February 21, 2018
Nicholas Patrick, Ph.D. (originator of the Elam Ending)
This page is meant for those who are already somewhat familiar with the Elam Ending concept, and who are looking for more in-depth information. The most stripped-down explanation of the Elam Ending and its primary aims is just below (if you are brand new to the Elam Ending, you might prefer to read here first for more introductory information before revisiting this page):
Using the hybrid duration format, an NBA game might look something like this (replacing the last three minutes of game-clock-focused play with a comparable amount of game-clock-free play):
- Timed Portion: At least 45 minutes of timed play (this would include three complete, 12-minute quarters, and at least nine minutes of timed play in the fourth quarter; after this threshold is reached, play continues briefly and naturally until the next timeout, dead ball, or made basket)
- At this juncture, a target score would be set (equal to the leading team’s score plus seven)
- Untimed Portion: Play would resume, without a game clock, until one team matches or exceeds the target score
Using the hybrid duration format, an NCAA men’s game might look something like this (replacing the last four minutes of game-clock-focused play with a comparable amount of game-clock-free play):
- Timed Portion: At least 36 minutes of timed play (this would include a complete, 20-minute first half, and at least 16 minutes of timed play in the second half; after this threshold is reached, play continues briefly and naturally until the next timeout, dead ball, or made basket)
- At this juncture, a target score would be set (equal to the leading team’s score plus seven)
- Untimed Portion: Play would resume, without a game clock, until one team’s score matches or exceeds the target score
The primary aims of the Elam Ending are to:
- Eliminate/alleviate late-game deliberate fouling by the trailing defense
- Eliminate/alleviate late-game stalling by the leading offense
- Eliminate/alleviate late-game rushed/sloppy possessions by the trailing offense
- Provide greater hope for late comebacks (by removing the forces listed above that work against trailing teams)
- Provide more memorable game-ending moments
The Elam Ending is not meant to change basketball – in fact, it’s meant to do the opposite – to preserve a more natural style of play through the end of every game, and to give us more real basketball late in games. The current format provides some great finishes – the Elam Ending is meant to keep or enhance all of the appealing elements of late-game play, and eliminate or alleviate the unappealing elements. The current format is very fragile, very delicate, in that so many circumstances have to align just right in order for us to enjoy a great finish, and for us to enjoy good basketball in the possessions leading up to that great finish. I believe the Elam Ending would be much sturdier, providing many more games where we enjoy a great finish, and where we enjoy good basketball in the possessions leading up to that great finish, because circumstances would not have to align so perfectly in order for it to happen.
This page provides answers to questions I have considered, received, and anticipate from those interested in weighing the merit of the Elam Ending. For applicable questions, I’ll also indicate one of the following levels of concern (regarding the issue’s effect on the overall worthiness of the Elam Ending, relative to the overall worthiness of the current format):
- Major (you’ll notice that nothing raises a major concern)
- Moderate (you’ll notice that nothing raises a moderate concern)
- Little to None
- None (in many cases, less than none)
- The terms “hybrid duration format” and “Elam Ending” are interchangeable
- The term “current format” refers to basketball games governed completely by time (for example, the familiar 48-minute NBA game and 40-minute NCAA game)
- Unless noted otherwise, “NCAA” refers to NCAA Division I men’s basketball
- Unless noted otherwise, “sample,” “sampled games,” or “sampled periods” refers to:
- Every nationally-televised NBA game played during the 2014-2015, 2015-2016, 2016-2017, and 2017-2018 regular season through February 18, 2018 and postseason (more specifically, the final three minutes of every 4th quarter and overtime period played in those games); 1196 games/1283 periods
- Every NCAA Division I men’s basketball game televised live on ESPNU during the 2014-2015, 2015-2016, 2016-2017, and 2017-2018 regular season/conference tournament season through February 18, 2018, every game played during the 2015 NIT, and every game played during the 2015, 2016, and 2017 NCAA Tournament (more specifically, the final four minutes of every 2nd half and overtime period played in those games); 1362 games/1467 periods
- So far, only 2017 TBT Jamboree has eliminated the game clock from the final portion of regulation games. However, for years a number of basketball leagues and events have eliminated the game clock entirely from overtime. This is important, because the successful implementation of points-based overtime could indicate that many of the listed non-concerns about the Elam Ending (indicated with *) are just that – non-concerns
NON-CONCERNS ABOUT MATTERS OF TASTE
- *Why introduce a format that will eliminate buzzer beaters?
- *Why introduce a format that will eliminate overtime?
- If the game clock is so bad, why not eliminate it entirely?
- Why not implement a less drastic change to discourage late-game deliberate fouling?
- *The Elam Ending takes away the complex strategy involved with deliberate fouling
- Other sports have unpalatable strategies – why worry so much about deliberate fouling and other late-game flaws in basketball?
- *What about Elam Ending games ending with a made free throw? Won’t that be boring?
- Won’t the novelty/excitement wear off of walk-off shots?
- Why would we want more late comebacks? Shouldn’t the leading team be rewarded for building a lead?
- Is the Elam Ending really necessary in blowouts? Could there be some kind of mercy rule?
- Leading teams must continue to score late in games – even in blowouts. Won’t that be perceived as poor sportsmanship?
- Will we lose any traditions associated with the current format?
- How will this change the language of the game – what will happen to “What’s the score? How much time is left?”
- Doesn’t the Elam Ending seem like a gimmick?
- Does this Elam guy even like basketball? Why would he care about the best interests of the sport?
- Does this Elam guy think he’s smarter than Dr. James Naismith?
- The concept is okay, but what about that name…Elam Ending?
NON-CONCERNS ABOUT SOUNDNESS
- Will the Elam Ending actually make late comebacks tougher?
- The Plus-7 rule (for determining the target score) seems arbitrary, or not appropriate for all games, or not enough
- If late comebacks are more likely under the Elam Ending, then teams might be more inclined to keep their top players in during the late stages of the game
- What if the game goes three or four-plus minutes without a whistle to initiate the untimed portion?
- What if teams resort to unsightly ways of initiating the transition to the untimed portion?
- What about instances when the timed portion of the game ends with the leading team drawing a shooting foul? Isn’t that too much of an advantage for the leading team?
- Sure, leading teams won’t stall during the untimed portion of Elam Ending games, but won’t they stall as the timed portion winds down?
- Won’t trailing teams foul deliberately as the timed portion winds down in Elam Ending games?
- *Will trailing teams still resort to deliberate fouling during the untimed portion of Elam Ending games? Will leading teams begin to resort to deliberate fouling during the untimed portion?
- Under the Elam Ending, will teams with medium-to-large leads simply make reckless drives to the basket on every offensive possession in an effort to draw cheap fouls?
- Under the Elam Ending, won’t trailing teams resort to repeatedly chucking threes in an effort to overcome a large deficit?
- *Under the Elam Ending, will leading teams be compelled to cherrypick?
- *Under the Elam Ending, wouldn’t the leading team foul deliberately in the 3/2-1 scenario (offense exactly three points from the target score; defense exactly one or two points from the target score)?
- *Under the Elam Ending, wouldn’t a team intentionally miss its last remaining free throw attempt in the 2/2-1 scenario (offense exactly two points from the target score; defense exactly one or two points from the target score)?
- Under the Elam Ending, will any games still end with a replay review?
- *Will the Elam Ending adversely affect the quality of officiating?
- What does the data say about women’s basketball?
- Could the Elam Ending be used at all levels of play?
- The Elam Ending needs more testing before being implemented at the highest levels
NON-CONCERNS ABOUT $$$
- Won’t game lengths (as measured in actual time) vary more?
- Will the Elam Ending take away commercial time from broadcast partners (by possibly compelling teams to call fewer timeouts than the current format)?
- How will the Elam Ending change the appearance of TV scorebugs, in-arena scoreboards, etc.?
- How will the Elam Ending affect the gambling industry?
- How will the Elam Ending affect video games?
- Some party must be affected detrimentally by the implementation of the Elam Ending, right? So who is it?
NON-CONCERNS ABOUT NUTS AND BOLTS
- How do you calculate the target score if the timed portion of the game ends on an and-1?
- What if a team still has free throws left to attempt when it reaches the target score?
- How will the Elam Ending work if men’s college basketball goes to quarters?
- Why not add a condition that a team must win by two points (or three points, or four points, etc.) under the Elam Ending?
- What about the Elam Ending’s effect on statistical recordkeeping?
- *Should some sort of sound be introduced/used to signal the end of Elam Ending games, in the way that the buzzer signals the end of every game under the current format?
How do I submit questions and comments about the Elam Ending?
MATTERS OF TASTE-1: Why introduce a format that will eliminate buzzer beaters?
Level of concern: Little to None
Ah yes, buzzer beaters’ siren song…
For those of us who enjoy games that end with a meaningful made basket, the Elam Ending is just what the doctor ordered. When I first devised a (viable) hybrid duration format (where most of each game is played with a clock, and where the final portion of each game is played without a clock) in March 2007, one of the first concerns I considered was the loss of all those buzzer beaters. Up to that point, I had developed a misconception about how often basketball games actually end with a successful buzzer beater – as a sports highlight show junkie, I had come to believe that buzzer beaters happen much more often than they really do. And so I was surprised when, in the weeks that followed, none of the 64 NCAA Tournament games ended with a meaningful made basket – and then further surprised when none of the 79 NBA Playoff games ended with a meaningful made basket. Hmmm must have been a fluke. That can’t be right.
But since tracking a larger sample of games beginning at the start of the 2014-2015 NBA and NCAA seasons (including all men’s and women’s games from the 2016 Rio Olympics), I’ve found just how strikingly rare buzzer beaters really are. Through February 18, 2018, only 24 of 2634 sampled games (0.9%) have ended with a meaningful made basket. In my mind, that’s far too rare.
So how do basketball games actually end? (I’ve included only NBA and NCAA data here because the sample is much more robust; two of those 24 buzzer beaters are missing below – that’s because they occurred during the 2016 Olympics)
The 1196 sampled NBA games, and 1362 sampled NCAA games, ended in the following ways:
|Meaningful Made Basket||9 (0.8%)||13 (1.0%)|
|Unsuccessful Meaningful Possession||110 (9.2%)||163 (12.0%)|
|Meaningless Shot Attempt||169 (14.1%)||251 (18.4%)|
|Leading Player Stalls||738 (61.7%)||866 (63.6%)|
|Trailing Player Stalls||170 (14.2%)||69 (5.1%)|
You’ll notice a few things:
- So many games – even many of the most competitive and/or highly-anticipated games – end with an absolute whimper (85-90% of games end with a meaningless shot attempt, or a leading player just running out the clock, or a trailing player just running out the clock)
- The proportion of unsuccessful buzzer-beater attempts is totally out of whack with the proportion of successful buzzer-beater attempts
The latter point might be even more striking. It illuminates a disappointing fact – that the game clock’s influence turns the most important possession of the game into blooper-reel fodder, as points per possession plummets below 0.20 in such situations. We wouldn’t want to see Mike Trout step to the plate with the game on the line in the bottom of the ninth inning and bat left-handed; why would we want to see the best basketball players in the world chuck halfcourt airballs with the game on the line? The Elam Ending would preserve a high quality of play through the end of every game – we would see players and teams take their best shot when it matters most.
