January 1, 2016
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.
Now, trailing teams have found a way to slightly counteract that disadvantage – a most undignified way, that is. In the somewhat rare instances when the trailing team attempt a free throw late in a game, one of the trailing players – while the free throw is in midair – will literally jump on the back of a would-be rebounder on the leading team to commit a foul. Such piggyback fouling is more appealing (relative to traditional deliberate fouling) to trailing teams for two main reasons – the trailing team gets to handpick who they’d like to foul and no time runs off the clock. Also, if the free throw is made by the trailing team, it still counts, even though the trailing team commits a foul during the shot. Furthermore, the leading team is not protected by the NBA’s late-game off-the-ball-foul rules (“Hack-a-Shaq” rules, which allow the fouled team to attempt one free throw and retain possession) in such a situation.
On December 25, the Cavaliers’ Matthew Dellavedova jumped on the Warriors’ Andre Iguodala’s back while the Cavs attempted a free throw while trailing with 20.3 seconds remaining, and jumped on the Warriors’ Draymond Green’s back while the Cavs attempted a free throw while trailing with 8.2 seconds remaining. Ultimately, the strategy proved ineffective, and the Warriors’ four-point lead was just too much to overcome as they went on to win, 99-93. But the strategy certainly caught ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy’s attention: “Can you imagine, that we think this is okay?…It’s great strategy; it’s awful basketball. It should be eliminated. I’m waiting for the leadership to determine that’s absurd.”
Read here for more about a hybrid duration format that would eliminate all types of deliberate fouling (including piggyback fouling), and would make late comebacks much more common.
Consider a number of ways basketball’s current format warps late-game quality, style, and pace of play:
This particular sample includes each of the 44 nationally-televised NBA games played in December 2015 (three of these games proceeded to overtime, so 47 total 4th quarter/overtime periods are considered), and each of the 60 NCAA men’s games televised by ESPNU during December 2015 (five of these games proceeded to overtime, so 65 total 2nd half/overtime periods are considered)
Trailing NBA teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 27 of the 47 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; 19/27 (70.4%)
- Futile: fouling team ends same period with a deficit narrower than its original deficit, but still trailing (and losing, necessarily); 6/27 (22.2%)
- Partially Successful: fouling team ends same period in a tie with its opponent, forcing overtime (or an additional overtime); 2/27 (7.4%) (specific games/periods shown below)
- Completely Successful: fouling team ends same period with the lead (and the win, necessarily); 0/27 (0.0%)
- 12/1 (4Q) Mavericks, at Trailblazers
- 12/4 (4Q) Pelicans, vs. Cavaliers
Trailing NCAA teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 22 of the 65 sampled 2nd half/overtime periods.
- Counterproductive: 20/22 (90.9%)
- Futile: 1/22 (4.5%)
- Partially Successful: 1/22 (4.5%) (specific game/period shown below)
- Completely Successful: 0/22 (0.0%)
- 12/22 (2H) Oakland, vs. Michigan State (in Detroit), before losing in overtime
Leading NBA teams stalled in the overwhelming majority of the 47 sampled 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. Only one of the sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods (2.1%) was truly stalling-free:
- 12/21 Thunder at Clippers
In only one of the 65 sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods (1.5%) did circumstances align to allow a truly stalling-free period:
- 12/5: Providence at Rhode Island
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 eight 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:
- 12/1 (4Q) Trailblazers’ Damian Lillard misses stepback three-pointer off back of rim vs. Mavericks
