THE BASKET INEFFICIENCY: 1.1 SECONDS WE CAN NEVER GET BACK

March 13, 2017
Nicholas Patrick

On March 3, Princeton guard Amir Bell made a driving lay-up to give his Tigers a 71-69 lead with 1.1 seconds remaining vs. Harvard. Princeton hung on and sealed a 73-69 victory…a full TEN minutes later. You see, the final 1.1 seconds of game time proceeded as follows:

  • Harvard calls timeout
  • Princeton calls timeout (after seeing Harvard set up for inbounds play)
  • Harvard commits five-second violation before inbounding ball
  • Princeton inbounds ball, Harvard immediately commits deliberate foul with 0.5 seconds remaining
  • Officials conduct review (complete with stopwatches and tiny monitors!) to determine the game clock should be reset to 0.8 seconds
  • Harvard calls timeout
  • Princeton makes both one-and-one free throws to increase lead to 73-69 (during which, a sense of doom settled in for Harvard about just how insurmountable Princeton’s slim lead was; no matter what happened on Princeton’s free throws – miss, or make/miss, or make/make – Harvard was toast)
  • Harvard calls timeout (drawing boos)
  • Harvard rolls inbounds pass to midcourt
  • Time expires before Harvard can attempt a meaningless shot

Ugh. Under the hybrid duration format I propose here, Harvard would not have to call a timeout (let alone three timeouts!) to set up gimmicky plays, Princeton would not have to call timeout to defend gimmicky plays, Harvard would not have to foul deliberately (and hand free points to Princeton) to stop the clock, the officials would not have to conduct a review to determine how much time remained on that game clock, Harvard would not have to roll its inbounds pass or have its possession cut short after just one pass, Harvard would never feel that a two- (or three-, or four-) point deficit is too much to overcome, and fans would never boo them for trying.

Instead, based on Princeton’s 65-63 lead after 36 minutes of play, the game clock would have been shut off and the first team to reach 72 points would have been declared the winner. If this hypothetical game had encountered a 69-69 tie (as the actual game did), we would have been treated to virtual sudden-death basketball, not complete and utter slop.

Continue reading to see more detailed information about the game clock’s warping effect on late-game quality and style of play:

This particular sample includes each of the 36 nationally-televised NBA games played February 23, 2017 – March 12, 2017 (four of these games proceeded to overtime, so 40 total 4th quarter/overtime periods are considered), and each of the 63 NCAA men’s games televised live by ESPNU from February 17, 2017 – March 12, 2017 (seven of these games proceeded to overtime – including one game that proceeded to double overtime – so 71 total 2nd half/overtime periods are considered)

DELIBERATE FOULING
Trailing teams often commit deliberate fouls late in games in an effort to conserve time. The effectiveness of this strategy can be categorized in the following ways:

  • Counterproductive: fouling team ends same period with a deficit equal to or greater than its deficit at the time of the first deliberate foul
  • Futile: fouling team ends same period with a deficit narrower than its original deficit, but still trailing (and losing, necessarily)
  • Partially Successful: fouling team ends same period in a tie with its opponent, forcing overtime (or an additional overtime)
  • Completely Successful: fouling team ends same period with the lead (and the win, necessarily)

Trailing NBA teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 16 of the 40 sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods, and trailing NCAA teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 47 of the 71 sampled 2nd half/overtime periods.

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

NBA NCAA
Counterproductive 14 (87.5%) 38 (80.9%)
Futile 1 (6.25%) 5 (10.6%)
Partially Successful 1 (6.25%) 4 (8.5%)
Completely Successful 0 (0.0%) 0 (0.0%)

STALLING
Leading NBA teams stalled in the overwhelming majority of the 40 sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods. In many other games, the leading team was deliberately fouled before it had the chance to stall. And in most of the remaining instances, the trailing team overtly conceded the game before the leading team would have normally considered stalling. Only one (2.5%) of the sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods was truly stalling-free:

  • March 10 (4Q): Wizards at Kings

None (0.0%) of the 71 sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods was truly stalling-free.