Sure, you might note that in some cases, a player makes a go-ahead shot with a few seconds left, and then we sorta mentally edit out the final abbreviated, sloppy, unsatisfying possession. I say let’s do more than mentally edit out that final unsuccessful possession – let’s eliminate it entirely! Let’s actually end the game the moment that clutch shot goes through the net. Let’s give these great games a more fitting ending.
Also, keep in mind that in nearly every (rare) instance when a game actually does end with a meaningful made basket under the current format, it necessitates a buzzkilling video review to confirm whether the shot was released on time (and/or whether any time remained after the shot was made). After a moment that should spark a totally uninhibited celebration, we often see officials (through no fault of their own) blowing their whistles, waving their arms, essentially saying “Everybody stop celebrating!” so they can conduct the review. The Elam Ending would eliminate the guesswork and red tape from game-winning shots, and allow celebrations to carry on more fittingly.
Of course, there are two types of buzzer beaters. The first type is the Do-or-OT buzzer beater, where the final shot is released in a tie game (accounting for 18 of the aforementioned buzzer beaters, including Villanova’s buzzer beater to win the 2016 NCAA Championship). The Elam Ending can actually enhance the tension in corresponding situations. Under the current format, it’s make-and-win-OR-miss-and-settle-in-for-five-minutes-of-overtime. Under the Elam Ending, it’s make-and-win-OR-immediately-get-back-and-play-defense-for-your-life.
The second type is the true Do-or-Die buzzer beater, where the final shot is released with the offense trailing. These buzzer beaters are awesome, but only six of the aforementioned 24 buzzer beaters came in a do-or-die situation (c’mon, six games ended this way out of 2634?). And these situations aren’t as tense as fans might want/think, because we expect a player to miss in this situation (just look at the numbers!). And if you still insist on using the unique imminence of Do-or-Die buzzer beaters as an argument against the Elam Ending, tread lightly – you just might be making an argument for the general nature of the Elam Ending. Think about it – do-or-die situations are cool under the current format precisely because of the absence of a third, neutral, wimpy possible outcome (the possibility of overtime) – instead, this rare situation offers only two high-stakes possibilities – that your team will win, or your team will lose, in the coming moments. That kind of thrilling situation would arise in many, many games under the Elam Ending, where there is no possibility of overtime. Anytime an Elam Ending game encounters a sudden-death (or virtual sudden-death) scenario, so too will you know that your team will win, or your team will lose, in the coming moments. And that’s the appeal of the Elam Ending, as it pertains to game-ending made baskets and so many other areas – we get to keep/enhance the appealing parts of late-game play, and eliminate/alleviate the unappealing parts.
Sudden-death basketball (or virtual sudden death, where both teams are within three points of the target score), the juicy phenomenon associated with the Elam Ending, could verifiably become the most exciting scenario in any sport! We love sudden-death hockey because of it’s rapid exchange of possession…but then again, scoring on any given possession is very unlikely. We enjoy sudden-death football because of the exciting likelihood (not too high, not too low) that a team might score on any given possession…but then again, each possession lasts several minutes as measured in actual time. Sudden-death basketball would treat us to the heartpounding combination of near-coin-flip likelihood of scoring on each possession, and rapid exchange of possession (until someone scores).
Better yet, we don’t have to hope for the closest score possible to enjoy the most exciting ending possible. The guarantee of a walk-off shot to end every game, seal every milestone, clinch every championship, will add intrigue in advance of and following the end of a game, no matter the final margin. The strategy, traditions, gestures, images, sounds, celebrations, and trivia associated with walk-off shots will be downright addicting.
Kids love to play out buzzer-beating situations in the driveway, playground, etc., and they’ll enjoy playing out untimed walk-off-shot scenarios just as much. And not to get too cheesy or carried away, but for all of us athletes (kids and adults) who never make it to the pros in any sport, making a walk-off shot is likely to live on as an individual’s most cherished and vivid memory of playing organized sports.
…oh, and we’ll still get to enjoy the occasional guilty-pleasure buzzer beater – the nothing-but-net three-quarter-court heave, etc. – at the end of the 1st half/quarter, 2nd quarter, 3rd quarter – but when the game is on the line, we get to see players and teams taking their best shot.
MATTERS OF TASTE-2: Why introduce a format that will eliminate overtime?
Level of concern: None
Overtime just doesn’t deliver as much as we like to think. There are tangible, practical drawbacks – quality of play can suffer when the best players fatigue or foul out during overtime. Overtime games can jam up a network’s programming schedule at the highest levels of play, and can jam up an event schedule at lower levels (when a day’s worth of games are scheduled to be played back-to-back).
There are intangible, theoretical drawbacks – the notion that the very possibility of overtime might reduce (ever so slightly) the excitement at the end of regulation. Knowing that, after the next possession or so, your team will definitely win, lose…or settle in to play five more minutes, isn’t quite as tense as knowing that, after the next possession or so, your team will definitely win or lose. The Elam Ending can bring a heightened imminence and excitement to late-game play.
We often assume at the outset of overtime that the game will eventually return to the same level of excitement we enjoyed at the end of regulation. But it just doesn’t happen as often as we think, and we shouldn’t be surprised. We ask overtime to follow an act that is very difficult to follow – a regulation that was, by definition, as competitive as can be, and which, by necessity, came down to the final possession. And so in many cases, after initially settling in for overtime, we don’t return to our feet until we’re heading for the exits.
Consider the possible ending of any 4th quarter/2nd half/overtime period (not just those at the true end of a game), 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)
Now consider how the excitement of the ending of each overtime period compared to the excitement of the preceding period:
87 overtime periods were played in sampled games. The ending of 56 of those periods (64.4%) failed to match the excitement of the preceding period’s ending. The ending of 29 of those periods (33.3%) managed to match the excitement of the preceding ending. Only two of those periods (2.3%) ended in a more exciting fashion than the preceding period
Of 105 overtime periods played during sampled games:
56 (53.3%) failed to match excitement of preceding ending
43 (41.0%) managed to match excitement of preceding ending
6 (5.7%) exceeded excitement of preceding ending
In many of these cases, the eventual losing team was never in striking distance (trailing by 1-3 points, with possession) of its opponent for the final two, three, four minutes of overtime. Would-be thrillers turned into yawners.
Still, overtime’s siren song can be alluring, and some have suggested adding a quasi-overtime element to the Elam Ending by requiring a team to win by x points. I respectfully maintain the Elam Ending is better without this condition. When a game encounters sudden-death (or virtual sudden-death, where both teams are within three points of the target score) – the most exciting possible scenario we can hope for – I see no reason to risk messing that up. And from a more practical standpoint, I worry that a win-by-x condition would lead to some silly, unnatural approaches and strategies in an effort to play a numbers game.
While basketball contends with anticlimactic overtimes, many of our other favorite sports contend with issues inherent in their overtime formats:
- Baseball: lengthening games to an excessive extent
- Football: granting possession in an unfair and/or unsatisfying manner (in a sport where possession is precious); the possibility of ties; player safety concerns
- Hockey/Soccer: deviating greatly from the usual nature of play (with shootouts)
Horse racing, for example, has no overtime, and it consistently offers some of the most exciting finishes in sports. In that spirit, and given the increased intensity of play associated with the untimed portion of a basketball game, TBT Founder/CEO Jon Mugar compares the Elam Ending to racehorses making the last turn and heading down the stretch.
Maybe the best overtime format is no overtime at all.
MATTERS OF TASTE-3: If the game clock is so bad, why not eliminate it entirely?
Eliminating the game clock entirely (and playing, for example, first-to-75-wins, first-to-100-wins, etc.) would lead to an excessively wide range of game lengths (as measured in actual time), which is not conducive to television broadcasts or spectator enjoyment. Some high-octane shootouts would end in an hour and a half (leaving fans asking “It’s over already?”), and some brickfests would last three hours or more (leaving fans sighing “Is it over yet?”). Much less significantly, basketball final scores would lose all of their personality.
The most appropriate duration format for a sport depends greatly on a specific factor – the rate at which fundamental accomplishments are accumulated. Sports like baseball/softball, tennis, volleyball, etc. can forego a game clock because certain accomplishments (outs, or points – as the building block for games and/or sets) are accumulated with a relatively reliable rapidity. Sports governed strictly by time (field hockey, football, handball, ice hockey, lacrosse, rugby, soccer, water polo, etc.) must depend on a game clock because accomplishments (whether goals or general scoring possessions) are accumulated so sporadically. Points were much harder to come by in basketball’s infancy – aligning the sport with others governed strictly by time – and so Dr. James Naismith was absolutely right to design basketball as a time-based sport. But for about the last century or so, scoring possessions have been accumulated with a rapidity that would seem to align basketball with sports that operate without a clock. Basketball’s game clock isn’t misguided – it’s outdated.
Because basketball is the only time-based sport that could realistically abandon its game clock, it’s the only major sport that can have the best of both (timed and untimed) worlds. By adopting a hybrid duration format, basketball would reap the game clock’s primary benefit (reducing game length variability) by employing it for most of each game, and abandon the clock just before it causes quality, style, and pace of play to suffer, preserving a familiar, natural, exciting brand of basketball through the end of every game.
MATTERS OF TASTE-4: Why not implement a less drastic change to discourage late-game deliberate fouling?
Make no mistake – deliberate fouling is a problem, and it needs to be addressed. Basketball has tangibly acknowledged that stalling and deliberate fouling are problems, through rules modifications meant to discourage these practices. Some rules, like the introduction of the shot clock and backcourt violations, have stood the test of time and have improved the game to an extent. Other rules, like following late made free throws with a jump ball, and imposing an individual per-quarter foul limit, came and went in the 1950s after failing to discourage late-game deliberate fouling.
Some continue to suggest that the solution to late-game deliberate fouling is to punish the fouling team more harshly (by allowing the fouled team to take the ball out of bounds instead of shooting free throws, or by shooting one free throw and taking the ball out of bounds, or by calling deliberate fouls as flagrant fouls). This would certainly make late-game fouling less appealing, which seems good at first glance – but these suggestions still don’t offer the trailing team a better alternative! These measures would likely backfire, and might very well lead to even more fouling and fewer late comebacks than we currently see. Whoops!
I believe the Elam Ending would not only be far more effective than any of the above abandoned or proposed rules, but – because the Elam Ending is specifically designed to preserve a more natural style of play – would be far less drastic, too.
MATTERS OF TASTE-5: The Elam Ending takes away the complex strategy involved with deliberate fouling
“Strategy,” eh? Strategy is a grown-up word, implying that a particular approach works at least some of the time, in a scenario where a team has at least one other option. In this regard, late-game deliberate fouling by trailing teams hardly qualifies as a strategy under the current format.
Under the Elam Ending, deliberate fouling will be replaced by fresh, cool strategies and/or familiar, natural strategies to reach the target score, and to prevent one’s opponent from doing the same. These strategies will work some of the time, and can be chosen from among other possible strategies.
If the Elam Ending is implemented more widely, the practice of deliberate fouling will not age well. We won’t romanticize about it. We won’t miss it. We’ll watch footage of past foul-filled finishes and wonder, “How did we let this go on for so long?”
MATTERS OF TASTE-6: Other sports have unpalatable strategies – why worry so much about deliberate fouling and other late-game flaws in basketball?
Like many of my fellow sports fans, I enjoy playing armchair commissioner and considering ways to further promote the fairness, excitement, safety, quality, etc. of our favorite sports. I see the unpalatable strategies in other sports, and in some cases I have ideas in mind to address them (in other cases, I believe the concern should be left alone, because any attempt to address the concern would introduce more serious concerns in its place). Some of these other ideas have been widely-discussed, some of them are original from what I can tell, but I don’t believe in any of these ideas as much as I believe in the Elam Ending.