- 12/3 Thunder’s Russell Westbrook misses leaning, contested three-pointer high off backboard at Heat
- 12/4 (4Q) Cavaliers’ Richard Jefferson unable to attempt fallaway jumper before time expires at Pelicans
- 12/9 Mavericks’ Deron Williams misses three-pointer off side of rim vs. Hawks
- 12/10 Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony misses contested three-pointer off front of rim at Kings
- 12/21 Clippers’ Chris Paul’s jumper blocked by Thunder’s Kevin Durant
- 12/23 Rockets’ Marcus Thornton misses three-pointer off top of backboard at Magic
- 12/25 (4Q) Heat’s Dwyane Wade unable to attempt three-quarter-court heave before time expires vs. Pelicans
Twelve of the sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods ended with a possession that could have tied or won the game. Only one of those possessions was converted:
- 12/1 (2H) Virginia Tech’s Seth Allen misses three-quarter-court heave off backboard and rim vs. Northwestern
- 12/1 (OT) Virginia Tech’s Chris Clarke misses turnaround baseline jumper vs. Northwestern
- 12/1 (2H) Nebraska’s Shavon Shields misses three-quarter-court heave wide of backboard vs. Miami
- 12/2 (2H) Florida State’s Devon Bookert misses halfcourt shot off back of rim at Iowa
- 12/2 (OT) Florida State’s Xavier Rathan-Mayes misses shot from beyond halfcourt wide of backboard at Iowa
- 12/5 Providence’s Ben Bentil makes tip-in at Rhode Island
- 12/13 Clemson’s Jaron Blossomgame’s three-quarter-court heave falls short of baseline vs. Alabama
- 12/19 Iowa State’s Monte Morris airballs short baseline jumper vs. Northern Iowa (in Des Moines)
- 12/22 (2H) Harvard’s Evan Cummins unable to attempt full-court heave before time expires vs. BYU (in Honolulu)
- 12/22 (OT) BYU’s Kyle Collinsworth misses leaning deep three-pointer off back of rim vs. Harvard (in Honolulu)
- 12/22 (2H) Oakland’s Kahlil Felder’s hook shot from beyond halfcourt falls well short of basket vs. Michigan State (in Detroit)
- 12/30 UNLV’s Jerome Seagears misses deep three-pointer off front of rim vs. Fresno State
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 five of 18 such possessions (27.8%), and NCAA teams converted only six of 32 such possessions (18.75%).
But hey, at least the December 5 Providence/Rhode Island game proved that the wonderful, seemingly-mythical phenomenon of an actual buzzer beater does exist! That must mean that the game clock and basketball’s current duration format are worth keeping around, right? Well, not so fast.
Consider that Ben Bentil’s tip-in broke a 72-72 tie. If he had missed, he and his Providence teammates merely would have faced the not-so-immediate challenge of outcompeting Rhode Island during a five-minute overtime period. Instead, he made the shot and sparked a celebration that was immediately quashed by the blaring whistles of officials required to conduct a buzzkilling replay review of the shot.
Under a hybrid duration format, with Providence leading 66-64 after 36 minutes of play, the target score likely would have been set at 73 points. And so, this game might still have encountered a 72-72 tie. If Ben Bentil had missed a tip-in in such a sudden-death situation, he and his Providence teammates would have faced the immediate challenge of stopping Rhode Island’s effort to win the game on the ensuing possession. And if he made the shot, Providence would have enjoyed a full celebration without referee interruption.
Advantage: hybrid format
Trailing NBA teams conceded 33 of 44 sampled games (75.0%) 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 six instances when a team conceded while trailing by six points or fewer.
Trailing NCAA teams conceded 45 of 60 sampled games (75.0%) 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 two instances when a team conceded while trailing by six points or fewer.
Such close games would never be conceded under a hybrid format.
The final three minutes of all 47 sampled NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods included two clock reviews.
The final four minutes of all 65 sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods included two clock reviews and at least one clock error.