In two instances, a leading NBA team willingly accepted a shot clock violation while stalling in the closing seconds. In two instances, a leading NCAA team willingly accepted a shot clock violation while stalling in the closing seconds.

RUSHED/SLOPPY/INCOMPLETE POSSESSIONS
The game clock further contributes to an ugly brand of basketball by forcing the trailing (and in some cases, tied) team to attempt ugly shots. This effect is strongest during the final possession of a 4th quarter/2nd half/overtime period.

Consider that seven of the sampled NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods ended with a possession that could have tied or won the game. Only one of those possessions (14.2%) was converted (on 0.29 points per possession):

  • February 26 (4Q): Time expires before Hornets’ Jeremy Lamb can attempt full-court heave at Clippers
  • February 26 (OT): Time expires before Hornets’ Marvin Williams can attempt full-court heave at Clippers
  • March 3 (4Q): Pelicans’ Jrue Holiday airballs fadeaway long two-point jumper vs. Spurs
  • March 3 (OT): Pelicans’ Demarcus Cousins airballs three-pointer vs. Spurs
  • March 5 (4Q): Jazz’s George Hill misses one-handed runner off back of rim at Kings
  • March 5 (OT): Jazz’s Rudy Gobert makes tip-in at Kings
  • March 10 (4Q): Wizards’ John Wall misses long two-point jumper at Kings

17 of the sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods ended with a possession that could have tied or won the game. Only two of those possessions (11.8%) was converted (on 0.29 points per possession):

  • February 17 (2H): Quinnipiac’s Peter Kiss’s three-quarter-court heave lands wide of basket vs. Fairfield
  • February 17 (OT): Quinnipiac’s Peter Kiss misses three-pointer from hash mark off backboard vs. Fairfield
  • February 19: Loyola-Chicago’s Ben Richardson misses halfcourt shot at Illinois State
  • February 19: Utah’s Kyle Kuzma’s three-quarter-court heave lands wide of basket at Oregon State
  • February 20 (2H): Texas Tech’s Zach Smith misses catch-and-shoot turnaround three-pointer off side of rim vs. Iowa State
  • February 20 (OT): Time expires before Texas Tech’s Devon Thomas can attempt deep three-pointer vs. Iowa State
  • February 21: Tulane’s Colin Slater misses three-pointer off back of rim vs. East Carolina
  • February 22: Temple’s Obi Enechionyia’s halfcourt heave lands wide of basket vs. Central Florida
  • February 25 (2H): Temple’s Shizz Alston, Jr. misses running three-pointer from hash mark off back of rim vs. Tulane
  • February 25 (OT): Tulane’s Malik Morgan makes deep three-pointer at Temple
  • February 25 (2H): UC Davis’s J.T. Adenrele misses short jumper off back of rim vs. Long Beach State
  • March 2: South Florida’s Michael Bibby airballs double-pump deep three-pointer vs. Central Florida
  • March 7: Georgia Tech’s Ben Lammers fumbles full-court inbounds pass vs. Pittsburgh (ACC Tournament First Round; Brooklyn, NY)
  • March 10 (2H): Cal State-Fullerton’s Khalil Ahmad misses double-pump three-pointer off front of rim vs. UC Davis (Big West Conference Tournament Semifinal; Anaheim, CA)
  • March 10 (OT): UC Davis’s Chima Moneke makes putback vs. Cal State-Fullerton (Big West Conference Tournament Semifinal; Anaheim, CA)
  • March 11 (2H): Penn’s Darnell Foreman airballs three-pointer vs. Princeton (Ivy League Tournament Semifinal; Philadelphia, PA)
  • March 11 (2H): Weber State’s Jerrick Harding’s three-point attempt blocked by North Dakota’s Cortez Seales (Big Sky Conference Tournament Championship; Reno, NV)

Even if we broaden the definition from actual buzzer beater possessions to potential buzzer beater possessions (any possession where the offense is tied or trailing by 1-3 points, with the shot clock turned off), NBA teams still converted only eight of 24 (33.3%) such possessions (on 0.67 points per possession), and NCAA teams converted only 12 of 51 (23.5%) such possessions (on 0.65 points per possession).