Regarding time-based sports specifically: they all enjoy an important benefit by using a clock (the clock reduces the variability in the length of games), but all of them are vulnerable to unnatural tactics to manipulate the clock. Only basketball, with a scoring rate dramatically greater than all other time-based sports, could realistically abandon its clock for part or all of each game. Only basketball can enjoy the best of both (timed and untimed) worlds.
MATTERS OF TASTE-7: What about Elam Ending games ending with a made free throw? Won’t that be boring?
Level of Concern: None
Oh wait, you mean free throws aren’t an exciting way for a team to seal victory? That doesn’t speak well for the current format.
Given the other options (dunks, lay-ups, mid-range jumpers, three-pointers, etc.), free throws won’t be my favorite way to end a game under the Elam Ending, but it will still be interesting in its own way. First, it adds to the already-interesting variety of walk-off possibilities (including the other possibilities listed above), and it sure beats the manner in which games end currently, where approximately 99% of games ends in one of the following ways: leading player dribbling out the clock, trailing player dribbling out the clock, meaningless shot attempt, or unsuccessful meaningful possession.
The possibility of walk-off free throws also presents the possibility of some especially memorable heartbreaking defeats to add to basketball lore, where a team just needs to make one free throw to win a game, only to miss and eventually lose. The walk-off free throw could develop its own mystique – a scenario with the power to instantly bring a home arena from complete silence to a complete eruption…or instantly bring a visiting arena from full volume to complete silence. It could become the most-rehearsed sports scenario in driveways and on playgrounds around the world.
MATTERS OF TASTE-8: Won’t the novelty/excitement wear off of walk-off shots?
Level of Concern: None
The Elam Ending will enhance the excitement associated with the end of a game – no matter the margin of victory – relative to the current format.
For games that are decided by a wide margin of victory, the Elam Ending guarantees a walk-off shot to provide a signature moment for every victory, every milestone, every championship, that might otherwise fade from memory. The Elam Ending offers the opportunity for new traditions, including tips of the cap to certain key contributors and end-of-the-bench players, going out of their way to allow them to make the walk-off shot with a comfortable lead.
The Elam Ending will greatly enhance the excitement at the end of games decided by a medium-sized margin of victory (4-9 points), where we currently see the most foul-filled, excitement-sapped, excruciating endings.
The Elam Ending will even enhance the excitement at the end of games decided by a slim margin of victory (1-3 points). Currently, fewer than one in every ten such games actually ends with a made basket – the rest end with an unsuccessful possession – providing ever more evidence of the game clock’s warping effect on late-game quality of play. Also, even in those rare instances when we finally get to enjoy a made buzzer beater, the current format dampens the excitement by requiring a replay review (to confirm that the shot was released on time and that no time should remain)!
I’m constantly amazed at how many of the most competitive basketball games end with an absolute whimper. The Elam Ending will fix this, ensuring that exciting games have exciting finishes. I’m constantly amazed at how many of the most anticipated basketball games are completely devoid of a lasting, signature moment (basketball is especially vulnerable to this phenomenon compared to other sports, due to basketball’s combination of fluid nature and frequent scoring). The Elam Ending will fix this, providing us with an endless stockpile of memorable walk-off moments.
The strategy, traditions, gestures, images, sounds, celebrations, and trivia associated with walk-off shots will be downright addicting.
MATTERS OF TASTE-9: Why would we want more late comebacks? Shouldn’t the leading team be rewarded for building a lead?
Level of Concern: None
Um, yeah, additional late comebacks will be a good thing – the uncertainty of outcomes is the main reason we enjoy sports, and late deficits of all sizes are disproportionately difficult to overcome in basketball under the current format.
Sure, we want the first 90% or so of any given game to mean something, but the last 10% or so should mean something, too. Trailing teams should be at a certain disadvantage when a game reaches crunch time, but the deficit itself should be the disadvantage – there’s no good reason to add artificial, clock-attributable disadvantages on top of that (namely, being forced to hand away free points by fouling while on defense, and being forced to rush and force up ugly shots while on offense).
By removing these major forces that work against trailing teams under the current format, the Elam Ending is likely to provide an uptick (not necessarily an avalanche) of late comebacks. Even better, the outcome of games will be more satisfying whether or not a team completes a late comeback – if a team comes back, it gets to do so playing real basketball; if a team holds on to a late lead, it gets to seal its victory with the same style of play that earned it the lead.
MATTERS OF TASTE-10: Is the Elam Ending really necessary in blowouts? Could there be some kind of mercy rule?
The Elam Ending would be used in all games, no matter the margin. This carries a few important benefits relative to the current format, and avoids the unintended consequences that a mercy rule might create.
The Elam Ending provides a walk-off moment to seal every victory, which is especially important in championship games and other milestone/landmark games. Also, under the Elam Ending, most blowout games would end more quickly than they do currently (that’s a good thing), as leading teams can lean into the finish, assertively and efficiently tallying the seven points they need to seal a victory. And in the occasional instances when a leading team sloppily crawls to the finish line, the trailing team maintains a sliver of hope of mounting an epic comeback (more hope than the current format offers).
A mercy rule would offer protection against a rare unappealing combination under the Elam Ending – where neither the leading team or trailing team can seem to put the ball in the hoop during the untimed portion of a blowout. But I worry about some possible unintended consequences:
For example, consider if the Elam Ending included a mercy rule, where the game automatically ends (no untimed portion is played) if a team leads by, say, 30 points or more at the end of the timed portion of the game.
- You might see an especially ungritty team, trailing by about 28 or 29 points as the timed portion winds down, allow its opponent to increase the lead so as not to play the untimed portion of the game (that’s no good)
- You might see an especially gritty team, trailing by about 34 or 35 points as the timed portion winds down, desperately trying to narrow its deficit so as to go the distance and extend the game to the untimed portion. Uh oh – this sounds familiar – a team trailing, knowing that unless it gains ground, its loss will be sealed the moment time expires. It has only one ineffective, unsightly option – to foul deliberately (NOOOOO!!!)
MATTERS OF TASTE-11: Leading teams must continue to score late in games – even in blowouts. Won’t that be perceived as poor sportsmanship?
Level of Concern: None
A written rule requiring teams to score would replace the unwritten rule discouraging leading teams from doing so. Under the current format, leading teams face a strange dilemma in blowout games – whether continuing to score (the fundamental objective of the sport!) will violate etiquette. The Elam Ending eliminates this dilemma. Leading teams must reach a target score, so scoring is guilt-free! Furthermore, the Elam Ending provides leading teams with a well-deserved walk-off moment to seal a game that might otherwise lack a memorable play.
If a team’s lead is comfortable enough, we might see certain traditions created or enhanced. A leading team might give a nod to that night’s key contributor, going out of its way to let that player make the walk-off shot. Or better yet, a college team would play non-scholarship players not only to soak up minutes, but to seal a blowout win with a make. Fans would lose their minds for the Walk-On Walk-Off.
Many walk-ons and end-of-the-bench players warmly recall their brief appearances on court as a blur. Under the Elam Ending, they might warmly recall such appearances as their most vivid and cherished memory in organized sports.
MATTERS OF TASTE-12: Will we lose any traditions associated with the current format?
Level of Concern: None
I don’t believe we’ll lose any traditions if the Elam Ending were to be implemented, and I believe the Elam Ending could spark a few cool, new traditions.
If a game’s target score is displayed on a manually-operated scoreboard, venues could arrange for a youngster, devoted fan, honored guest, etc. to put the numerals in place (receiving a nice ovation, and rallying the crowd similar to the way guests rally the crowd during the seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley Field) as the game transitions from the timed to untimed portion. Arenas could add some theater to the act of shutting off the game clock. A team with a comfortable lead might give a nod to that night’s key contributor, going out of its way to let that player make the walk-off shot. Or a team might allow an end-of-the-bench player to make the clinching shot to seal a blowout win (the Walk-On Walk-Off, as it might be called in NCAA play). I’m confident others more creative than I am (especially college students!) will think of even more cool traditions associated with the Elam Ending.
If I’m fortunate enough to see this format implemented in various leagues and levels of play, I selfishly call dibs on another tradition: I’d love to personally congratulate, shake hands, and take a photo with the player who makes the shot to seal each championship. Who knows, one day that might be a multi-million-dollar-clinching shot in TBT, a gold-medal-clinching shot in Olympics men’s and women’s play, or a title-clinching shot in a high-level overseas league, NCAA men’s and women’s play, WNBA, or NBA.
MATTERS OF TASTE-13: How will this change the language of the game – what will happen to “What’s the score? How much time is left?”
I think “What’s the score? What are they playing to?” sounds just as nice.
MATTERS OF TASTE-14: Doesn’t the Elam Ending seem like a gimmick?
Level of Concern: Little to None
The goal of the Elam Ending is not to change the game of basketball – it’s to do the opposite, to preserve a more natural style of play through the end of every game and give us more real basketball.
With that in mind, I see the Elam Ending as an anti-gimmick – I think it would be far less gimmicky than the warped style and quality of play we see near the end of games currently.
The novelty and freshness of the Elam Ending will likely appeal to casual fans and new fans, and the Elam Ending also has a stripped-down, throwback quality that will likely appeal to lifelong, diehard, old-school fans, too. The Elam Ending harkens back to the way most of us learned to play basketball, on a playground trying to reach a certain point total. It’s just you against us, with no electronic third party to interfere.
MATTERS OF TASTE-15: Does this Elam guy even like basketball? Why would he care about the best interests of the sport?
Yes, I love basketball, and I’ll continue to love basketball even if nothing changes about it. I would love to see a great sport become even greater, and I’d love to see more real basketball during the final stages of each game. In short, I’m trying to do the opposite of change the game – I’m trying to preserve a more natural style of play through the end of every game.
My mom graduated from Indiana University, and so I grew up loving Bob Knight and the Hoosiers. I still root for IU, but since 2000, when I enrolled at the University of Dayton, I live and die with the UD Flyers. I would guess that I’ve missed an average of 2-3 home UD games per year over the last 18 seasons, and I’ve logged many miles on road trips with friends to see the Flyers play all over this side of the Mississippi River (and just across, in St. Louis and Minneapolis).
In fact, this entire effort began during my senior year at UD in 2004, watching the NCAA Tournament with my housemates and discussing a topic with very narrow scope – how to address a specific glitch (trailing defenses deliberately breaking the rules of the game by fouling) in a great sport. In 2007, after devising the concept – eliminating the game clock from the final portion of each game – to produce the primary and intended benefit, the scope and promise of this exploration grew quickly and significantly as more and more potential residual benefits emerged (discouraging leading offenses from playing passively, eliminating the need for trailing offenses to rush through sloppy possessions, providing greater hope for late comebacks due to the aforementioned factors, eliminating late-game clock controversies, preserving a more natural style/quality/pace of play through the end of every game, addressing several additional minor late-game flaws, and guaranteeing that every game ends with a meaningful made basket), along the way realizing that basketball is the only major sport that can have the best of both (timed and untimed) worlds, given how the scoring rate in basketball clearly distinguishes it from other time-based sports.
What started as a search for a utilitarian solution has produced something much better – an elegant and cool solution. Yes, the Elam Ending can address this or that flaw – but more than that, the Elam Ending could forever change the way basketball is played, marketed, and consumed.