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:
- 12/9 Bulls at Celtics: 12 (2*)
- 12/10 Knicks at Kings: 11 (1*)
- 12/18 Clippers at Suns: 11 (2)
- 12/22 Mavericks at Raptors: 11 (4)
- 12/23 Rockets at Magic: 13 (1)
- 12/25 Cavaliers at Warriors: 12 (1)
- 12/30 Lakers at Celtics: 14 (0)
- 12/30 Nuggets at Trailblazers: 11 (2)
- 12/22 (2H) Michigan State vs. Oakland (in Detroit): 12 (1)
*Included one uncontested field goal
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 44 sampled NBA games and 60 sampled NCAA games ended in the following ways…
Meaningful Made Basket: 0 (0.0%)
Unsuccessful Meaningful Possession: 5 (11.4%)
Meaningless Shot Attempt: 8 (18.2%)
Leading Player Stalls: 23 (52.3%)
Trailing Player Stalls: 8 (18.2%)
Meaningful Made Basket: 1 (1.7%)
Unsuccessful Meaningful Possession: 5 (8.3%)
Meaningless Shot Attempt: 10 (16.7%)
Leading Player Stalls: 42 (70.0%)
Trailing Player Stalls: 2 (3.3%)
…and included one exceedingly awkward ending when the officials just couldn’t look the other way…
- 12/16 Grizzlies at Bulls: Memphis, trailing by 13 points, concededly dribbled out the clock…or at least they thought so, and the Bulls thought so, and the flag carriers running around the court 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. The public address announcer had to alert the participants that the “game’s not over!” to clear the court
…and one exceedingly awkward ending when the officials went out of their way to look the other way:
- 12/27 Texas Southern at Syracuse: Syracuse’s DaJuan Coleman, holding a 13-point lead, started to dribble out the clock, but picked up his dribble and casually walked toward the handshake line with over five seconds remaining, with no travel call
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: 3
- 12/1 Mavericks at Trailblazers: 4th quarter ended with unsuccessful meaningful possession; overtime ended with meaningless possession (for the final 3:39, the Trailblazers never had possession while within three points of the Mavericks)
- 12/4 Cavaliers at Pelicans: 4th quarter ended with unsuccessful meaningful possession; overtime ended with meaningless possession (for the final 3:17, the Cavaliers never had possession while within three points of the Pelicans)
- 12/25 Pelicans at Heat: 4th quarter ended with unsuccessful meaningful possession; overtime ended with meaningless possession (for the final 2:05, the Pelicans never had possession while within three points of the Heat)
- 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
Five 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
- 12/1 Miami at Nebraska: 2nd half ended with unsuccessful meaningful possession; overtime ended with meaningless possession (for the final 21.4 seconds, Nebraska never had possession while within three points of Miami)
- 12/22 Michigan State vs. Oakland (in Detroit): 2nd half ended with unsuccessful meaningful possession; overtime ended with meaningless possession (for the final 49.1 seconds, Oakland never had possession while within three points of Michigan State)
- Ending of overtime period managed to match the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 3
- 12/1 Northwestern at Virginia Tech: 2nd half ended with unsuccessful meaningful possession; overtime ended with unsuccessful meaningful possession
- 12/1 Florida State at Iowa: 2nd half ended with unsuccessful meaningful possession; overtime ended with unsuccessful meaningful possession
- 12/1 BYU vs. Harvard (in Honolulu): 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 ten uncontested field goals during sampled games. Leading NCAA teams allowed at least eleven uncontested field goals during sampled games.
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 eight 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/or in overtime, and ten NCAA players committed a fifth foul deliberately and/or in overtime. (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.):
- 12/1 (OT): Trailblazers’ Meyers Leonard, vs. Mavericks
- 12/17: Thunder’s Steven Adams, at Bulls
- 12/29: Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, at Thunder
- 12/2: Boston College’s Ervins Meznieks, vs. Penn
- 12/19: Tennessee’s Admiral Schofield, vs. Gonzaga (in Seattle)
- 12/22 (OT): Harvard’s Zena Edosomwan, vs. BYU (in Honolulu)
- 12/22 (OT): BYU’s Nick Emery, vs. Harvard (in Honolulu)
- 12/22 (OT): Michigan State’s Kenny Goins, vs. Oakland (in Detroit)
- 12/22 (OT): Oakland’s Kahlil Felder, vs. Michigan State (in Detroit)
- 12/23: Pepperdine’s Amadi Udenyi, at Portland
- 12/23: Pepperdine’s Jett Raines, at Portland
- 12/29: LSU’s Craig Victor II, vs. Wake Forest
- 12/30: South Florida’s Nehemias Morillo, vs. Houston
UNSIGHTLY STRATEGIES, ETC.
During sampled games, trailing NCAA offenses rolled 22 inbounds passes, including in at least three especially bleak situations…
- 12/7: Buffalo, trailing by 23 points with 1:12 remaining, at Iowa State
- 12/19: Baylor, trailing by 25 points with 39.3 seconds remaining, at Texas A&M
- 12/28: Elon, trailing by 45 points with 2:19 remaining, at Duke
…and at least once misguidedly:
- 12/22: Auburn, leading by one point with 52.0 seconds remaining, vs. New Mexico (in Honolulu)
During sampled games, leading NCAA offenses vacated the foul lane in 31 instances during the last free throw attempt of a trip. Trailing NCAA offenses inexplicably vacated the foul lane in 13 instances.
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.