THE BASKET INEFFICIENCY: AN INTERNATIONAL PHENOMENON

August 28, 2016
Nicholas Patrick

When Dr. James Naismith ingeniously invented basketball in 1891, he had to set important guidelines for the sport, including the format to determine the duration of each game. Obviously, sports (some of which existed in 1891, others that have been introduced since) follow a variety of competition duration formats:

  • Races
    • auto racing, rowing, most running and swimming events, etc.
  • Completion of a Predetermined Number of Rounds/Turns
    • bowling, diving, field events in track and field, gymnastics, etc.
  • Governed Generally by Time, but might end by accomplishment(s) at any moment
    • boxing, fencing, mixed martial arts, wrestling, etc.
  • Accumulation of Accomplishments (by eventual winner)
    • badminton, beach volleyball, table tennis, tennis, volleyball, etc.
  • Accumulation of Accomplishments (by both teams)
    • baseball, softball, etc.
  • Accumulation of Accomplishments (participants play nonconcurrently)
    • golf, etc.
  • Governed Strictly by Time
    • field hockey, football, handball, lacrosse, ice hockey, rugby, soccer, water polo, etc.

Some of these formats wouldn’t be conducive at all to basketball as we know it, and some others would be a stretch. Essentially, Naismith had two primary options to consider, and he wisely chose to govern the duration of each basketball game by time (then, two 15-minute halves), rather than to rely on the accumulation of fundamental accomplishments.

After all, accumulation sports must depend on fundamental accomplishments (whether it’s outs in baseball/softball, or points – as the building block for games/sets – in other accumulation sports) to be accumulated with a relatively reliable rapidity. Without this trait, the duration of competitions would vary to an unpalatable extent.

For this reason, many other sports – those whose fundamental accomplishments are accumulated more sporadically – must employ a game clock. For example, field hockey goals are scored far too sporadically for the sport to rely on their accumulation to determine the duration of a competition. The same is true for football scoring possessions. And handball goals. And lacrosse goals, ice hockey goals, rugby scoring possessions, soccer goals, water polo goals, etc.

And basketball scoring possessions. Er, it was true in 1891 and for a decade or two afterward (hence Dr. Naismith’s prudence for incorporating a game clock into basketball’s original rules). But for the last century or so, baskets have been scored with a consistent rapidity that distinguishes basketball from other time-based sports. Consider the following data, which refers to the rate at which fundamental accomplishments were accumulated by eventual winning teams in time-based sports during recent select major events:

  • Basketball (2016 Olympics Quarterfinals/Semifinals/Medal Round; Scoring Possessions Per Game Minute)
  • Field Hockey (2016 Olympics QF/SF/Medal; Goals Per Game Minute)
  • Football (NFL Divisional/Conference Championship/Super Bowl following 2015 season, and College Football Playoff following 2015 season; SP/Min)
  • Handball (2016 Olympics QF/SF/Medal; G/Min)
  • Ice Hockey (2014 Olympics Men’s QF/SF/Medal, and 2014 Olympics Women’s SF/Medal; G/Min)
  • Lacrosse (2016 NCAA Division I QF/SF/Final; G/Min)
  • Rugby (2016 Olympics QF/SF/Medal; (Try + Penalty + Drop Goal)/Min)
  • Soccer (2016 Olympics QF/SF/Medal; G/Min)
  • Water Polo (2016 Olympics QF/SF/Medal; G/Min)

sport-by-sport-comparison

Basketball aligns much more closely with accumulation sports, yet continues to cling to its clock. Basketball’s time-based format provides only one noteworthy benefit – it ensures the length (as measured by actual time) of most games (those that do not proceed to overtime, anyway) remains within a relatively narrow and predictable range. However, this outdated format’s detrimental effects far outweigh its beneficial effects, as the game clock’s overbearing influence warps the style and quality of play late in games.

By introducing a hybrid duration format (explained here) – where most of each game is played with a game clock, but where the final stretch of each game is played without a game clock – basketball could enjoy the best of both worlds in a way no other sport can.