MATTERS OF TASTE-16: Does this Elam guy think he’s smarter than Dr. James Naismith?
Not even close. No contribution that I ever make to basketball can ever compare to what Dr. Naismith did by inventing the sport. In fact, when I first wrote about a hybrid duration format for basketball in 2007, I dedicated the work to Dr. Naismith (in a book initially titled The Right Way to Play: A Basketball Revolution, then renamed Time’s Up for Basketball’s Game Clock: A Call for the Sport’s Timeless Revolution, and after failed attempts to have the book published, was self-published in 2012). I know my place, because I also know that basketball thrives and will continue to thrive, not because of any contribution I make, but because of the countless players, coaches, and sooooo many other stakeholders who help to grow the game at all levels, across eras and generations, all across the world.
As for Dr. Naismith, he was absolutely right to govern a basketball game’s duration strictly by time (then, by two 15-minute halves). After all, scoring would prove to be especially precious in the sport’s early years, aligning basketball with other major sports that also must rely on a clock (then and/or now), like field hockey, football, handball, ice hockey, lacrosse, rugby, soccer, water polo, etc. that all have low scoring rates (and no other fundamental accomplishment – like outs in baseball – that can be used as the basis of duration instead of time).
But for many years since, basketball’s scoring rate has risen to a level that clearly distinguishes it from other time-based sports, making basketball the only time-based sport that could realistically abandon its clock, even for just part of each regulation game. Basketball’s game clock isn’t misguided – it’s outdated.
Never mind that basketball has underdone countless rules changes over the years (unless you see the Elam Ending as an affront to James Naismith – then please go ahead and note that basketball has undergone countless rules changes over the years!). The goal of the Elam Ending is simply to compel teams to maintain a high level of play, to play by the spirit of the rules, and to honor the fundamental objectives of the sport. In that way, I absolutely regard this whole effort as a nod to Dr. Naismith.
MATTERS OF TASTE-17: The concept is okay, but what about that name…Elam Ending?
For a short time after devising the concept in 2007, I used the term “timeless” to describe any form of basketball where any part of the game is played without a clock. This term is misleading though, because my proposed format is hardly timeless – it calls for a clock to be used for all but the final stretch of a game.
For several years afterward, I used the term “hybrid duration format” to describe any form of basketball where part of the game is timed and where part of the game is untimed. This name represents the concept more accurately, but it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
So when TBT Founder/CEO Jon Mugar asked me/shared with me in March 2017 about TBT’s intent to name the format the “Elam Ending,” I felt honored immediately. And yes – many close to me quickly pointed out (and continue to point out) a possible double meaning to the term, but I’m a good sport about it, and I’m still just as honored by the name now.
Just as TBT has improved upon my effort to name the concept itself, I’m open to suggestions for improvement on my (admittedly cheesy) efforts over the years to name the discussion about the concept, including:
Time’s Up for Basketball’s Game Clock (title of book written in 2007 and self-published in 2012; three-part series of articles posted on SportsDataResearch.com in 2013; research paper exhibited at SPEIA Basketball Analytics Summit in 2016; and PowerPoint presentation distributed to various leagues and events in 2016)
A New Beginning for Basketball’s End
The Incredible, Expendable Clock
Walk-Off Thoughts about Walk-Off Shots
A Stopped Clock Would Always Be Right (During the Late Stages of Basketball Games)
Ball Don’t Comply
The Basket Inefficiency
Timing Isn’t Everything
The Timing It Is a-Changin’
B-Ball You Can Be
SOUNDNESS-1: Will the Elam Ending actually make late comebacks tougher?
Level of Concern: None
The Elam Ending will lead to a greater number of late comebacks from slim, medium, and large deficits – even if just an uptick (rather than an avalanche of additional comebacks). Removing the clock during the final portion of each game will remove two major forces (and several minor forces) working against trailing teams – the need to hand away free points to the opponent (by fouling) while on defense, and the need to rush and force up ugly shots while on offense.
As illuminated by the data below, to call late-game deliberate fouling futile would be too generous – late-game deliberate fouling is abjectly counterproductive (on average, it widens a trailing team’s deficit by approximately two points in periods where trailing teams use this approach)…and yet it’s still a trailing team’s only option.
Trailing NBA teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 535 sessions of the 1283 sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods, and trailing NCAA teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 819 sessions of the 1467 sampled 2nd half/overtime periods:
|Failed to Narrow Deficit||436 (81.5%)||646 (78.9%)|
|Narrowed Deficit, but Lost||81 (15.1%)||128 (15.6%)|
|Forced Overtime||16 (3.0%)||35 (4.3%)|
|Won in Same Period||2 (0.4%)||10 (1.2%)|
Even this data might inflate the effectiveness of deliberate fouling, given that leading teams often allow uncontested lay-ups, the one-and-one (which might not be around much longer) helps trailing NCAA teams, and leading teams often forego their final chance to score by dribbling out the clock or willingly taking a shot clock violation. The data below is more straightforward and less generous:
Trailing NBA teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 521 of the 1196 sampled games, and trailing NCAA teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 786 of the 1362 sampled games:
|Fouling Team Lost||508 (97.5%)||760 (96.7%)|
|Both Teams Fouled||9 (1.7%)||17 (2.2%)|
|Fouling Team Won||4 (0.8%)||9 (1.1%)|
Under the current format, it seems like a miracle any time a leading team comes away with zero points on a late-game possession. Under the Elam Ending, leading teams would not be able to depend on free points.
As for the other major force working against trailing teams:
205 of the sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods ended with a possession that could have tied or won the game. Only 16 of those possessions (7.8%) were converted, on 0.20 points per possession
282 of the sampled 2nd half/overtime periods ended with a possession that could have tied or won the game. Only 18 of those possessions (6.4%) were converted, on 0.17 points per possession
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), offensive play is only slightly less atrocious:
Converted only 106 of 494 such possessions (21.5%), on 0.63 points per possession
180/756 (23.8%); 0.66 PPP
Under the Elam Ending, you get to take your best shot when the game is on the line – not some halfcourt airball.
The bleakness of late deficits compels trailing teams to overtly concede approximately 77% of NBA games and 68% of NCAA games – often from relatively slim deficits, which we would never see under the Elam Ending.
Under the Elam Ending, a team would need only to go on the type of run we frequently see during the earlier stages of the game – when the game clock has little influence on the style of play – to complete a late comeback, and the tension and excitement would truly build along the way (unlike under the current format, where the choppiness of play saps much of the excitement, even in instances where the trailing team closes in).
Maybe best of all, under the Elam Ending, the outcome of a game is likely to be more satisfying whether a team completes a comeback or not – if a trailing team completes a comeback, it gets to do so playing real basketball. If a leading team holds on to the lead, it gets to do so playing a similar style to what earned it the lead in the first place.
SOUNDNESS-2: The Plus-7 rule (for determining the target score) seems arbitrary, or not appropriate for all games, or not enough
Level of Concern: Little to None
The Plus-7 rule is meant to give us an amount of hypothetical game time similar to the amount of actual game time removed. The Elam Ending removes the game clock from the last 3:00 of an NBA game – 1/16 of the whole game – and seven represents approximately 1/16 of each team’s total scoring output in a typical NBA game. The Elam Ending removes the game clock from the last 4:00 of an NCAA game – 1/10 of the whole game – and seven represents approximately 1/10 of each team’s total scoring output in a typical NCAA game.
I first considered the Plus-7 rule in 2007, but only began favoring this format in 2013. Before 2013, I favored formats that would be more adaptable to the scoring rate of the game at hand. Games that were especially high-scoring might call for more than seven points to be added to determine the target score; games that were especially low-scoring might call for fewer than seven points to be added to determine the target score. Even though this concept involved a relatively simple formula (I’m not even sure it qualifies as a formula – it only requires one number to be multiplied by another number), I ultimately came to favor an even simpler concept – a uniform number that would be applied in all games in a given league or event.
At first glance, it kinda seems like Plus-7 is not enough – we quickly notice that a game could end in just three full possessions (or even fewer in some extremely rare cases). However, if the scoring rate during the untimed final stretch remains fairly close to a typical scoring rate (about one point per possession), then we should expect the untimed final stretch to last about seven full possessions (which would be a nice, healthy amount of basketball).
And I believe the Elam Ending will be cool even in those instances when the leading team does go on a quick seven-point burst to start the untimed portion. First, the mere possibility that a game could end so quickly will give goosebumps to fans of the leading team and trailing team alike (for very different reasons) the moment the game clock goes dark. And when we see such a phenomenon play out, either the leading team gets hot while the trailing team goes cold (pulling away in a game it likely would have won anyway, and the Elam Ending spares us the boring denouement), or the leading team gets hot while the trailing team stays neck-and-neck with it (which gives us the kind of frenetic finish we love!)
I believe the Plus-7 rule will work well, but of course it is written in pencil, and can be adjusted if necessary.
SOUNDNESS-3: If late comebacks are more likely under the Elam Ending, then teams might be more inclined to keep their top players in during the late stages of the game
Level of Concern: Little to None
Let’s see…the best players on the court at the end of the game…wait, that’s a bad thing?
Okay, I get it – we are concerned (and justifiably so) about the wear and tear on top players, especially in the NBA with such a demanding schedule. Coaches will probably want their best players on the court during the late stages of Elam Ending games (some coaches will still regard some leads to be safe enough to take their best players out), but this might just mean that coaches need to adjust rotations so that the best players enjoy more rest during the earlier stages of the game. I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing.
And the elimination of overtime under the Elam Ending will counteract the wear-and-tear-on-the-best-players concern to an extent.
Regardless of this consideration, I still believe players – especially NBA players (and their agents!) – should be some of the biggest proponents of the Elam Ending. The format would offer them boundless opportunities to promote their brand, given that their image and name would be linked to walk-off shots (think about how many of the greatest players in basketball history don’t have a signature moment to accentuate their great career).
SOUNDNESS-4: What if the game goes three or four-plus minutes without a whistle to initiate the untimed portion?
Level of concern: Little to None
The likelihood of this type of scenario is extremely slim, especially given that leading teams would often go out of their way (by calling a timeout) to initiate the untimed portion of the game. Even so, I slightly favor transitioning from timed to untimed portion at the first timeout/dead ball/made basket (not just the first timeout/dead ball) after the 3:00 or 4:00 mark, to better protect against a long stretch without a transition-initiating event (the downside of this would be some inevitable awkward instances when a team makes a basket virtually at the same moment the clock hits 3:00 or 4:00, necessitating a buzzkilling discussion about whether the timed portion is actually over or not).
There are even more ways to protect against an extended stretch without a transition-initiating event. Leagues could set a drop-dead time (2:00? 1:30? 1:00?) when the timed portion of the game ends at the next clear change of possession (provided it’s not a fastbreak opportunity) – in this case, the team with possession would automatically start the untimed portion of the game with the ball (instead of determining possession by jump ball or possession arrow). Or, to take onlookers’ minds off of an extended stretch without a transition-initiating event, the game clock could simply flash 3:00 or 4:00 (instead of continuing to count down below 3:00 or 4:00) until the time comes for the clock to be shut off for good.
SOUNDNESS-5: What if teams resort to unsightly ways of initiating the transition to the untimed portion?