CONCEDING
Trailing NBA teams conceded 26 of 36 sampled games (72.2%) by choosing not to foul deliberately (on at least one late possession when the strategy would have been advisable) while on defense and/or by choosing not to play at a frantic pace (on at least one late possession when the strategy would have been advisable) while on offense and/or by taking its best players out of the game. This does not include a number of instances when teams conceded by choosing not to use all of its available timeouts (to automatically advance the ball into the frontcourt). This includes at least two instances when a team conceded while trailing by six points or fewer.

Trailing NCAA teams conceded 39 of 63 sampled games (61.9%) by choosing not to foul deliberately while on defense and/or by choosing not to play at a frantic pace while on offense. This includes at least five instances when a team conceded while trailing by six points or fewer.

Such close games would never be conceded under a hybrid format.

CLOCK CONTROVERSIES
The final three minutes of all 40 sampled NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods included six clock reviews/errors/malfunctions.

The final four minutes of all 71 sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods included 14 clock reviews/errors/malfunctions, including:

  • February 25 (2H): a two-minute, celebration-squashing review to determine that a would-be game-winning tip-in by UC Davis – initially ruled good – actually came after time expired vs. Long Beach State; buzzerkill!
  • March 9 (Big 12 Conference Tournament Quarterfinal; Kansas City, MO): on a possession that began with 30.1 seconds remaining, West Virginia willingly took a shot clock violation while leading by ten points vs. Texas; the buzzer sounded at the end of the possession, and teams proceeded to the handshake line; officials dutifully reset the game clock to 0.1

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

  • March 5 (4Q) Jazz at Kings: 15 actual minutes (2 made field goals)
  • March 10 Warriors at Timberwolves: 11 (1)

The final minute of 13 NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods lasted ten actual minutes or longer, including the following noteworthy instances:

  • February 17 Kent State at Akron: 13 (1)
  • February 25 (OT) Long Beach State at UC Davis: 10 (0)
  • March 3 Harvard at Princeton: 12 (1)
  • March 7 Pittsburgh vs. Georgia Tech (ACC Tournament First Round; Brooklyn, NY): 15 (2)
  • March 11 Alcorn State vs. Texas Southern (SWAC Tournament Championship; Houston, TX): 10 (0)

UNCEREMONIOUS ENDINGS
The final moment of a given basketball game usually falls into one of five categories:

  • Meaningful made basket (also known as a buzzer beater!)
  • Unsuccessful meaningful possession (when offense trails by 1-3 points)
  • Meaningless (made or missed) shot attempt (when offense already leads, or trails by four points or more; this category also includes additional instances when a player clearly intended to take a meaningless shot, but when time expired before shot could be released)
  • Leading player stalls (in most cases, casually dribbling or holding the ball; in especially close games, this might include a player/team actively evading its opponent’s attempt to commit a deliberate foul)
  • Trailing player stalls (the most striking form of conceding)

The 36 sampled NBA games and 63 sampled NCAA games ended in the following ways:

NBA NCAA
Meaningful Made Basket 1** (2.8%) 1* (1.6%)
Unsuccessful Meaningful Possession 2 (10.9%) 8 (12.7%)
Meaningless Shot Attempt 5 (13.9%) 8 (12.7%)
Leading Player Stalls 24 (66.7%) 42 (66.7%)
Trailing Player Stalls 4 (11.1%) 4 (6.3%)

*March 10 UC Davis vs. Cal State-Fullerton (Big West Conference Tournament Semifinal; Anaheim, CA), which ended with a made basket released in a tie game – so if the shot had been missed, the game would have proceeded to another overtime. A hybrid format would not only lead to an endless supply of games that end with a meaningful made basket, but also with such shots made under greater pressure. After all, if a player misses a potential game-clinching shot in a tie game under a hybrid format, he and his teammates don’t get to settle in for overtime – he and his teammates must race back on defense to avoid losing on the very next possession.

