April 15, 2017
On March 28, 2004, my University of Dayton housemates and I struck up a conversation about a problem.
On March 10, 2007, I devised a possible solution to that problem.
On June 17, 2017, my solution will be put to the test.
My housemates and I, like so many other basketball fans, plainly saw the problem – that quality and style of play suffer late in games, primarily through stalling by the leading offense and deliberate fouling by the trailing defense. We even recognized that these flaws were directly attributable to the game clock, but still didn’t have a viable solution in mind. Sure, you could punish the fouling team more harshly, but that wouldn’t provide them with a better alternative. You could eliminate the game clock entirely to de-incentivize stalling and fouling, but the varying length of games would not be friendly to spectators or TV viewers.
Three years later, the idea first hit me to play at least half of each game with a clock (and later, I favored the idea of playing all but the final stretch of each game with a clock), and finish by playing to a certain point total. (The concept really is that simple; I explain some of the important logistical details here.) This would rein in the length of games, and discourage stalling and fouling. And then, one by one, I started to see many residual benefits of this hybrid duration format: no more rushed/sloppy possessions and hopeless heaves by the trailing offense; more satisfying outcomes, whether the trailing team completes a comeback or not (because the leading team and trailing team get to continue playing real basketball through the end of each game); no more waving the white flag; no more late-game clock controversies and reviews; the possibility of true sudden-death basketball; and an endless supply of unforgettable moments, thanks to the guarantee that every game and every championship will end with the swish of a net (unless there’s a goal-tending call!)
Then perhaps the coolest realization – that basketball is the only sport that can enjoy the best of both (timed and untimed) worlds. In every other time-based sport (you name it – football, ice hockey, soccer, lacrosse, water polo, field hockey, rugby, handball, etc.), scoring is much more sporadic, meaning those sports must continue to rely fully on a game clock (and accept that teams will manipulate the clock, often in unentertaining ways).
Over the years, I’ve proposed this hybrid duration format to hundreds within the basketball community. Many have offered very positive feedback, but have been quick to remind me that this type of significant change doesn’t happen often, and certainly doesn’t happen quickly. But Jon Mugar and Dan Friel, founders of The Basketball Tournament (TBT) – a thriving winner-take-all $2 million event featuring high-quality basketball and whose main draw is broadcast on ESPN – have embraced the concept and will implement the hybrid duration format during the preliminary rounds of this year’s event on June 17-18 (TBT Jamboree in Philadelphia). I’m further honored that they have named the format the Elam Ending.
I believe the format will work very well – that it will preserve and enhance the elements of late-game play that we currently enjoy, and eliminate or alleviate the elements we don’t enjoy – and seeing it action will provide it with the scrutiny necessary to fine-tune the format and make it even better. I believe teams might try a number of unnatural strategies in an effort to circumvent the format. I say have at it – I believe nearly all of those strategies will be ineffective, and in the end, real basketball will prevail. (I believe there are 1-2 very specific scenarios where an unnatural style of play would be advisable – I explain here – but that ain’t nuthin’ compared to what we see currently.)
June 17, 2017 will be a proud day for me, and who knows – maybe a historic day for basketball.
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 56 nationally-televised NBA games played March 13, 2017 – April 12, 2017 (three of these games proceeded to overtime, so 59 total 4th quarter/overtime periods are considered), and each of the 67 2017 men’s NCAA Tournament games (one of these games proceeded to overtime, so 68 total 2nd half/overtime periods are considered)
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 24 of the 59 sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods, and trailing NCAA teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 47 of the 68 sampled 2nd half/overtime periods.