Level of Concern: Mild
First, any concern that exists here actually alleviates concern that exists in the entry immediately above this one – if a team (or both teams) want to end the timed portion of the game, then this decreases the likelihood that there will be an extended stretch without a timeout/dead ball (or, if applicable, made basket).
I believe any team with a lead (or even a team that’s tied and has possession) will want to start the untimed portion of the game right away. (The only possible exception might be a heavy favorite with a slim lead, hoping to build its lead slightly so as to avoid an especially tight sprint to the finish against a heavy underdog – but even in this case I think it’s better off getting to the untimed portion of the game as soon as possible.) Anyway, I believe leading teams will have enough motivation to initiate the untimed portion of the game, that they will gladly invest a timeout at the first opportunity to do so. This is the best possible scenario for the aesthetics of the format – a nice, friendly, natural transition (especially considering this comes at a stage of the game when the NBA/NCAA normally take a media timeout anyway).
In some cases, a leading team might get greedy – it might try to hold on to a timeout, and end the timed portion of the game some other way – namely, throwing the ball off an opponent out of bounds (it might also go out of its way to try to draw a foul – especially a shooting foul – but I think officials will be watching for this). This is a gamble – it could backfire and result in a turnover – and even though it makes me cringe a little, I believe this is still better than transitioning via a hard stop (cutting short an important possession)…and I believe this imperfection is way better than continuing to tolerate the many late-game flaws we see under the current format.
Leagues and events would probably need to categorize other unusual types of stoppages (bleeding/injured player, clock malfunction, tangled net, streaker on the court, etc.) by the level of control teams have in necessitating them. Such stoppages that are totally out of a team’s control could still mark the end of the timed portion of a game, if it happens to occur before any other timeout/dead ball/made basket after the designated time threshold has been reached. Such stoppages that (presumably leading) teams could possibly necessitate on purpose should not mark the end of the timed portion of a game.
SOUNDNESS-6: What about instances when the timed portion of the game ends with the leading team drawing a shooting foul? Isn’t that too much of an advantage for the leading team?
Level of Concern: Little to None
In such an instance, the target score would be set equal to the leading team’s score plus seven (as always), and the leading team would have a chance to close to within five points (or even four points, if fouled while attempting an unsuccessful three-pointer) of the target score before the first live-ball possession of the untimed portion of the game.
Some might not care for that, though I don’t really see it as a concern. I’m open to other options, but I think the alternatives might lead to some confusion. For example, leagues could wait until after the free throw attempts to set the target score, but if the last attempt is a miss (and live-ball play begins immediately), people might look around and wonder “Wait – so what’s the target score?” There might be even more confusion in situations where the last free throw attempt is missed and followed with a quick offensive putback. Another option could be setting the target score equal to, say, the leading team’s score plus eight, if and only if the timed portion of the game ends with a shooting foul (not including and-1 situations), just to add some extra cushion.
SOUNDNESS-7: Sure, leading teams won’t stall during the untimed portion of Elam Ending games, but won’t they stall as the timed portion winds down?
Level of Concern: Little to None
The Elam Ending is meant to eliminate or alleviate the unappealing elements of late-game play under the current format. I believe there is a real chance that the Elam Ending will eliminate stalling by leading teams. Currently, leading teams (especially in the NCAA) stall or play a keepaway offense for a few (or even several) possessions during the closing minutes, knowing that they’ll never have to ramp back up to an assertive style. Under the Elam Ending, leading teams would assume a risk by stalling as the timed portion winds down – totally disrupting the flow of their offense, knowing they will need to ramp back up to an assertive style once the untimed portion begins.
Even if the Elam Ending doesn’t totally eliminate stalling by leading teams, it will definitely alleviate the unpalatability associated with this phenomenon. The current format so often denies us the chance to see the winning team seal its victory with the same style of play that earned it the lead, instead resorting to a wimpy, passive style. And so we would see stalling on one or two possessions a little earlier in the game (under the Elam Ending) – like a calm before the storm – instead of stalling on a handful of possessions at the true end the game (under the current format) – like a calm without the storm.
SOUNDNESS-8: Won’t trailing teams foul deliberately as the timed portion winds down in Elam Ending games?
Level of Concern: None
Deliberate. Fouling. Doesn’t. Work. We’re well aware that deliberate fouling is a totally ineffective means of overcoming a deficit, but it’s also a totally ineffective means of narrowing a deficit.
In the NBA, trailing teams failed to narrow their deficit by even one point in 81.5% of the 535 instances in sampled periods during which they resorted to deliberate fouling. In the NCAA, trailing teams failed to narrow their deficit by even one point in 78.9% of the 819 instances in sampled periods during which they resorted to deliberate fouling. Even these figures might be a little too favorable, given that leading teams often allow uncontested lay-ups during these periods, and because the existence of the one-and-one (a rule that serves no purpose and could be eliminated in the coming years) often works in trailing NCAA teams’ favor.
We can be certain that, under the current format, trailing teams resort to deliberate fouling not because this approach is effective, but because they don’t have any other choice! The Elam Ending gives trailing teams another much more appealing option – playing legitimate defense. The Elam Ending finally allows trailing teams to control their own fate, and I don’t think they’ll give that control right back by sending an opponent to the free throw line. More practically, trailing teams would not want to widen their deficit (as deliberate fouling has proven to do) in advance of the untimed sprint to the finish under the Elam Ending.
But let’s say, for some mysterious unknown reason, that an unpalatable percentage of trailing teams continue to resort to deliberate fouling as the timed portion winds down in Elam Ending games. If this happens, leagues and events can do more than just throw their hands up – they could simply adjust the settings of the Elam Ending, chipping away a little more of the timed portion by beefing up the untimed portion. For example, the NCAA could move from an Under4/Plus7 format to, say, Under5/Plus9. Shifting in this direction (even further, if necessary) would discourage deliberate fouling.
But wait. The Elam Ending should effectively curtail deliberate fouling on its own, but even if it doesn’t, the Elam Ending opens the door for an even more direct, effective, simple, exciting, cool, revolutionary way to eliminate deliberate fouling – and not just from the late stages of the game, but from the entire game.
Think about it. The current format has regrettably given It’sJustPartOfTheGame status to the practice of deliberate fouling. Without deliberate fouling, trailing teams would have zero chance of making a late comeback, and so leagues, events, and on-court officials are powerless to treat such fouls any differently from accidental fouls. This extends to earlier stages of the game, when teams often resort to deliberate away-from-the-play (Hack-a-Shaq) fouls – officials are powerless to use any discretion, and must pretend these fouls are accidental.
Basketball is the toughest sport to officiate, and we ask officials to make tough judgment calls all game long. But this should be easy – identifying blatantly deliberate fouls as such. And by stripping It’sJustPartOfTheGame status from late-game deliberate fouling, the Elam Ending could do the same for Hack-a-Shaq fouling. Leagues and events could categorize such fouls in a manner similar to flagrant fouls – granting free throw(s) and possession to the fouled team – and these practices would be history.
SOUNDNESS-9: Will trailing teams still resort to deliberate fouling during the untimed portion of Elam Ending games? Will leading teams begin to resort to deliberate fouling during the untimed portion?
Level of Concern: Little to None
Currently, we generously use the term “strategy” to describe late-game deliberate fouling by trailing teams, but this term is misleading – this approach hardly ever works (in fact, the data show it to be decidedly counterproductive), and yet trailing teams don’t have any other option. Trailing teams simply have little to no control over their fate. The Elam Ending would finally allow trailing teams to control their fate, and I don’t think they would want to hand that control right back over by sending an opponent to the free throw line.
More importantly, under the current format, trailing teams foul deliberately primarily to stop the clock, not as a means of point prevention (in many instances, trailing teams are perfectly willing to allow a point or two if that’s what it takes to regain possession). Under the Elam Ending, points are the clock. So I think it’s very unlikely we would see trailing teams foul deliberately, but even if we do see this occasionally, at least we can call the approach a “strategy” with a straight face, if it works from time to time, and given that trailing teams have other options, and given that the leading team retains some control over how to counteract it (by deciding which players to have on the floor, and/or by deciding which players to handle the ball).
As for leading teams, I don’t believe they would want to hand away free points either, as much of the above applies in that case, too.
And so the Elam Ending should effectively curtail deliberate fouling on its own, but even if it doesn’t, the Elam Ending opens the door for an even more direct, effective, simple, exciting, cool, revolutionary way to eliminate deliberate fouling all together.
Think about it. The current format has regrettably given It’sJustPartOfTheGame status to the practice of deliberate fouling. Without deliberate fouling, trailing teams would have zero chance of making a late comeback, and so leagues, events, and on-court officials are powerless to treat such fouls any differently from accidental fouls – officials are powerless to use any discretion, and must pretend these fouls are accidental.
Basketball is the toughest sport to officiate, and we ask officials to make tough judgment calls all game long. But this should be easy – identifying blatantly deliberate fouls as such. Leagues and events could categorize such fouls in a manner similar to flagrant fouls – granting free throw(s) and possession to the fouled team – and this practice would be history.
Better still, by stripping It’sJustPartOfTheGame status from late-game deliberate fouling, the Elam Ending could do the same for Hack-a-Shaq fouling (when teams foul deliberately away from the play during the earlier stages of the game). The NBA has been seeking a palatable way to eliminate Hack-a-Shaq fouling, and the Elam Ending could finally provide it.
SOUNDNESS-10: Under the Elam Ending, will teams with medium-to-large leads simply make reckless drives to the basket on every offensive possession in an effort to draw cheap fouls?
Level of Concern: Little to None
First of all, if this happens, think about what we’re seeing – leading offenses being too aggressive! That’s something we never see under the current format. The current format could only wish for a flaw so cool.
But I don’t think we’ll see leading offenses driving recklessly to the basket – defenses and officials will quickly adjust. If necessary, trailing teams can employ a defense (namely, the zone) specifically designed to prevent easy drives to the basket. I’m not even sure this will be necessary, though – I think officials will be on high alert for efforts by the offense to draw cheap fouls – reckless drives, jerking one’s head back when encountering any contact, kicking one’s legs out on a long-range shot, flailing one’s arms on a shot attempts, etc.
SOUNDNESS-11: Under the Elam Ending, won’t trailing teams resort to repeatedly chucking threes in an effort to overcome a large deficit?
Level of concern: Little to None
Under the current format, we see trailing teams chucking threes in an effort to overcome slim, medium-sized, and large deficits – that is, if they even try to make a comeback (trailing teams often throw in the towel currently, overtly conceding approximately 77% of NBA games and 68% of NCAA games). And so if we see trailing teams commonly chucking threes under the Elam Ending, then the Elam Ending would still be considered an improvement in this regard – after all, at least we would see trailing teams trying to mount a comeback!
But I believe we could see trailing teams working the ball inside much more under the Elam Ending. Currently, trailing teams chuck threes (forcing big men to play a disproportionately small role) not only because of the higher potential return, but also because time is precious – they don’t have time to work the ball inside. Under the Elam Ending, trailing teams have time to employ their preferred style – and considering that the leading team is likely to guard against the three, we could see big men play a bigger role late in games than we see currently, and would enjoy interesting strategy and high-quality play.
SOUNDNESS-12: Under the Elam Ending, will leading teams be compelled to cherrypick?
Level of Concern: Mild
Leading teams did not cherrypick during any of the 2017 TBT Jamboree (Elam Ending) games. If, over time, leading teams begin to cherrypick during Elam Ending games, and if it proves effective, and if trailing teams are unable to adjust in any sort of palatable way, then leagues and events should take measures to curtail cherrypicking.
