December 3, 2015
The 2015-2016 NBA and NCAA basketball seasons are off to great starts. But the sport could be even greater, if it were to adopt a hybrid duration format, as I propose here. By doing so, basketball would eliminate each of the ways the game clock warps late-game quality, style, and pace of play:
This particular sample includes each of the 51 nationally-televised NBA games played in October/November 2015 (none of these games proceeded to overtime, so only the 51 4th quarters are considered), and each of the 38 NCAA men’s games televised by ESPNU during November 2015 (two of these games proceeded to overtime, so 40 total 2nd half/overtime periods are considered)
Trailing NBA teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 20 of the 51 sampled 4th quarters. 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; 16/20 (80.0%)
- Futile: fouling team ends same period with a deficit narrower than its original deficit, but still trailing (and losing, necessarily); 4/20 (20.0%) (specific games/periods shown below)
- Partially Successful: fouling team ends same period in a tie with its opponent, forcing overtime (or an additional overtime); 0/20 (0.0%)
- Completely Successful: fouling team ends same period with the lead (and the win, necessarily); 0/20 (0.0%)
- 11/3: Heat, vs. Hawks
- 11/6: Kings*, vs. Rockets
- 11/13: Nets, at Kings
- 11/21: Pistons, vs. Wizards
*Inclusion of this game in this list is somewhat misleading. Kings did not only rely on traditional deliberate fouling (usually seen in the final minute of a game, when trailing team fouls ballhandler – whoever it might be – out of desperation to stop the clock), but also employed Hack-a-Player strategy (with more than two minutes remaining, deliberately committing off-the-ball fouls against the Rockets’ especially-poor-free-throw-shooting Clint Capela). As a side note, a hybrid duration format would directly eliminate traditional deliberate fouling (because eliminating the game clock late in games would eliminate the primary incentive for committing such fouls) and could indirectly eliminate Hack-a-Player fouls (because officials could then realistically be empowered to call such fouls by the book – as flagrant fouls)
Trailing NCAA teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 16 of the 40 sampled 2nd half/overtime periods.
- Counterproductive: 14/16 (87.5%)
- Futile: 2/16 (12.5%) (specific games/periods shown below)
- Partially Successful: 0/16 (0.0%)
- Completely Successful: 0/16 (0.0%)
- 11/25: Chaminade, vs. St. John’s (in Maui)
- 11/27: USC, vs. Xavier (in Orlando)
Leading NBA teams stalled in the overwhelming majority of the 51 sampled 4th quarters. In many other games, the leading team was deliberately fouled before it had the chance to stall. And in all 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 quarters was truly stalling-free
In only one of the 40 sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods (2.5%) did circumstances align to allow a truly stalling-free period:
- 11/20: George Mason vs. Oklahoma State (in Charleston)
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 three of the sampled NBA 4th quarters ended with a possession that could have tied or won the game. None of those possessions was converted:
- 10/27: Cavaliers’ Mo Williams’ inbounds pass from baseline tipped away by Bulls’ Jimmy Butler
- 10/28: Lakers’ Lou Williams misses floating runner off back of rim vs. Timberwolves
- 11/21: Pistons’ Marcus Morris’s stepback contested three-pointer falls short of rim vs. Wizards
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:
- 11/16: Tennessee’s Devon Baulkman misses three-pointer from hash mark off bottom of opposite side of backboard at Georgia Tech
- 11/20 (2nd half): George Mason’s Otis Livingston II misses contested three-pointer from hash mark vs. Oklahoma State (in Charleston)
- 11/20 (OT): Oklahoma State’s Tyree Griffin stripped while rising to attempt deep three-pointer vs. George Mason (in Charleston)
- 11/24 (2nd half): LSU’s Antonio Blakeney misses catch-and-shoot deep three-pointer off front of rim at North Carolina State
- 11/25: High Point’s Anthony Lindauer misses three-pointer from hash mark off front of rim at Georgia
- 11/26: Notre Dame’s Demetrius Jackson misses halfcourt shot off top of backboard vs. Monmouth (in Orlando)
- 11/27: Arkansas’ Dusty Hannahs misses shot from beyond halfcourt vs. Stanford (in Brooklyn)
- 11/29: Notre Dame’s Demetrius Jackson misses lay-up off side of rim vs. Alabama (in Orlando)
- 11/30: Rutgers’ D.J. Foreman’s three-quarter-court heave falls short of basket vs. Wake Forest
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 zero of ten such possessions, and NCAA teams converted only three of 19 such possessions (15.8%).
Trailing NBA teams conceded 44 of 51 sampled games (86.3%) 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).
Trailing NCAA teams conceded 25 of 38 sampled games (65.8%) 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 two especially striking concessions:
- 11/5: Thunder concede while trailing by six points with 32 seconds remaining at the Bulls
- 11/20: Mississippi State concedes while trailing by two points vs. Texas Tech (in Puerto Rico)
Such close games would never be conceded under a hybrid format.