See below for more about the game clock’s warping effect on 2016 Olympic basketball:

This particular sample includes each of the 38 men’s games played during the 2016 Rio Olympics (one of these games proceeded to double overtime, so 40 total 4th quarter/overtime periods are considered), and each of the 38 women’s games played during the 2016 Rio Olympics (one of these games proceeded to double overtime, so 40 total 4th quarter/overtime periods are considered)

DELIBERATE FOULING
Trailing men’s teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 13 of the 40 4th quarter/overtime periods. The effectiveness of this strategy can be categorized in the following ways:

  • šCounterproductive: fouling team ends same period with a deficit equal to or greater than its deficit at the time of the first deliberate foul; 11/13 (84.6%)
  • šFutile: fouling team ends same period with a deficit narrower than its original deficit, but still trailing (and losing, necessarily); 1/13 (7.7%)
  • šPartially Successful: fouling team ends same period in a tie with its opponent, forcing overtime (or an additional overtime); 1*/13 (7.7%)
  • šCompletely Successful: fouling team ends same period with the lead (and the win, necessarily); 0/13 (0.0%)

*August 13 (4Q): Argentina, vs. Brazil

Trailing women’s teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 12 of the 40 4th quarter/overtime periods.

  • Counterproductive:  10/12 (83.3%)
  • Futile:  2/12 (16.7%)
  • Partially Successful:  0/12 (0.0%)
  • Completely Successful:   0/12 (0.0%)

Other notes:

  • August 10 Venezuela vs. China (Men): Final 15.8 seconds included seven unsightly possessions (two deliberate fouls by leaders, three deliberate fouls by trailers, one accidental foul by leaders, and one meaningless three-quarter-court heave by trailers)
  • August 17 Serbia vs. Croatia (Men) Quarterfinal: Final 24.3 seconds included eight possessions; all eight possessions included a deliberate foul (four by trailing Croatia, and four by leading Serbia – fouling twice while leading by three, and twice while leading by four!); also included an intentionally missed free throw by Croatia, and Croatia coaches pleading for fouls to be called unsportsmanlike

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

  • August 21: Australia vs. Spain (in Bronze Medal Game)

In only one of the 40 women’s 4th quarter/overtime periods (2.5%) did circumstances align to allow a truly stalling-free period:

  • August 7: France vs. Belarus

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/overtime period.

Consider that six of the men’s 4th quarter/overtime periods ended with a possession that could have tied or won the game. None of those possessions (0.0%) was converted (on zero points per possession):

  • August 9: Time expires before Spain’s Rudy Fernandez can attempt short jumper vs. Brazil
  • August 10: Serbia’s Bogdan Bogdanovic misses three-pointer from hash mark vs. France
  • August 13 (4Q): Brazil’s Marcelinho Huertas misses catch-and-shoot baseline jumper off side of backboard vs. Argentina
  • August 13 (OT): Argentina’s Manu Ginobili misses runner off back of rim vs. Brazil
  • August 17: Croatia’s Dario Saric’s misguided putback attempt (while trailing by three points) blocked by Serbia’s Miroslav Raduljica (in Quarterfinal)
  • August 21: Australia’s David Andersen has ball stripped away by Spain’s Ricky Rubio (in Bronze Medal Game)

Eight of the women’s 4th quarter/overtime periods ended with a possession that could have tied or won the game. Only two of those possessions (25.0%) were converted (on 0.50 points per possession):

  • August 7: France’s Endy Miyem makes lay-up vs. Belarus
  • August 9: Brazil’s Iziane Castro misses contested three-pointer off backboard and rim vs. Belarus
  • August 11: Belarus’s Lindsey Harding misses three-pointer off back of rim vs. Turkey
  • August 13 (4Q): Brazil’s Joice Rodrigues misses halfcourt shot off front of rim vs. Turkey
  • August 13 (OT): Time expires before Brazil’s Iziane Castro can attempt full-court heave vs. Turkey
  • August 13 (2OT): Brazil’s Iziane Castro misses three-pointer vs. Turkey
  • August 16: Australia’s Marianna Tolo misses tip-in (of woefully short three-point attempt) off backboard vs. Serbia (in Quarterfinal)
  • August 16: Spain’s Anna Cruz makes runner vs. Turkey (in Quarterfinal)

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), men’s teams still converted only three of 15 (20.0%) such possessions (on 0.87 points per possession), and women’s teams converted only four of 13 (30.8%) such possessions (on 0.62 points per possession).