This can be done in a number of ways, and it’s important to consider the two types of cherrypicking. First, consider the more blatant form of cherrypicking – egregious basket-hanging where a player doesn’t even bother with running back on defense, leaving his/her teammates to play 4-on-5 on the other end. If a team is able to turn basket-hanging into a cheap basket (even if the player appears to be injured), we should allow officials the discretion to call a violation, wave off the basket, and require the offending team to restart its possession with a deadball inbounds pass. We ask officials to make tough judgment calls all the time – this type of judgment call would be easy.
The second type of cherrypicking starts with a team playing 5-on-5 halfcourt defense, but then seizing an opportunity to leak out in a cheap way before finishing the defensive possession. This type of cherrypicking is tougher to detect in real time, and so opposing coaches should be able to initiate a replay review to verify the legitimacy of a questionable fastbreak basket during the untimed portion of an Elam Ending game. Each coach could be allowed one unsuccessful challenge per game (at the expense of a timeout; and they’d have to think fast – maybe initiating a challenge before their team crosses into the frontcourt on the ensuing possession?), prompting officials to judge the legitimacy of the play based on a set of objective criteria. It’s like a Lemon Test…for cherrypicking.
To create the Lemon Test for Cherrypicking, I first envisioned a few ways teams might try to basket-hang or leak out, and established a set of criteria that would prohibit such plays. However, we don’t want to legislate out the many legitimate and exciting fastbreak baskets, and so as part of my ongoing robust data collection effort, I have also broken down every instance of a quick transition basket, and softened the criteria accordingly so as to still allow for legitimate fastbreak baskets.
THE LEMON TEST FOR CHERRYPICKING
PART A – if the bold answer clearly applies to any of the Part A items, the basket is ruled good and Lemon Test is complete (Otherwise, proceed to Part B):
- Scoring team’s relative score at start of possession**
- OUTRIGHT LEAD
- Did scoring team start possession in its own backcourt?
- Describe made basket
- How many passes did scoring team make to shorten distance to basket?
- Shot clock reading at time of make or first contact with rim (NBA/NCAA)
- Did scoring possession start with a deadball inbounds pass?
- Was eventual scorer fouled, or was goaltending called?
- Were all x ballhandlers “covered up” (or could x defenders have caught up if running at full speed)?
PART B – applies only if scoring possession followed opponent’s made free throw or live-ball made field goal (Otherwise, proceed to Part C):
- Did scoring possession begin with an inbounds pass touched in backcourt? (Lemon Test ends here)
- NO (basket is disallowed*)
- YES (basket is ruled good)
PART C – applies if opponent had settled into halfcourt offense on other end (includes any instance of an opponent’s frontcourt deadball inbounds pass or jump ball), OR if opponent missed field goal attempt on other end, OR if opponent missed last free throw attempt on other end (Otherwise, proceed to Part D):
- Did eventual scorer clearly neglect defensive responsibilities?
- YES (basket is disallowed* and Lemon Test is complete)
- NO (go to next question)
- Did eventual scorer begin running back (other than in an attempt to retrieve loose ball; other than running in the direction of a loose ball or long rebound) before team had possession (or a clear shot at possession)?
- YES (go to next question)
- NO (basket is ruled good and Lemon Test is complete)
- Did eventual scorer “reset” (by stopping his/her forward progress for the applicable amount of time) before shooting or making any pass, or did eventual scorer make the initial strip/deflection/block that led to a teammate’s steal/rebound? (Lemon Test ends here)
- YES (basket is ruled good)
- NO (basket is disallowed*)
- Did eventual scorer clearly neglect defensive responsibilities? (Lemon Test ends here)
- YES (basket is disallowed*)
- NO (basket is ruled good)
*Offending team is then required to restart possession with a deadball inbounds pass (could introduce a condition where second cherrypicking violation results in turnover, third violation results in technical foul)
**If for some weird reason, trailing teams come to cherrypick somewhat commonly, this item could simply be removed from the Lemon Test
Of course, we want coaches to have the opportunity to have cheap baskets overturned, but we don’t want them killing the mood (especially on a walk-off basket) with “frivolous” challenges. Leagues and events could punish frivolous challenges (initiating a challenge on any basket that satisfies, say, three or more conditions for being ruled good) by revoking a team’s right to challenge in its next game.
Also, we don’t want this long list of conditions to take away players’ assertiveness when presented with legitimate fastbreak opportunities. This shouldn’t be a concern though – coaches and players can keep it simple, and never worry about violating the Lemon Test (which, again, only results in restarting the possession anyway), by just finishing every possession on defense! Players would just need to remind themselves that, until they or their teammate has clear possession of the ball, then they are still a defender.
And if all of this doesn’t effectively curtail cherrypicking, then I still have a few contingency plans in mind, and we can still crowdsource if necessary to find the right approach.
SOUNDNESS-13: Under the Elam Ending, wouldn’t the leading team foul deliberately in the 3/2-1 scenario (offense exactly three points from the target score; defense exactly one or two points from the target score)?
Level of Concern: Little to None
I do believe the leading team should and will foul deliberately in such a situation, so as to prevent a game-ending three-pointer (fouling would virtually guarantee the original leading team at least one more possession to reach the target score before its opponent).
So wait – why is this any more forgivable/acceptable than the deliberate fouling we see under the current format? For starters, the current format includes a roughly equivalent scenario, where the leading team is compelled to foul deliberately to prevent a three-pointer (in that scenario, the foul is designed to prevent a game-tying three-pointer). Let’s now compare the Elam Ending 3/2-1 scenario (simply read or said “three two one”) to the current format’s more common type of deliberate fouling – trailing teams fouling to stop the clock:
- We can call the 3/2-1 foul a “strategy” with a straight face – the leading team has at least one other option (to play legitimate defense and hope for a zero-point possession, instead of fouling deliberately to allow a one- or two-point possession), and the strategy would work a fair amount of the time. Conversely, trailing teams deliberately fouling under the current format is hardly a strategy – they have no other option, and it almost never works.
- The 3/2-1 scenario would arise in a small percentage of Elam Ending games, unlike the deliberate fouling that we see in approximately half of games under the current format
- The 3/2-1 foul is not a repeatable strategy (as soon as the original trailing team makes one free throw, the 3/2-1 scenario cannot be entered again in that game), unlike the deliberate fouling we often see possession after possession under the current format
- The 3/2-1 scenario would always precede a thrilling, sudden-death finish under the Elam Ending – the calm before a truly inevitable storm – unlike deliberate fouling under the current format, which so often precedes (even causes) forgettable and unsatisfying finishes
- Even though the Elam Ending’s 3/2-1 scenario is far less of a concern than the current format’s deliberate fouling, leagues and events can still take measures to address this small concern, unlike the deliberate fouling that the NBA and NCAA have acknowledged is bad for the sport (by implementing rules as far back as the 1950s designed to address this specific phenomenon), but have since given up on addressing (by abandoning those rules after seeing the unintended consequences of punishing the fouling team more harshly)
So leagues and events could allow 3/2-1 scenarios to play out naturally, but I believe in some cases you would see an offensive player smartly chuck the ball toward the basket (even from halfcourt or beyond) the moment he/she is fouled as a way to earn three free throw attempts. This would lead to some controversial and unsatisfying endings, and I believe leagues and events should introduce a preventative measure – offering optional 3/2-1 Insurance. Here’s how it works:
- 3/2-1 Insurance is designed to allow a leading team to complete its objective of preventing a game-ending three-pointer, while eliminating the risk that an opposing ballhandler will cleverly earn a three-shot trip to the line. Essentially, leading teams now have three options instead of two. They can:
- Play out the scenario naturally and play legitimate defense
- Play out the scenario naturally and foul deliberately
- Take 3/2-1 Insurance
- During the last media timeout (which also happens to be the transition from the timed portion of the game to the untimed portion), officials ask each* coach if they would like 3/2-1 Insurance, or if they would like to play out the scenario naturally with a lead; each coach’s decision is relayed to the other coach, other officials, those at the scorer’s table, and likely to all other onlookers. This can all be accomplished in a matter of seconds. (*obviously, only one coach can enter the 3/2-1 scenario with the lead, but we don’t necessarily know which coach that will be ahead of time)
- If the applicable coach opts for 3/2-1 Insurance, then officials immediately stop play if and when the game enters the 3/2-1 scenario (again, this means the offense is exactly three points from the target score, and the defense is exactly one or two points from victory). This can happen in a variety of ways – here are a few examples:
- Target Score: 100; Team A made basket/free throw gives it a 99-97 (or 98-97) lead over Team B
- Target Score: 100; Team B gathers defensive rebound while trailing 99-97 (or 98-97) vs. Team A
- Target Score: 100; Team B forces live-ball turnover while trailing 99-97 (or 98-97) vs. Team A
- Target Score: 100; Team B forces dead-ball turnover while trailing 99-97 (or 98-97) vs. Team A
- The trailing team (in all of the above examples, that would be Team B) chooses any** player currently on the floor to attempt two*** free throws with the lane completely vacant (like a technical foul). Notice:
- The leading team doesn’t have to go through the motions of actually committing a deliberate foul
- There is no chance of an offensive rebound, so there is no reason for the original trailing team to consider intentionally missing a free throw to create a silly onside-kick-style scramble
- The leading team gets what it wanted – preventing a game-ending three-pointer (guaranteeing itself at least one more possession), without risking a three-shot foul
- The trailing team gets a free opportunity to tally one or two points
- **To make this process a little more authentic (or maybe it would just make it confusing), leagues and events could introduce a condition where the trailing team gets to choose its free throw shooter only if the game enters the 3/2-1 scenario by way of made basket/free throw or dead-ball turnover (situations where, if played out naturally, the team would have likely put the ball in the hands of its best free throw shooter); otherwise, if the game enters the 3/2-1 scenario by way of defensive rebound or live-ball turnover (situations where, if played out naturally, the team would not have been able to choose who handles the ball), it must send a particular player (the player who secured the rebound or turnover) to the free throw line
- ***If a team opts for 3/2-1 Insurance, it would have to forfeit any fouls-to-give it might have remaining (this shouldn’t be a big deal – if the team is intent on sending its opponent to the free throw line, it would have been willing to throw away its fouls-to-give anyway); if an NCAA team opts for 3/2-1 Insurance, it should probably have to forfeit the one-and-one – maybe just for that possession (with this in mind, some NCAA coaches might decline insurance, play out the scenario naturally, and foul deliberately to still take advantage of the one-and-one…but it’s risky!). Or the NCAA could do us all a favor and just get rid of the one-and-one entirely, given that it serves absolutely no purpose
- After the second free throw attempt, live-ball play resumes with an original leading team (Team A) inbounds pass; here we go – a sudden-death finish! (In the unlikely event that both free throw attempts are missed, then the process is repeated if the game happens to encounter the 3/2-1 scenario again)
All of this adds an opportunity for fun debate and second-guessing in certain games – most notably, if a team gets burned after declining 3/2-1 Insurance.
SOUNDNESS-14: Under the Elam Ending, wouldn’t a team intentionally miss its last remaining free throw attempt in the 2/2-1 scenario (offense exactly two points from the target score; defense exactly one or two points from the target score)?
Level of Concern: Little to None
I do believe a team should and will intentionally miss the free throw attempt in such a situation, foregoing a chance to tally one additional point in favor of a chance to gather an offensive rebound and extend a potential game-winning possession.