Overall, the foul-a-thons produced the following underwhelming level of success:
|Counterproductive||16 (66.7%)||35 (74.5%)|
|Futile||6 (25.0%)||10 (21.3%)|
|Partially Successful||2 (8.3%)||1 (2.1%)|
|Completely Successful||0 (0.0%)||1 (2.1%)|
- This does not include the March 14 Mount Saint Mary’s vs. New Orleans game (First Four in Dayton), where New Orleans’ head coach was rightly second-guessed for not fouling deliberately while trailing by three points on a Mount Saint Mary’s possession that began with 34.2 seconds remaining; New Orleans forced a missed shot, but gathered a defensive rebound directly under the basket with only 2.9 seconds remaining, which led to a hopeless final possession; We would not have seen such an unfortunate ending under a hybrid format – we could have enjoyed a final stretch where New Orleans trailed 67-66 with possession, playing first-to-70
- This does not include the March 16 Vanderbilt vs. Northwestern game (West Region First Round in Salt Lake City), where a Vanderbilt player misguidedly committed a deliberate foul while leading by one point with 14.6 seconds remaining; We would not have seen such an unfortunate ending under a hybrid format – we could have enjoyed a final stretch where Vanderbilt trailed 65-64 with possession, playing first-to-66
- This includes the March 17 Arkansas vs. Seton Hall game (South Region First Round in Greenville), where a Seton Hall player was called for a controversial flagrant-1 foul when fouling deliberately while trailing by one point with 18.3 seconds remaining (he pushed the Arkansas player lightly in the back, accidentally got feet tangled, and Arkansas player fell to the ground); as Seton Hall was en route to losing by six points, broadcaster Chris Webber described the absurdity of the “no attempt to play the ball” explanation: “Who has a play on the ball when you foul late in the game? No one. No one has a play on the ball when you foul late in the game. Period. You foul a guy, you try to let the ref know ‘I’m touching this guy illegally. Please call it so we can stop the clock and get the free throws going;'” We would not have seen such an unfortunate ending under a hybrid format – we could have enjoyed a final stretch where Seton Hall trailed 72-71 with possession, playing first-to-75
- This includes three instances that perpetuate an especially troubling strategy within the deliberate fouling phenomenon – trailing teams committing deliberate fouls before an inbounds pass is thrown, essentially handpicking the opponent’s free throw shooter and sending him to the line with no time (or less time) running off the clock; the NBA has introduced measures to address and prevent this strategy, but trailing NCAA teams still employ it without any additional consequence, including:
- March 16: Vanderbilt, vs. Northwestern (West Region First Round in Salt Lake City)
- Broadcaster Steve Lappas commented: “See, that’s the one I have a gripe about. To me that’s an intentional foul”
- March 16: Florida Gulf Coast, vs. Florida State (West Region First Round in Orlando)
- March 18: Northwestern, vs. Gonzaga (West Region Second Round in Salt Lake City)
- March 16: Vanderbilt, vs. Northwestern (West Region First Round in Salt Lake City)
Leading NBA teams stalled in the overwhelming majority of the 59 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. None of the sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods was truly stalling-free.
Two (2.9%) of the 68 sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods were truly stalling-free:
- March 19: Rhode Island vs. Oregon (Midwest Region Second Round in Sacramento)
- March 23: West Virginia vs. Gonzaga (West Regional Semifinal in San Jose)
In four instances, a leading NBA team willingly accepted a shot clock violation while stalling in the closing seconds. In seven instances, a leading NCAA team willingly accepted a shot clock violation while stalling in the closing seconds (including South Carolina, who willingly accepted two shot clock violations in the final 1:01 vs. Baylor in an East Regional Semifinal in New York)