The final four minutes of all 40 sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods included two clock reviews and at least one clock error:
- 11/26 Evansville/Providence (in Anaheim): With 55.4 seconds remaining, Providence inbounded the ball from its own baseline. The Friars sought to stall to protect a 12-point lead, and a clock error (that was never reviewed) helped their cause, as the shot clock did not start until 7+ seconds had elapsed off the game clock. Well, the error sorta helped Providence’s cause, that is. This clock-attributable concern, which would have seemed to aid Providence’s unsightly clock-attributable stalling approach, was alleviated because Evansville took the more acquiescent approach of their own two unappealing clock-attributable choices – the Purple Aces conceded the game, rather than committing a deliberate foul.
INTERMINABLE FINAL STAGES
The final minute of the following 4th quarter/2nd half/overtime periods lasted ten actual minutes or longer. Not only were the final stages of these periods long, but they were boring, as indicated by the measly number of field goals made (ya know, that fundamental feat that draws us to the game!) during that time, shown in parentheses:
- 11/4 Clippers at Warriors: 15 (1*)
- 11/6 Heat at Pacers: 12 (2)
- 11/13 Nets at Kings: 19 (3)
- 11/19 Long Beach State vs. Seton Hall (in Charleston): 11 (1)
- 11/22 Oklahoma State vs. Long Beach State (in Charleston): 13 (0)
- 11/30 Wake Forest at Rutgers: 11 (1)
*Even this field goal was uncontested
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 51 sampled NBA games and 38 sampled NCAA games ended in the following ways…
Meaningful Made Basket: 0 (0.0%)
Unsuccessful Meaningful Possession: 3 (5.9%)
Meaningless Shot Attempt: 6 (11.8%)
Leading Player Stalls: 34 (66.7%)
Trailing Player Stalls: 8 (15.7%)
Meaningful Made Basket: 0 (0.0%)
Unsuccessful Meaningful Possession: 7 (18.4%)
Meaningless Shot Attempt: 7 (18.4%)
Leading Player Stalls: 23 (60.5%)
Trailing Player Stalls: 1 (2.6%)
…and included two exceedingly awkward endings:
- 10/29 Hawks at Knicks: Atlanta, holding an 11-point lead, mercifully dribbled out the clock…or at least they thought so, and the Knicks thought so, and the timekeeper thought so, as the game clock had run down to zeroes. However, the official heroically called a shot clock violation and restored 0.1 seconds to the clock
- 11/4 Knicks at Cavaliers: Cleveland, holding a 10-point lead, mercifully dribbled out the clock…or at least they thought so, and the Knicks thought so, and the timekeeper thought so, as the game clock had run down to zeroes. However, the official heroically called a shot clock violation and restored 0.2 seconds to the clock
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)
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: 1
- 11/24 LSU vs. North Carolina State (in Brooklyn): 2nd half ended with unsuccessful meaningful possession; overtime ended with meaningless possession (for the final 43.0 seconds, LSU never had possession while within three points of the lead)
- Ending of overtime period managed to match the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 1
- 11/20 George Mason vs. Oklahoma State (in Charleston): 2nd half ended with unsuccessful meaningful possession; overtime ended with unsuccessful meaningful possession
- 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/2nd half/earlier overtime period that was, by definition, as competitive as can be.
Leading NBA teams allowed at least four uncontested field goals during sampled games. Leading NCAA teams allowed at least nine 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 disadvantage its opponent with an extremely unfavorable ensuing final shot.
No NBA team, and no trailing NCAA team, intentionally missed a free throw during any of the sampled games. One leading NCAA team employed the strategy, and employed it effectively (adding yet another clock-attributable advantage to an already long list enjoyed by leading teams, making late leads disproportionately safe – and making the outcome of close games unappealingly predictable):
- 11/30 Wake Forest at Rutgers: With 1.4 seconds remaining, leading by one point, Wake Forest intentionally missed a free throw, and effectively forced Rutgers into a hopeless buzzer beater heave
During the final three minutes of sampled NBA 4th quarters, 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 four 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 one period.
During sampled games, three NBA players committed a sixth foul deliberately, and four NCAA players committed a fifth foul deliberately and/or in overtime. (This does not include players who fouled out while committing a legitimate foul, after committing at least one deliberate foul earlier in period.):
- 11/17: Raptors’ Kyle Lowry, at Warriors
- 11/18: Pelicans’ Dante Cunningham, at Thunder
- 11/19: Minnesota’s Nate Mason, vs. Temple (in San Juan)
- 11/20: Bulls’ Kirk Hinrich, at Warriors
- 11/22: Temple’s Obi Enechionyia, vs. Utah (in San Juan)
- 11/22: Long Beach State’s Justin Bibbins, vs. Oklahoma State (in Charleston)
- 11/24 (OT): LSU’s Ben Simmons, vs. North Carolina State (in Brooklyn)
UNSIGHTLY STRATEGIES, ETC.
During sampled games, trailing NCAA offenses rolled 11 inbounds passes, including in at least two especially bleak situations:
- 11/22: Harvard, trailing by 11 points with 33.6 seconds remaining, at Boston College
- 11/22: Stanford, trailing by 20 points with 16.6 seconds remaining, at Saint Mary’s
During sampled games, leading NCAA offenses also vacated the foul lane in ten instances during the last free throw attempt of a trip.
In so many ways, the quality, style, and pace of play suffers and warps during the late stages of basketball games. In so many ways, ball don’t comply. By simply abandoning the game clock at just the right juncture of every game, basketball could preserve a familiar and palatable quality, style, and pace of play through the conclusion of every game.