BALL DON’T COMPLY: A CAREER-DEFINING CHAMPIONSHIP DESERVES A CAREER-DEFINING MOMENT

June 20, 2016
Nicholas Patrick

Wow. Hats off to LeBron James.

He did it. He delivered on his promise to win a championship for Cleveland, and did it with style – winning Finals MVP while leading the first team ever to overcome a 3-games-to-1 Finals deficit, against the first team ever to win 73 or more regular season games. After temporary stints as hero and villain, LeBron has secured permanent Legend status in Cleveland, his hometown of Akron, and all of northeast Ohio.

Years from now, Cavaliers fans will remember the sight and sound of the precise moment when the 2016 championship was secured, when Kyrie Irving broke an 89-89 Game 7 tie against the Warriors by making a three-pointer with 53.0 seconds remaining.

Or was it when LeBron rebounded a missed Steph Curry three-pointer, with the Cavaliers leading 92-89 with about 31 seconds remaining?
Or was it when LeBron made a free throw to give the Cavaliers a 93-89 lead with 10.6 seconds remaining?
Or was it when Steph Curry missed a three-pointer off the back of the rim, with the Cavaliers leading 93-89 with 3.5 seconds remaining?
Or was it when time expired, while Marreese Speights’ retreating, rushed, meaningless (and ultimately unsuccessful) three-pointer floated through the air?

Hmm. Like many championship basketball games, Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals doesn’t have that single, true, defining moment. And that’s a shame, because the sport of basketball could easily guarantee such a moment by adopting the hybrid duration format described here.

This is such a missed opportunity. So many sports and sports leagues are designed to deliver The Moment, primarily through the concept of playoffs. Leagues pursue The Moment at the risk of crowning a team other than the best. (I happen to believe The Moment is worth this risk, although I believe many playoffs are too inclusive – NBA Playoffs/NHL Playoffs/college basketball conference tournaments are way too inclusive; NFL Playoffs/MLB Playoffs are slightly too inclusive; on the other hand, the FBS College Football Playoff isn’t inclusive enough.)

There are some exceptions – for example, the English Premier League carries on without a playoff. The EPL always crowns a deserving champion – its regular season champion, but leaves itself vulnerable to the absence of The Moment. Leicester City happened to clinch its historic 2015-2016 EPL title…on an off-day.

But The Moment is the reason many sports have playoffs. MLB’s playoffs, combined with its requirement that games end with an accomplishment, guarantees The Moment.

Any tennis tournament, combined with its requirement that matches end with an accomplishment, guarantees The Moment. We even see finalists, with virtually no chance of winning, play through injury so their opponent can enjoy The Moment.

For many years, NASCAR had only a regular season. But pursuit of The Moment compelled NASCAR to adopt a playoff in 2004. NASCAR revised the format again in 2014 to ensure the championship would be decided with the final race, guaranteeing The Moment when the checkered flag waves.

The NFL, NHL, and college football have playoffs to increase the likelihood of The Moment. This effect is counteracted somewhat because most games are not required to end with an accomplishment, but the sporadic, infrequent scoring in these sports works to deliver lasting, memorable moments.

And then there’s basketball. Instead of simply crowning an NBA regular season champion or college conference/national champion, basketball pursues The Moment through playoffs and tournaments. I support that philosophy, but basketball saddles itself with a uniquely troublesome combination. The sport has a fluid nature, frequent scoring, and no requirement that games end with an accomplishment. Because of this, basketball is especially vulnerable to missing The Moment, and letting all specific memories – of even the most highly-anticipated and/or highly-competitive games – slip away over time.

Under my proposed hybrid duration format, the game clock would have been abandoned in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals with the score tied, 89-89. The first team to reach 96 points would have won the game and the championship, and would have sealed it with a Moment we would remember forever – perhaps, even, LeBron’s career-defining moment.