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 nine of the sampled NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods ended with a possession that could have tied or won the game. Only two those possessions (22.2%) was converted (on 0.56 points per possession):
- March 15: Clippers’ Blake Griffin misses short one-handed jumper vs. Bucks
- March 21 (4Q): Time expires before Bulls’ Paul Zipser can call timeout or attempt full-court heave at Raptors
- March 24: Hawks’ Dwight Howard chooses not to attempt full-court heave at Bucks
- March 29 (4Q): Thunder’s Victor Oladipo’s three-quarter-court heave lands wide of basket at Magic
- April 2: Heat’s Josh Richardson airballs three-pointer vs. Nuggets
- April 3: Trailblazers’ Damian Lillard misses pull-up two-point jumper at Timberwolves
- April 9 (4Q): Hawks’ Paul Millsap makes baseline two-point jumper vs. Cavaliers
- April 9: Lakers’ D’Angelo Russell makes three-pointer vs. Timberwolves
- April 11: Timberwolves’ Andrew Wiggins misses three-pointer off back of rim vs. Thunder
Eight of the sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods ended with a possession that could have tied or won the game. Only one of those possessions (12.5%) was converted (on 0.38 points per possession):
- March 16: Princeton’s Spencer Weisz’s full-court heave lands short of basket vs. Notre Dame (West Region First Round in Buffalo)
- March 16: Vanderbilt’s Matthew Fisher-Davis misses three-quarter-court heave off top of backboard vs. Northwestern (West Region First Round in Salt Lake City)
- March 17: SMU’s Shake Milton misses runner vs. USC (East Region First Round in Tulsa)
- March 18: Time expires before Villanova’s Jalen Brunson can attempt three-quarter-court heave vs. Wisconsin (East Region First Round in Buffalo)
- March 19: Wichita State’s Landry Shamet’s deep double-pump three-pointer blocked by Kentucky’s Edrice Adebayo (South Region Second Round in Indianapolis)
- March 23: Time expires before West Virginia’s Daxter Miles, Jr. can flip up deep three-pointer from his hip vs. Gonzaga (West Regional Semifinal in San Jose)
- March 24 (4Q): Wisconsin’s D’Mitrik Trice misses shot from beyond halfcourt off bottom of backboard vs. Florida (East Regional Semifinal in New York)
- March 24 (OT): Florida’s Chris Chiozza makes running three-pointer vs. Wisconsin (East Regional Semifinal in New York)
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 three of 21 (14.3%) such possessions (on 0.52 points per possession), and NCAA teams converted only 8 of 31 (25.8%) such possessions (on 0.77 points per possession).
Trailing NBA teams conceded 42 of 56 sampled games (75.0%) by choosing not to foul deliberately (on at least one late possession when the strategy would have been advisable) while on defense and/or by choosing not to play at a frantic pace (on at least one late possession when the strategy would have been advisable) while on offense and/or by taking its best players out of the game. This does not include a number of instances when teams conceded by choosing not to use all of its available timeouts (to automatically advance the ball into the frontcourt). This includes at least five instances when a team conceded while trailing by six points or fewer.
Trailing NCAA teams conceded 43 of 67 sampled games (64.2%) 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.
The final three minutes of all 59 sampled NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods included three clock reviews/errors/malfunctions.
The final four minutes of all 68 sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods included ten clock reviews/errors/malfunctions, including:
- March 16 Princeton vs. Notre Dame (West Region First Round in Buffalo): Three clock reviews in the final 20+ seconds (to reset the game clock from 19.7 to 20.4, from 20.4 to 19.5, and 0.0 to 0.4). Ugh.
