BAD TIMING: REDUCING TIMEOUTS JUST AIN’T ENOUGH

December 16, 2017
Nicholas Patrick, Ph.D.

Over the years, the NBA and NCAA have enacted measures (some of which have come and gone) acknowledging that the late stages of games are too drawn-out and predictable, including:

  • Backcourt violations (of two types) as a way to limit a team’s space with which to employ a keep-away offense
  • Following late made free throws with a jump ball (rather than automatically granting possession to the fouling team)
  • Introducing a shot clock (and later reducing the time allotment on the shot clock)
  • Imposing an individual per-quarter foul limit

The NBA and NCAA have further acknowledged the unpalatable pace of late-game play through recent restrictions on timeouts. Leading into the 2015-2016 season, the NCAA reduced the number of timeouts available to each team from five to four. Leading into the 2017-2018 season, the NBA reduced the number of timeouts available to each team during the last two minutes from three to two.

Still, the NBA will continue to suffer from a timeout problem as long as it attaches a tangible incentive (advancing the ball to the frontcourt) to calling a timeout. And reducing the number of available timeouts certainly doesn’t address the many late-game flaws directly attributable to the influence of the game clock. Learn more here about a hybrid duration format (Elam Ending) that would eliminate or alleviate all of the late-game flaws attributable to basketball’s game clock.

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 73 nationally-televised NBA games played October 17, 2017 – December 10, 2017 (two of these games proceeded to overtime, so 75 total 4th quarter/overtime periods are considered), and each of the 56 NCAA men’s games televised live by ESPNU from November 10, 2017 – December 10, 2017 (two of these games proceeded to overtime, so 58 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 27 of the 75 sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods, and trailing NCAA teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 28 of the 58 sampled 2nd half/overtime periods.

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

NBA NCAA
Counterproductive 23 (85.2%) 21 (75.0%)
Futile 3 (11.1%) 6 (21.4%)
Partially Successful 1 (3.7%) 0 (0.0%)
Completely Successful 0 (0.0%) 1 (3.6%)

STALLING
Leading NBA teams stalled in the overwhelming majority of the 75 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. Only one (1.3%) of the sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods was truly stalling-free:

  • November 24: Hornets at Cavaliers

Two (3.4%) of the 58 sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods were truly stalling-free:

  • November 23: Rhode Island vs. Seton Hall (NIT Tip-Off Semifinal in Brooklyn)
  • November 26 (OT): Saint Mary’s vs. Georgia (Wooden Legacy Third Place Game in Fullerton)

In eight instances, a leading NBA team willingly accepted a shot clock violation while stalling in the closing seconds. In two instances, a leading NCAA team 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 ten of the sampled NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods ended with a possession that could have tied or won the game. None of those possessions was converted (on zero points per possession):

  • October 17: Celtics’ Kyrie Irving airballs double-pump three-pointer at Cavaliers
  • October 17: Time expires before Warriors’ Kevin Durant can attempt baseline two-point jumper vs. Rockets
  • October 25 (4Q): Wizards’ Bradley Beal misses catch-and-shoot fallaway three-pointer off back of rim at Lakers
  • October 25 (OT): Wizards’ John Wall misses double-pump three-pointer off back of rim at Lakers
  • October 27: Wizards’ Jodie Meeks airballs catch-and-shoot corner three-pointer at Warriors
  • November 2: Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma misses catch-and-shoot three-pointer off front of rim at Trailblazers
  • November 17: Thunder’s Russell Westbrook airballs three-pointer while falling to ground at Spurs
  • November 24: Hornets’ Kemba Walker airballs deep three-pointer at Cavaliers
  • November 29 (4Q): Lakers’ Brandon Ingram misses driving lay-up off backboard and rim vs. Warriors
  • December 7: 76ers’ Richaun Holmes misses three-pointer over top of backboard vs. Lakers

Nine of the sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods ended with a possession that could have tied or won the game. None of those possessions was converted (on zero points per possession):