**March 5 (OT) Jazz at Kings, an extremely rare example of a do-or-die, game-winning made buzzer beater (where the offense trails at the time the shot is released); however, the ending wouldn’t have been so bad under a hybrid format, either; the game would have encountered a virtual sudden-death scenario – Jazz ball, trailing 99-97, playing to 100

ANTICLIMACTIC OVERTIMES
Let’s now consider all 4th quarter/2nd half/overtime periods (not just those at the true end of a game), and categorize possible period endings a little differently than in a previous section (listed in decreasing order of excitement):

  • Made basket to win
  • Made basket to tie
  • Unsuccessful meaningful possession (by tied team or team trailing by 1-3 points)
  • Meaningless possession (when offense already has lead, or trails by four points or more)

Four overtime periods were played in sampled NBA games, and can be categorized as follows:

  • Ending of overtime period failed to match the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 1
  • Ending of overtime period managed to match the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 2
  • Ending of overtime period exceeded the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 1

Eight overtime periods were played in sampled NCAA games, and can be categorized as follows:

  • Ending of overtime period failed to match the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 4
  • Ending of overtime period managed to match the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 2
  • Ending of overtime period exceeded the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 2

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Any overtime period, necessarily, follows a nearly-impossible-to-follow act – a 4th quarter/2ndhalf/earlier overtime period that was, by definition, as competitive as can be.

UNCONTESTED SHOTS
Leading NBA teams allowed at least ten uncontested field goals during sampled games. Leading NCAA teams allowed at least nine uncontested field goals during sampled games.

FOULS-TO-GIVE DISADVANTAGE
During the final three minutes of sampled NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods, a trailing team committed a deliberate foul when its opponent was not yet in the bonus (and, consequently, did not serve deliberate fouling’s primary purpose of sending the leading team to the free throw line) in five periods, essentially punishing the trailing team for having committed too few fouls earlier in the period!

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

  • February 22: Temple had to commit five consecutive fouls, and exhaust 11.9 valuable seconds in the process, to send Central Florida to the line

While the fouls-to-give phenomenon disadvantages trailing teams, leading teams can use fouls-to-give to their advantage (by forcing a trailing offense to restart a late possession after exhausting a few valuable seconds) – making late deficits more difficult still to overcome. No leading NBA team used a foul-to-give to its advantage during sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods, and one leading NCAA team also did so during sampled 2nd half/overtime periods.

FOULOUTS
During sampled games, two NBA players committed a sixth foul deliberately and/or in overtime. 17 NCAA players committed a fifth foul deliberately and/or in overtime.

ROLLED INBOUNDS PASSES
During sampled games, trailing NCAA offenses rolled at least 34 inbounds passes in an effort to conserve time, including in the following especially bleak situations:

  • February 22: Oregon State, trailing by 13 points with 31.6 seconds remaining, at Stanford
  • February 28: Pittsburgh, trailing by six points with 1:02 remaining, at Georgia Tech…with the clock running!
  • March 9: Temple, trailing by 15 points with 20.2 seconds remaining, vs. East Carolina (American Athletic Conference Tournament First Round; Hartford, CT)

VACATING THE FREE THROW LANE
During sampled games, leading NCAA offenses vacated the foul lane in 64 instances during the last free throw attempt of a trip, for fear of committing a clock-stopping foul during a rebound attempt.

LET’S GET OUT OF HERE!
February 25 Hornets at Kings: Well after Kings had conceded game, they scored with 8.1 seconds remaining; after Hornets’ Kemba Walker casually receives ensuing inbounds pass, official pleads with him to advance the ball into the frontcourt so he doesn’t have to call a backcourt violation; Kemba obliges