- March 16 Vermont vs. Purdue (Midwest Region First Round in Milwaukee): When the game clock froze for 20 seconds – three seconds of which elapsed between a made field goal and the ensuing inbounds pass – officials conducted a four-minute review. They initially reset the game clock from 2:08 to 1:57 and left the shot clock at 30; then they left the game clock at 1:57 and reset the shot clock to 27; then – as fans booed loudly – they reset the game clock to 1:48 and left the shot clock at 27
- March 24 Wisconsin vs. Florida (East Regional Semifinal in New York): Officials repeatedly blew whistles – essentially saying “Hey everybody, stop celebrating! Stop!” so they could confirm that Florida’s game-winning shot was released before time expired (fortunately, this did not dampen the celebration in this case, but we see in some cases where such a review can really be a buzzkill during what should be a genuinely exciting moment)
INTERMINABLE FINAL STAGES
The final minute of seven NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods lasted ten actual minutes or longer, including the following noteworthy instances:
- March 15 Trailblazers at Spurs: 15 actual minutes (2 made field goals)
- March 21 Spurs at Timberwolves: 13 (1)
- April 6 Celtics at Hawks: 16 (3)
The final minute of ten NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods lasted ten actual minutes or longer, including the following noteworthy instances:
- March 16 Florida Gulf Coast vs. Florida State (West Region First Round in Orlando): 13 (1)
- March 17 Wichita State vs. Dayton (South Region First Round in Indianapolis): 12 (1)
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 56 sampled NBA games and 67 sampled NCAA games ended in the following ways…
|Meaningful Made Basket||1 (1.8%)||1 (1.5%)|
|Unsuccessful Meaningful Possession||5 (8.9%)||6 (9.0%)|
|Meaningless Shot Attempt||6 (10.7%)||14 (20.9%)|
|Leading Player Stalls||38 (67.9%)||38 (56.7%)|
|Trailing Player Stalls||6 (10.7%)||8 (11.9%)|
- Many would-be great endings are followed by an unnecessary and unsightly final act. Consider the March 26 Kentucky vs. North Carolina game (South Regional Final in Memphis), whose exciting final stretch included a tiebreaking two-point jumper by North Carolina’s Luke Maye with 0.3 seconds remaining. North Carolina eventually sealed their victory after much of the excitement had been drained from the game during a four-minute sequence that included:
- Kentucky timeout
- Kentucky desperate full-court inbounds pass that sailed out of bounds
- Discussion among referees, then a video review to determine whether inbounds pass had been touched
- After determining the inbounds pass had not been touched, North Carolina then threw a short inbounds pass just to touch the ball and complete the formality
A hybrid duration format would allow us to keep and enhance all of the appealing parts of late-game play, and eliminate or alleviate all of the unappealing parts
- The two games that ended with a meaningful made basket could have also had heartpounding and memorable finishes under a hybrid duration format:
- April 9 Timberwolves at Lakers: Timberwolves leading 107-105 with possession, playing first-to-108
- March 24 Wisconsin vs. Florida (East Regional Semifinal in New York): Florida trailing 74-73 with possession, playing first-to-75
- So many other games that ended with a whimper under basketball’s current format could have also included a befitting signature moment under a hybrid duration format – including the NCAA National Championship game. Consider how this game actually ended under the current format, and how it could have ended under a hybrid format:
- Current: North Carolina’s Theo Pinson, leading 71-65, gathers defensive rebound of a rushed Gonzaga three-point attempt, then dribbles toward midcourt as Gonzaga concedes the game – making no attempt to chase down Pinson
- Hybrid: Gonzaga’s possession, while trailing 68-65 and playing first-to-69, suddenly turns in a lightning-bolt, four-second flash – North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks’ block turns into a Joel Berry rebound which turns into a Justin Jackson fast-break, championship-clinching dunk
Let’s now consider all 4th quarter/2nd half/overtime periods (not just those at the true end of a game), and categorize possible period endings a little differently than in a previous section (listed in decreasing order of excitement):
- Made basket to win
- Made basket to tie
- Unsuccessful meaningful possession (by tied team or team trailing by 1-3 points)
- Meaningless possession (when offense already has lead, or trails by four points or more)
Three overtime periods were played in sampled NBA games, and can be categorized as follows:
- Ending of overtime period failed to match the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 3, including:
- March 29: Magic did not have possession within three points of the lead for the final 3:39 of overtime vs. the Thunder
- Ending of overtime period managed to match the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 0
- Ending of overtime period exceeded the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 0
One overtime period was 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: 0
- Ending of overtime period managed to match the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 0
- Ending of overtime period exceeded the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 1
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.
Leading NBA teams allowed at least seven uncontested field goals during sampled games. Leading NCAA teams allowed at least 11 uncontested field goals during sampled games.