  • November 12: Tennessee-Martin’s Matthew Butler airballs catch-and-shoot halfcourt shot at Illinois
  • November 16: UTEP’s Keith Frazier misses halfcourt shot off backboard and rim vs. Boise State (Puerto Rico Tip-Off Quarterfinal in Myrtle Beach)
  • November 20: Time expires before Michigan’s Moritz Wagner can attempt putback vs. LSU (Maui Invitational Quarterfinal)
  • November 23: Seton Hall’s Khadeen Carrington fumbles ball on fullcourt drive to basket vs. Rhode Island (NIT Tip-Off Semifinal in Brooklyn)
  • November 24: Time expires before Portland State’s Bryce Canda can attempt halfcourt shot vs. Butler (PK80 Consolation Round in Portland)
  • November 24 (4Q): Oregon’s Elijah Brown airballs no-look, behind-the-back shot while falling to the ground along baseline moving away from the basket vs. DePaul (PK80 Consolation Round in Portland)
  • November 26: Central Florida’s Dayon Griffin misses three-pointer vs. Saint John’s (AdvoCare Invitational Third Place Game in Orlando)
  • November 26 (4Q): Time expires before Georgia’s Tyree Crump can attempt three-quarter-court heave vs. Saint Mary’s (Wooden Legacy Third Place Game in Fullerton)
  • December 3: Alabama’s John Petty misses catch-and-shoot turnaround corner three-pointer vs. Central Florida

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 four of 23 (17.4%) such possessions (on 0.65 points per possession), and NCAA teams converted only three of 20 (15.0%) such possessions (on 0.50 points per possession).

CONCEDING
Trailing NBA teams conceded 56 of 73 sampled games (76.7%) 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 six instances when a team conceded while trailing by six points or fewer.

Trailing NCAA teams conceded 37 of 56 sampled games (66.1%) 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 three 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 75 sampled NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods included six clock reviews/errors/malfunctions, including:

  • October 17 Rockets at Warriors: ruled that Warriors’ Kevin Durant buzzer-beater attempt – which had initially been ruled good – was released after time expired; MAJOR buzzerkill!)

The final four minutes of all 58 sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods included four clock reviews/errors/malfunctions.

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

The final minute of three NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods lasted ten actual minutes or longer.

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 73 sampled NBA games and 56 sampled NCAA games ended in the following ways…

NBA NCAA
Meaningful Made Basket 0 (0.0%) 0 (0.0%)
Unsuccessful Meaningful Possession 8 (11.0%) 7 (12.5%)
Meaningless Shot Attempt 10 (13.7%) 11 (19.6%)
Leading Player Stalls 45 (61.6%) 36 (64.3%)
Trailing Player Stalls 10 (13.7%) 2 (3.6%)

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)

Two 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: 1
  • Ending of overtime period managed to match the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 1
  • Ending of overtime period exceeded the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 0

Two 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: 2
  • 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: 0

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 11 uncontested field goals during sampled games. Leading NCAA teams allowed at least 12 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!

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

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. One leading NBA team used a foul-to-give to its advantage during sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods; no leading NCAA teams did so during sampled 2nd half/overtime periods.

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

ROLLED INBOUNDS PASSES
During sampled games, trailing NCAA offenses rolled at least 25 inbounds passes in an effort to conserve time, including in the following eyebrow-raising situations:

  • November 17: Indiana State, trailing by 18 points with 1:51 remaining and the clock running, vs. Old Dominion (Charleston Classic Consolation Round)
  • November 19: Tulsa, trailing by 16 points with 45.6 seconds remaining, vs. Illinois State (Puerto Rico Tip-Off Third Place Game in Myrtle Beach)
  • November 22: California, trailing by 27 points with 2.1 seconds remaining, vs. Chaminade (Maui Invitational Seventh Place Game)
  • November 23: Oregon, trailing by eight points with 2.2 seconds remaining, vs. Connecticut (PK80 Quarterfinal in Portland)

VACATING THE FREE THROW LANE
During sampled games, leading NCAA offenses vacated the foul lane in 35 instances during the last free throw attempt of a trip, for fear of committing a clock-stopping foul during a rebound attempt. Curiously, Oregon State also vacated the lane while trailing by five points with 1:01 remaining vs. Saint John’s (AdvoCare Invitational Quarterfinal in Orlando)

LET’S GET OUT OF HERE!

  • October 26: In closing seconds while trailing by seven points, Bucks’ Malcolm Brogdon made halfhearted attempt to foul vs. Celtics, but referees did not bother with calling a foul
  • November 24 (OT): Crowd booed loudly after DePaul committed third straight deliberate foul with 16.8 seconds remaining vs. Oregon (PK80 Consolation Round in Portland)
  • November 29: Crowd booed loudly after Penn State committed fourth straight deliberate foul with four seconds remaining at North Carolina State
  • December 9: Heat were set to inbound ball, leading by 12 points with 25.0 seconds remaining vs. Nets (in Global Games in Mexico City); early in the possession, shot clock operator turned off shot clock and Heat held ball until final buzzer