberate fouls did not send Belmont to the free throw line; needed to spend extra 10.7 seconds to send Belmont to the free throw line
  • January 21: Wake Forest’s first two deliberate fouls did not send Virginia to the free throw line; needed to spend extra 19 seconds to send Virginia to the free throw line
  • February 15: Connecticut’s first deliberate foul did not send Tulsa to the free throw line; unable to foul after ensuing inbounds pass before Tulsa scored breakaway lay-up

While the fouls-to-give phenomenon disadvantages trailing teams, leading teams can use fouls-to-give to their advantage (by forcing a trailing offense to restart a late possession after exhausting a few valuable seconds) – making late deficits more difficult still to overcome.

FOULOUTS
During sampled games, four NBA players committed a sixth foul deliberately and/or in overtime. 11 NCAA players committed a fifth foul deliberately and/or in overtime.

ROLLED INBOUNDS PASSES
During sampled games, trailing NCAA offenses rolled at least 42 inbounds passes in an effort to conserve time (in one additional instance, a team rolled an inbounds pass while tied), including in the following eyebrow-raising situations:

  • January 30: Arkansas, trailing by 19 points with 43.9 seconds remaining, at Texas A&M
  • February 14: Oklahoma State, trailing by 12 points with 4.2 seconds remaining, vs. Kansas State

VACATING THE FREE THROW LANE
During sampled games, leading NCAA offenses vacated the foul lane in 72 instances during the last free throw attempt of a trip, for fear of committing a clock-stopping foul during a rebound attempt. Curiously, four teams also vacated the lane while trailing in four different instances, and two teams also vacated the lane while tied.

LET’S GET OUT OF HERE!

  • January 20 TCU at Kansas State: Restless Kansas State fans booed after TCU refused to concede, by fouling deliberately with 1.6 seconds remaining
  • January 23 Texas A&M at LSU: Restless LSU fans booed after Texas A&M refused to concede, by fouling deliberately with 26.4 seconds remaining
  • February 10 Texas Tech at Kansas State: Officials ignore clear Texas Tech traveling violation in closing seconds while running out the clock
  • February 11 Illinois State at Valparaiso: On Valparaiso possession that began with deadball inbounds pass while leading by 16 points with 31.4 seconds remaining, as Valparaiso player walked the ball up court, official talked to Illinois State coach (perhaps to ask if it would be all right to turn off the shot clock), then went to scorer’s table and heroically requested shot clock be turned off (which it was, with approximately 17 seconds remaining)

And finally…

  • February 5 Southern at Jackson State: Game clock remained at 10.7 for over seven full minutes:
    • Southern foul on Jackson State three-point attempt (Southern leads 65-59)
    • Jackson State makes three free throws (Southern leads 65-62)
    • Jackson State timeout
    • Southern throws errant inbounds pass that goes out of bounds without being touched
    • Officials conduct replay review to reset game clock to 10.7, which had started to run mistakenly on the inbounds pass thrown out of bounds without being touched
    • Jackson State timeout
    • Jackson State called for illegal screen before making inbounds pass
    • Officials conduct replay review to reset game clock to 10.7, which had started to run mistakenly on the inbounds play that was whistled dead on the illegal screen call
    • Jackson State commits deliberate foul before Southern makes inbounds pass
    • Southern makes two free throws (Southern leads 67-62)
    • Jackson State rolls inbounds pass before starting ensuing possession