During the final three minutes of sampled NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods, a trailing team committed a deliberate foul when its opponent was not yet in the bonus (and, consequently, did not serve deliberate fouling’s primary purpose of sending the leading team to the free throw line) in two 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 three periods, including:
- March 17: After Oklahoma State deliberately committed their fifth foul of the second half vs. Michigan (Midwest Region First Round in Indianapolis), Oklahoma State had to exhaust 8.3 extra seconds on the same possession to deliberately commit their sixth and seventh foul and finally send Michigan to the line. Oklahoma State ultimately lost by one point.
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; three leading NCAA teams also did so during sampled 2nd half/overtime periods.
During sampled games, two NBA players committed a sixth foul deliberately and/or in overtime. 11 NCAA players committed a fifth foul deliberately and/or in overtime, including Oklahoma State senior Leyton Hammonds, who ended his collegiate career by committing a deliberate foul with 10.0 seconds remaining vs. Michigan (Midwest Region First Round in Indianapolis).
ROLLED INBOUNDS PASSES
During sampled games, trailing NCAA offenses rolled at least 41 inbounds passes in an effort to conserve time, including in the following eyebrow-raising situations:
- March 16: Bucknell, trailing by seven points with 58.5 seconds remaining and the ball rolling backward from a sideline inbounds pass, vs. West Virginia (West Region First Round in Buffalo)
- March 16: East Tennessee State, trailing by 13 points with 31.0 seconds remaining, vs. Florida (East Region First Round in Orlando)
- March 18: Florida State, trailing by 25 points with 1:35 remaining, vs. Xavier (West Region Second Round in Orlando)
- March 25: Kansas, trailing by 11 points with 3:52 remaining and the clock running, vs. Oregon (Midwest Regional Final in Kansas City)
VACATING THE FREE THROW LANE
During sampled games, leading NCAA offenses vacated the foul lane in 66 instances during the last free throw attempt of a trip, for fear of committing a clock-stopping foul during a rebound attempt. Curiously, South Carolina also vacated the lane while trailing by three points with 2:09 remaining vs. Gonzaga (National Semifinal in Phoenix)
LET’S GET OUT OF HERE!
- March 29 (OT): After the Magic had conceded by choosing not to foul deliberately while trailing by eight points, the Thunder willingly took a shot clock violation on a possession that began with 24.1 seconds remaining. The clock ran to all zeroes at the end of the possession, and so the officials cleared the court and went to the scorers’ table to reset the game clock to 0.1. The Magic’s Aaron Gordon received the ensuing inbounds pass, gently set the ball on the floor, and walked away
- March 31: While trailing by four points, the Thunder’s Steven Adams deliberately fouled the Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard as the clock ran to all zeroes. As the clock ran out, so did Russell Westbrook. He headed for the locker room, coaches shook hands, etc., but the officials cleared the court and went to the scorers’ table to reset the game clock to 0.6. The Thunder played the last split second (ultimately losing by five points) – after subbing in Alex Abrines for Westbrook
- Basketball’s current format often leaves trailing teams with two unappealing options late in games: forego deliberate fouling and overtly concede the game, or foul deliberately in an especially bleak situation and make everyone in the arena mad. Fans loudly booed the trailing team for choosing the latter option in at least two games:
- April 6: Timberwolves at Trailblazers
- March 16: Virginia Tech vs. Wisconsin (East Region First Round in Buffalo)
- Maybe deliberate fouling can bring us together, after all – providing us with the opportunity to comfort our fellow onlooker by reminding him or her that each excruciating final stretch eventually will end. Near the end of the March 14 Kansas State vs. Wake Forest game (First Four in Dayton), after Wake Forest committed their third deliberate foul, while trailing by nine points with 43.7 seconds remaining, broadcaster Brian Anderson remarked with dread that “Kansas State will have to make their free throws to advance. This might take a while to get the finish line.” Clark Kellogg did his best to lift Anderson’s spirits: “Well if they knock down a couple of free throws, eventually the margin will be too great to keep playing the foul game”