Basketball’s game clock affects the sport detrimentally in other ways. This particular sample includes each of the 86 NBA Playoff games played in 2016 (five of these games proceeded to overtime, so 91 total 4th quarter/overtime periods are considered)

DELIBERATE FOULING
Trailing NBA teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 37 of the 91 Playoff 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; 32/37 (86.5%)
  • šFutile: fouling team ends same period with a deficit narrower than its original deficit, but still trailing (and losing, necessarily); 4/37 (10.8%)
  • šPartially Successful: fouling team ends same period in a tie with its opponent, forcing overtime (or an additional overtime); 1/37 (2.7%) (specific game/period shown below)
  • šCompletely Successful: fouling team ends same period with the lead (and the win, necessarily); 0/37 (0.0%)
  • May 3 (4Q) (Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 1): Raptors, vs. Heat

These foul-a-thons included the following noteworthy instances:

  • May 6 (Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 3): Hawks’ Jeff Teague used the deliberate-fouling practice as an opportunity to shoulder-check the Cavaliers’ LeBron James into the crowd behind the baseline
  • May 10 (Western Conference Semifinals Game 5): Spurs’ attempts to deliberately foul Thunder were not initially acknowledged by officials, costing them precious seconds and leading to an and-1 opportunity for the Thunder

A hybrid format would eliminate such open season for committing hard fouls, and eliminate the challenge of officiating such an unnatural style of play.

STALLING
Leading NBA teams stalled in the overwhelming majority of the 91 NBA Playoff 4th quarter/overtime periods. In many other games, the leading team was deliberately fouled before it had the chance to stall. And in nearly all of the remaining instances, the trailing team overtly conceded the game before the leading team would have normally considered stalling. No NBA Playoff 4th quarter/overtime period was truly stalling-free.

In 13 instances, leading NBA Playoff teams willingly accepted a shot clock violation 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 12 NBA Playoff 4th quarter/overtime periods ended with a possession that could have tied or won the game. Only one of those possessions (8.3%) was converted (on 0.25 points per possession):

  • April 16 (Eastern Conference First Round Game 1): Time expires before Celtics’ Marcus Smart can attempt three-quarter-court heave at Hawks
  • April 18 (Western Conference First Round Game 2): Time expires before Thunder’s Steven Adams can attempt putback vs. Mavericks (shot was initially ruled good before being overturned after review)
  • April 24 (4Q) (Eastern Conference First Round Game 4): Time expires before Hawks’ Jeff Teague can jump, catch fumbled ball in air, and attempt three-pointer all in one motion at Celtics
  • April 24 (Eastern Conference First Round Game 4): Pistons’ Reggie Jackson misses leaning three-pointer off front of rim vs. Cavaliers
  • April 26 (Eastern Conference First Round Game 5): Time expires before Pacers’ Solomon Hill can attempt three-pointer at Raptors (shot was initially ruled good before being overturned after review)
  • April 29 (Western Conference First Round Game 6): Clippers’ Austin Rivers airballs halfcourt shot at Trailblazers
  • May 2 (Western Conference Semifinals Game 2): Spurs’ Patty Mills misses three-pointer off side of rim vs. Thunder
  • May 3 (4Q) (Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 1): Raptors’ Kyle Lowry makes halfcourt shot vs. Heat
  • May 5 (4Q) (Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 2): Raptors’ Kyle Lowry airballs stepback three-pointer vs. Heat
  • May 8 (Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 4): Time expires before Hawks’ Paul Millsap can attempt two-point jumper vs. Cavaliers
  • May 9 (4Q) (Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 4): Raptors’ Cory Joseph misses fadeaway two-point jumper at Heat
  • May 9 (4Q) (Western Conference Semifinals Game 4): Warriors’ Draymond Green misses tip-in off back of rim at Trailblazers

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 23 (26.1%) such possessions (on 0.61 points per possession).

CONCEDING
Trailing NBA teams conceded 68 of 86 Playoff 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 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 three instances when a team conceded while trailing by six points or fewer.