Keep in mind there is a roughly equivalent scenario under the current format, where a trailing team is compelled to intentionally miss a free throw in the closing seconds in an effort to gather an offensive rebound and retain possession. There is also an additional scenario under the current format where a team is compelled to intentionally miss a free throw while leading by exactly one or two points in the closing seconds – not to gather an offensive rebound, but instead to saddle its opponent with an especially difficult last-second shot.
Like the 3/2-1 scenario (where the trailing team would likely foul deliberately), leagues and events could allow the 2/2-1 scenario (read or said “two two one”) to play out naturally, but I believe the silly onside-kick-style scramble induced by an intentionally missed free throw would lead to some controversial and unsatisfying endings, and I believe leagues and events should introduce a preventative measure – yes, offering optional 2/2-1 Insurance. Here’s how it works:
- 2/2-1 Insurance is designed to protect the defense from allowing a silly onside-kick-style offensive rebound on an intentionally missed free throw, which could lead to a game-ending score on the same (extended) possession. The defense now has one additional option:
- Play out the scenario naturally, and watch as the opposing shooter sinks his/her last free throw (closing to within one point of the target score)
- Play out the scenario naturally, and battle for a rebound that results from a missed free throw
- Take 2/2-1 Insurance
- If and when the 2/2-1 scenario arises (again, this means the shooting team is exactly two points from the target score, has exactly one free throw attempt remaining, and its opponent is exactly one or two points from the target score), an official asks the defense’s coach at that moment (not in advance) if he/she would like 2/2-1 Insurance
- If the defense’s coach opts for 2/2-1 Insurance, then the offense’s coach chooses any* player currently on the floor to take one free throw with the lane completely vacant (like a technical foul). Notice:
- There is no chance of an offensive rebound, so there is no reason for the shooting team to consider intentionally missing the free throw to create a silly onside-kick-style scramble
- The defense gets what it wanted – preventing an offensive rebound that could lead to an immediate game-ending score (instead guaranteeing itself at least one more possession)
- The trailing team gets a free opportunity (a better opportunity actually, given that it is able to choose its best free throw shooter) to tally one more point
- *This would probably need to include only players who were already in the game at the time of the foul, but I could be flexible on this if there’s a good reason to make more players available as choices for the shooting team
- After the free throw attempt, live-ball play resumes with an inbounds pass by the non-shooting team; here we go – a sudden-death finish! (In the unlikely event that the game enters the 2/2-1 scenario again, the process would be repeated)
All of this adds an opportunity for fun debate and second-guessing in certain games – most notably, if a team gets burned after declining 2/2-1 Insurance.
SOUNDNESS-15: Under the Elam Ending, will any games still end with a replay review?
Level of Concern: Little to None
Currently, we overly romanticize buzzer beaters – they don’t happen nearly enough, and when they do happen, they necessitate a celebration-dampening replay review. The Elam Ending will take the guesswork out of walk-off shots, sparking more genuine, uninhibited celebrations.
There will be very rare instances when a walk-off jumper must be reviewed to determine whether two or three points should be granted (the current format is just as vulnerable to this particular type of review), and very rare instances when a walk-off breakaway lay-up/dunk must be reviewed to determine whether it passes the Lemon Test for Cherrypicking (leagues and events can easily introduce measures to discourage frivolous challenges). But a primary goal of the Elam Ending is to eliminate or alleviate many of the current format’s late-game flaws, and the Elam Ending would certainly accomplish the latter regarding replay reviews of game-ending shots.
SOUNDNESS-16: Will the Elam Ending adversely affect the quality of officiating?
Level of Concern: None
Right or wrong, officials are often criticized for “swallowing their whistle,” allowing more contact during the late stages of games under the current format. We might see a similar effect during the late stages of Elam Ending games. At worst, the Elam Ending might be a wash compared to the current format in this particular regard, but carrying over the swallow-the-whistle phenomenon might actually be a good thing, as it would discourage the leading team from trying to draw cheap fouls while on offense (jerking head back, flailing arms, kicking legs out on jump shots, etc.)
Overall, the Elam Ending is very likely to make officiating even better than it already is, by preserving a more natural style of play (the type of play that the game’s rules were meant to govern) through the end of every game, and by removing all game-clock responsibilities and considerations from officials’ plates during the untimed portion of the game – allowing officials to focus entirely on the action on the court. Sure, officials will need to keep an eye out for leakouts, and facilitate 3/2-1 Insurance and 2/2-1 Insurance when necessary, but that will be relatively easy.
SOUNDNESS-17: What does the data say about women’s basketball?
I would love to study late-game phenomena in WNBA, NCAA women’s basketball, or any other women’s basketball organization. Please reach out to me at email@example.com if you’d like to collaborate!
Here is select data from the final four minutes of all 38 4th quarters (and two overtime periods) from the 2016 Rio Olympics women’s tournament:
Trailing teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 12 of the 40 4th quarter/overtime periods:
|Failed to Narrow Deficit||10 (83.3%)|
|Narrowed Deficit, but Lost||2 (16.7%)|
|Forced Overtime||0 (0.0%)|
|Won in Same Period||0 (0.0%)|
Eight of the 4th quarter/overtime periods ended with a possession that could have tied or won the game. Two of those possessions (25.0%) were converted, on 0.50 PPP.
Let’s 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). Four of thirteen such possessions (30.8%) were converted, on 0.62 PPP.
The 38 games ended in the following ways:
|Meaningful Made Basket||2 (5.3%)|
|Unsuccessful Meaningful Possession||4 (10.5%)|
|Meaningless Shot Attempt||11 (28.9%)|
|Leading Player Stalls||18 (47.4%)|
|Trailing Player Stalls||3 (7.9%)|
SOUNDNESS-18: Could the Elam Ending be used at all levels of play?
The Elam Ending is meant for levels of play where teams commonly manipulate the clock late in games. This includes most levels of play – the main exceptions might be leagues for very young children, where players go all-out on every possession no matter the time and score, and very non-competitive recreational leagues.
The Elam Ending could be especially beneficial for leagues where no shot clock is used (the trailing team’s disadvantage is even more severe with no shot clock to help them), and/or events where games are often scheduled back-to-back (because the Elam Ending eliminates overtime). Some possible drawbacks in such leagues could be widely-varying scoring rates (making it harder to find an appropriate uniform number to use for determining the target score for all games), and a lack of replay technology (merely meaning the on-court officials would need to be especially watchful of cherrypicking/leakouts), but the Elam Ending would bring a net benefit.
SOUNDNESS-19: The Elam Ending needs more testing before being implemented at the highest levels
I agree – even though the concept of playing basketball to a target score has been tested on playgrounds all over the world for generations!
I’ll forever be grateful to Jon Mugar, Dan Friel, and the good folks at TBT for giving the hybrid duration format its big break in 2017 – finally advancing the concept from paper to the court. The NBA, WNBA, FIBA, and NCAA will (understandably) likely want to see continued success and fine-tuning of the Elam Ending at various leagues and levels being considering adopting the format.
$$$-1: Won’t game lengths (as measured in actual time) vary more?
Level of concern: Little to None
The jury is still out on whether the Elam Ending would increase the variability of game lengths. If it does increase variability, this is of little concern (yes, this factor is important for broadcasting partners, but the increase in variability would be relatively slight). If it doesn’t increase variability, this is of no concern.
Variability of game length is an important consideration. It’s the heart of the hybrid duration format – the fundamental reason for incorporating a game clock for all but the final stretch of each game (instead of abandoning the game clock entirely). I have a hunch that, with the Elam Ending, variability will increase slightly in the length of regulation games. Even this might manifest in an appealing way, where blowouts end more quickly (with the leading team committed to getting its seven points and going home) than they do currently, and where suspenseful games last a little longer (with the trailing team hanging around with defensive stops, treating us to additional possessions of fluid, real basketball, instead of choppy foul-a-thons).
Then again, the Elam Ending might actually reduce the variability in game lengths overall, given how those foul-a-thons and overtime periods warp game lengths under the current format.
All in all, the Elam Ending might introduce a weirdly cool, seemingly contradictory feel to the end of games. Knowing your team (if trailing) is only seven points – possibly three possessions – from losing the game, heightens the imminence compared to what we experience currently (knowing your team will have its share of three or four game-time minutes’ worth of possessions)…and knowing your team theoretically has all the time in the world to come back (as long as it continues to make defensive stops) heightens the sense of hope!
$$$-2: Will the Elam Ending take away commercial time from broadcast partners (by possibly compelling teams to call fewer timeouts than the current format)?
Level of Concern: Mild
Under the Elam Ending, teams might call the same number of timeouts that they do currently – after all, coaches will still want to strategize as their team and/or their opponent approach the target score. This wouldn’t be such a bad scenario – broadcast partners could offer just as much commercial time as they do currently, and play on the court would be much more fluid, natural, and exciting between those timeouts as compared to the choppy and unnatural style of play we often see late in games currently.
However, I have a hunch that teams will call slightly fewer timeouts than they do currently, given that the current format offers more tangible incentives for calling timeouts (conserving time in a few different scenarios, most notably by automatically advancing the ball to the frontcourt in the NBA; removing players in foul trouble from the game in situations when your team intends to foul deliberately; etc.). This wouldn’t be such a bad scenario, either.
An excessive number of timeouts can be unpalatable (bad for fans), and can essentially be dead air (bad for broadcast partners) in the many cases when networks don’t go to break during short timeouts (on a side note, overtime – which would be eliminated under the Elam Ending – rarely, if ever, provides additional commercial time for broadcast partners). Don’t take my word for it – the NCAA and NBA have already acknowledged that too many timeouts can be a bad thing by reducing the number of allotted timeouts in recent years.
Anyway, if the Elam Ending indeed leads to a slight decrease in called timeouts, someone will devise a creative and subtle solution to satisfy leagues, broadcast partners, sponsors, and fans alike. Come to think of it, the NBA and NCAA are doing it now – surely they’ve made some business-savvy adjustment to counterbalance the recent reduction in allotted timeouts and satisfy all parties, but I can’t tell what it is (and I watch a lot of late-game basketball). So a further reduction in timeouts might simply necessitate a similarly subtle adjustment.
…or it might necessitate basketball to follow an emerging and painless trend seen now in Major League Baseball – the super-quick split-screen commercial break. Recently, MLB broadcasts have included 10-second split-screen commercials during coaching visits to the pitcher’s mound. Basketball could include such quick breaks during virtually any (two-or-three-shot) trip to the free throw line over the course of a game.
$$$-3: How will the Elam Ending change the appearance of TV scorebugs, in-arena scoreboards, etc.?
Level of Concern: None
The ESPN3 scorebug looked great during 2017 TBT Jamboree – it simply replaced the space normally occupied by the game clock graphic, with a graphic that read “First to ___ wins”
In-arena digital scoreboards could make the same simple change. Or, like 2017 TBT Jamboree, arenas could introduce a manually-operated display just for the target score. This opens up some interesting possibilities for new traditions – if a game’s target score is displayed on a manually-operated scoreboard, venues could arrange for a youngster, devoted fan, honored guest, etc. to put the numerals in place (receiving a nice ovation, and rallying the crowd similar to the way guests rally the crowd during the seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley Field) as the game transitions from the timed to untimed portion. Arenas could also add some theater to the act of shutting off the game clock, to build the drama in advance of the untimed final stretch.
The most interesting discussion involves the game clock display during the timed portion of the final period. Some options below, using NCAA as an example – where the Elam Ending calls for the current 20-minute 2nd half to be replaced by a 16-minute timed portion followed by an untimed portion (the untimed portion meant to serve as a rough equivalent to four minutes of game time):
- At the start of the 2nd half, start the clock at 0:00 and count up to (and maybe slightly past) 16:00; after the next timeout/dead ball/made basket, take a break, shut off the clock, and play the untimed portion
- Nah, the idea of the Elam Ending is not to change the sport – it’s to do the opposite, and give us more real basketball; an upward-counting clock instantly harkens to a different sport
- At the start of the 2nd half, start the clock at 16:00 and count down to 0:00; after the next timeout/dead ball/made basket, take a break, shut off the clock, and play the untimed portion
- Nah, counting down to 0:00 will cause confusion for casual fans (who will wonder why the game isn’t over); this might also have a negative unconscious effect on trailing teams, who might feel a stronger sense of urgency (being more likely to resort to silly, counterproductive approaches like deliberate fouling on defense, and rushing through sloppy possessions on offense) than they should
- At the start of the 2nd half, start the clock at 20:00 and count down to 4:00; after the next timeout/dead ball/made basket, take a break, shut off the clock, and play the untimed portion
- I prefer this option, as I believe it most accurately conveys the status of the game at any given time, relative to the game’s conclusion; it also worked well during 2017 TBT Jamboree. Some sub-options:
- The clock could continue to tick below 4:00 until the next timeout/dead ball/made basket (I don’t like this, because I think it draws undue attention to how much time elapses during that brief span)
- The clock could freeze at 4:00 until the next timeout/dead ball/made basket (this ain’t bad)
- The clock could blink 4:00 until the next timeout/dead ball/made basket (I prefer this option)
- I prefer this option, as I believe it most accurately conveys the status of the game at any given time, relative to the game’s conclusion; it also worked well during 2017 TBT Jamboree. Some sub-options:
$$$-4: How will the Elam Ending affect the gambling industry?
I believe the Elam Ending will increase interest in gambling even further, by introducing fun prop bets associated with walk-off shots, and will give the industry yet another way to stay one step ahead of the betting public.
Other notes (not necessarily good or bad):
- Overtime bad beats (on spread, and on over/under) will be a thing of the past
- Foul-a-thon bad beats (on spread, and on over/under) will be a thing of the past
- In some games, under bets will be certain to win the moment the target score is set
- In some games, over bets will be certain to win the moment the target score is set (even if the designated score sum hasn’t been reached yet)
$$$-5: How will the Elam Ending affect video games?
I’m not much of a video game player, but from what I remember about playing NBA Jam occasionally back in the day, four-corners offense and foul-a-thon defense are not often used. No matter the time/score situation, it seems like the idea is to put a shot up within the first 3-4 seconds of a possession. In other words, the Elam Ending isn’t really designed to address the style of play used in video games, because players aren’t trying to manipulate the game clock.
Still, whether or not the Elam Ending is adopted in real life, video games could still offer an Elam Ending option. The game could even offer customizable Elam Ending settings, where players can adjust the time at which the game clock shuts off (not necessarily the 3:00/4:00 mark), and can adjust the method for establishing the target score (not necessarily +7).
$$$-6: Some party must be affected detrimentally by the implementation of the Elam Ending, right? So who is it?
I honestly believe everyone wins with the Elam Ending.
Fans: games that are more fluid and less predictable as they happen, and more memorable after they happen
Players: the rush of playing more intense, natural basketball during crunch time; having their name and face attached to the images of walk-off shots; big men playing a bigger role in crunch time; more lasting and vivid memories of their playing days
Coaches: getting to use their full arsenal of plays and players through the end of every game; having a vivid, defining, walk-off moment to seal every coaching milestone
Referees: officiating a more natural style of play, and having game-clock-related considerations taken completely off their plate late in games
Owners/broadcast partners/advertisers: increased interest in the game; a net positive effect when considering the overall effect on ratings, commercial time, etc. (I don’t think the Elam Ending will even create a problem to be solved here, but if it does, someone can easily devise a smart and creative solution for it)
Broadcasters: opportunity for more memorable late-game and game-ending calls
Print/online media, sportstalk industry: more vivid, memorable, storyline-filled late-game sequences
Gambling industry: increased interest in the sport; introduction of interesting prop bets; yet another opportunity to stay one step ahead of the betting public
Memorabilia industry: more walk-off moments to provide and increase value to certain items
Bar owners: increased interest in the sport; more patrons staying until the end of the game (because the outcome is less predictable, and for fear of missing out on the walk-off moment)
Medical staff: less wear and tear on players (no more deliberate fouling, no more overtime)
Statisticians: creation of an arms race to most accurately assess/predict player performance and coaching performance during the untimed portion of the game (and blend it with timed portion of the game)
Event organizers/gameday workers: no more playing overtime to throw a wrench in events where games are scheduled back-to-back; the overwhelming majority of gameday workers (yes, most of them paid hourly) would love the elimination of playing overtime
…and Game clock operators: the most high-pressure work will be taken off their plate, and they could still play a valuable role during the untimed portion of the game (by tracking hypothetical game time with a stopwatch for statistical purposes), or they might just get to relax and enjoy the final portion of the game from the best seat in the house!
NUTS AND BOLTS-1: How do you calculate the target score if the timed portion of the game ends on an and-1?
In such a case, the made basket is tallied, then the target score is determined, then the free throw is attempted.
Example: Team A leads Team B, 65-60, as the game passes the designated time threshold, and then a Team A player is fouled while making a lay-up. In this case, the target score would be set to 74 (67+7), and then Team A would attempt one free throw before live-ball play begins in the untimed portion.
Again, as mentioned in the previous entry, I would be open to attempting the free throw before determining the target score, but this might lead to some confusion in case of a miss.
NUTS AND BOLTS-2: What if a team still has free throws left to attempt when it reaches the target score?
Once a team reaches the target score, no additional free throws will be attempted.
- Team A leads, 103-100 (Target Score 105), then makes a lay-up while being fouled; Team A immediately wins, 105-100 – no and-1 free throw is attempted
- Team A leads, 78-72 (Target Score 79), then is fouled, then makes the first free throw; Team A immediately wins, 79-72 – no second free throw is attempted
NUTS AND BOLTS-3: How will the Elam Ending work if men’s college basketball goes to quarters?
I’m lukewarm on quarters. I don’t like that it creates additional hard stoppages throughout the game, forcing additional rushed/sloppy possessions. However, I kinda like the additional resets of team fouls, and I love that quarters completely eliminates the one-and-one (a rule that serves absolutely no purpose).
Anyway, no matter the league, level, length of game, scoring rate, quarter/half format, etc., there’s an Elam Ending variation that fits best. At first glance, if men’s college basketball were to convert to 10-minute quarters (with a media timeout at the first stoppage under the 5:00 mark), I would favor an Under5/Plus9 format, meaning:
- The game clock would be shut off after the first timeout/dead ball/made basket after the 5:00 mark in the 4th quarter (because this is already a natural stopping point, and because this is still a little before teams with medium-sized leads typically begin to stall and manipulate the clock)
- The target score would be determined by adding nine to the leading team’s score at the time the game clock is shut off (because we’re essentially removing 1/8 of the game, we need to add 1/8 of it back, and 9 represents approximately 1/8 of a team’s point total in a typical game)
Of course, all of these time/score variations are written in pencil, and could be adjusted if appropriate.
NUTS AND BOLTS-4: Why not add a condition that a team must win by two points (or three points, or four points, etc.) under the Elam Ending?
I respectfully oppose this, as I don’t see how it adds anything to end-of-game excitement and/or fairness.
Regarding excitement, if an Elam Ending game reaches a true sudden-death scenario (where both teams are within one point of the target score), and/or if a team reaches the target score with just one more point than its opponent, then we’re enjoying exactly the kind of finish we would have hoped for! Why mess it up by extending the game with a Win-By-X condition? We see how often overtime creates anticlimax under the current format, as approximately 50% of overtime periods end in a less exciting manner than the period that precedes it.
Regarding fairness, I worry that a Win-By-X condition would lead to some funky, unnatural, silly, not-particularly-exciting strategies in an effort to play a numbers game.
NUTS AND BOLTS-5: What about the Elam Ending’s effect on statistical recordkeeping?
Level of Concern: None
Let’s get one thing straight – the stats work for the sport, not the other way around. Any league or event should make decisions and rules first to serve the interests of fairness, safety, quality, excitement, etc., and figure out the statistics later.
Let’s not forget that the current format is vulnerable to misleading/warping effects. Foul-a-thons (which disproportionately inflate scores late in games), sloppy/rushed possessions, uncontested shots, etc. warp stats, overtime necessarily warps per-game stats, and yet we seem to willfully ignore these effects.
With that in mind, the Elam Ending actually provides an opportunity to improve the statistics of the sport, allowing them to be more representative of participants’ ability and performance. The simplest way to do this is by going all-in on a trend that has already emerged as the norm anyway – using per-possession stats (instead of per-game or per-minute stats). The approach to gathering per-possession stats would not need to change if the Elam Ending were adopted.
If entities still want to use per-game stats, the Elam Ending would be an improvement, by eliminating overtime and by eliminating/alleviating the unnatural style of play so often seen late in games currently. If entities still want to use per-minute stats, the arena game clock operator (who otherwise would not have any responsibilities during the untimed portion of an Elam Ending game) could track hypothetical game time using a stopwatch, and record when player substitutions are made during the untimed portion.
Anyway, someone smart will figure out a way to track stats under the Elam Ending, and the advent of the format would provide an opportunity for someone to distinguish him- or herself in the field of sports analytics by doing so.
NUTS AND BOLTS-6: Should some sort of sound be introduced/used to signal the end of Elam Ending games, in the way that the buzzer signals the end of every game under the current format?
Level of Concern: None
I like the idea that every Elam Ending game will end not with the blare of a horn, but with the swish of a net (except for those extremely rare games that end with a goaltending call!). But if there is demand for a sound to signal the end of Elam Ending games, I’m confident that someone creative will think of a cool way to make it happen.
CONTACT INFO: How do I submit questions and comments about the Elam Ending?
Believe me – I fully understand that when proposing a concept like this, I must be open to criticism! After seeing the Elam Ending in action at 2017 TBT Jamboree, I’m more confident than ever that this concept will live on, and I welcome any scrutiny that can help fine-tune this concept, and that can ultimately help make the great game of basketball even greater. No one ever has to apologize for criticizing the Elam Ending.
Of course, I welcome positive feedback too, and I’m heartened by all the positive feedback I’ve received! Either way, you may contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. For those with questions, I prefer to round up questions over a short span and then respond to all of them in one sitting, so I might take a week or longer to reply.
I haven’t received many personal jabs, but I’m a good sport when I do (every school principal quickly learns not to take oneself too seriously!). If you go this route (whether by contacting me directly, or when discussing the Elam Ending in any other forum), I ask only that you make it good, make it original, make it funny!
Yes, I’m a good sport about the whole thing. I’ve always been able to keep this entire endeavor in perspective, all the while advancing a crazy dream that, just maybe, the great game of basketball will be played all across the world, and at the highest levels of play, for generations to come, using a concept I devised and championed. This pursuit has been a joy, and continues to be a joy – a pursuit whose ambitiousness might be matched only by its absurdity. Who couldn’t laugh about that?