CLOCK CONTROVERSIES
The final three minutes of all 91 NBA Playoff 4th quarter/overtime periods included four clock reviews/errors/malfunctions, including two instances of the dreaded buzzerkill, where a game-tying/game-winning shot that was initially ruled good was overturned after review.

INTERMINABLE FINAL STAGES
The final minute of 11 NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods lasted ten actual minutes or longer, including the following noteworthy instances:

  • April 21 (Western Conference First Round Game 3): Warriors at Rockets: 13 minutes (2 made field goals)
  • April 22 (Eastern Conference First Round Game 3): Cavaliers at Pistons: 13 minutes (1)
  • April 23 (Western Conference First Round Game 4): Thunder at Mavericks: 11 minutes (1)
  • April 26 (Eastern Conference First Round Game 5): Pacers at Raptors: 11 minutes (1)

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 86 NBA Playoff games ended in the following ways…
Meaningful Made Basket: 0 (0.0%)
Unsuccessful Meaningful Possession: 7 (8.1%)
Meaningless Shot Attempt: 10 (11.6%)
Leading Player Stalls: 49 (57.0%)
Trailing Player Stalls: 20 (23.3%)

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)

Five overtime periods were played during the 2016 NBA Playoffs, and can be categorized as follows:

  • Ending of overtime period failed to match the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 5
  • 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

A closer look:

  • April 24 (Eastern Conference First Round Game 4): Hawks never had possession within three points of Celtics for final 1:54 of overtime
  • May 5 (Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 2): Heat never had possession within three points of Raptors for final 2:47 of overtime
  • May 9 (Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 4): Raptors never had possession within three points of Heat for final 3:16 of overtime
  • May 9 (Western Conference Semifinals Game 4): Trailblazers never had possession within three points of Warriors for final 1:59 of overtime

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

UNCONTESTED SHOTS
Leading NBA teams allowed at least 16 uncontested field goals during Playoff games

FOULS-TO-GIVE DISADVANTAGE
During the final three minutes of NBA Playoff 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 11 periods, essentially punishing the trailing team for having committed too few fouls earlier in the period! This includes a few especially noteworthy instances when the fouls-to-give disadvantage might have made the difference in the game:

  • April 18 (Western Conference First Round Game 2): Thunder initially fouled Mavericks deliberately while trailing by one point with 7.5 seconds remaining. Because Mavericks were not yet in the bonus, Thunder had to spend an extra 0.4 seconds in order to commit another deliberate foul and finally send Mavericks to the free throw line. Thunder later lost when a would-be game-winning Steven Adams putback was released a fraction of a second after the buzzer!
  • April 27 (Eastern Conference First Round Game 5): Heat initially fouled Hornets deliberately while trailing by two points with 2.6 seconds remaining. Because Hornets were not yet in the bonus, time expired before Heat were able to commit another deliberate foul to send Hornets to the free throw line!
  • June 19 (NBA Finals Game 7): Warriors initially fouled Cavaliers deliberately while trailing by three points with 18.7 seconds remaining. Because Cavaliers were not yet in the bonus, Warriors had to spend an extra 8.1 seconds in order to commit another deliberate foul and finally send Cavaliers to the free throw line. That time would have come in handy in a game decided by four points!

FOULOUTS
During NBA Playoff games, three players committed a sixth foul deliberately and/or in overtime:

  • April 16 (Eastern Conference First Round Game 1): Celtics’ Jared Sullinger, at Hawks
  • May 12 (Western Conference Semifinals Game 6): Spurs’ Manu Ginobili, at Thunder
  • June 10 (NBA Finals Game 4): Cavaliers’ Richard Jefferson, vs. Warriors

UNSIGHTLY STRATEGIES, ETC.
During the NBA Playoffs, one trailing team intentionally missed a free throw during the late stages of a game:

  • April 22 (Eastern Conference First Round Game 3): Pistons, trailing by nine points with 22.9 seconds remaining, vs. Cavaliers; immediately unsuccessful (no offensive rebound), ultimately unsuccessful (did not overcome deficit)
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