CONCEDING
Trailing men’s teams conceded 26 of 38 games (68.4%) 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. 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 women’s teams conceded 28 of 38 games (73.7%) 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 three instances when a team conceded while trailing by six points or fewer.

CLOCK CONTROVERSIES
The final four minutes of all 40 men’s 4th quarter/overtime periods included three clock reviews/errors/malfunctions.

The final four minutes of all 40 women’s 4th quarter/overtime periods included two clock reviews/errors/malfunctions.

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

  • August 10: United States vs. Australia: 10 minutes (zero made field goals)
  • August 10: Venezuela vs. China: 16 (1)
  • August 17: Serbia vs. Croatia (in Quarterfinal): 12 (0)

The final minute of two women’s 4th quarter/overtime periods lasted ten actual minutes or longer.

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 38 men’s games and 38 women’s games ended in the following ways…

MEN
Meaningful Made Basket: 0 (0.0%)
Unsuccessful Meaningful Possession: 4 (10.5%)
Meaningless Shot Attempt: 16 (42.1%)
Leading Player Stalls: 14 (36.8%)
Trailing Player Stalls: 4 (10.5%)

WOMEN
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%)

*Included one do-or-die meaningful made basket (attempted while the offense trailed) and one do-or-OT meaningful made basket (attempted in a tie game)

Other notes:

  • August 12 France vs. Venezuela (Men): France willingly took shot clock violation with 2.3 seconds remaining; clock operator temporarily stopped clock and then restarted; teams had already begun shaking hands, so referees halfheartedly considered making Venezuela inbound ball and then decided against it
  • August 20 United States vs. Spain (Women) Gold Medal Game: United States clinches gold medal unceremoniously, when Lindsay Whalen dribbles out the clock while teams exchange handshakes and hugs; under hybrid format, United States would have clinched gold medal with Brianna Stewart walk-off lay-up
  • August 21 United States vs. Serbia (Men) Gold Medal Game: United States clinches gold medal unceremoniously, when Kyle Lowry willingly took shot clock violation with 5.0 seconds remaining; game clock continued to run to zeroes while teams exchanged handshakes; under hybrid format, United States would have clinched gold medal with a Harrison Barnes walk-off driving lay-up

ANTICLIMACTIC OVERTIMES
Let’s now consider all 4th quarter/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)

Two overtime periods were played in men’s 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: 1
  • Ending of overtime period exceeded the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 0

Two overtime periods were played in women’s 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: 2
  • Ending of overtime period exceeded the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 0

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

UNCONTESTED SHOTS
Leading men’s teams allowed at least three uncontested field goals during the final four minutes of 4th quarter/overtime periods. Leading women’s teams allowed at least two uncontested field goals during the final four minutes of 4th quarter/overtime periods.

FOULS-TO-GIVE DISADVANTAGE
During the final four minutes of men’s 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 three periods, essentially punishing the trailing team for having committed too few fouls earlier in the period!

During the final four minutes of women’s 4th quarter/overtime periods, a trailing team committed a deliberate foul when its opponent was not yet in the bonus in three periods.

Other notes:

  • August 13 Japan vs. France (Women): France, while trailing by ten points, fouled deliberately with 17.8 seconds remaining, and with 16.7 seconds remaining, and 13.8, and 12.1, and still was not able to send Japan to the line; France tried unsuccessfully to deliberately foul a fifth time, but no call was made; broadcaster laughed/muttered about the silliness of the sequence

FOULOUTS
Eight men’s players committed a fifth foul deliberately and/or in overtime, and five women’s players committed a fifth foul deliberately and/or in overtime.

UNSIGHTLY STRATEGIES, ETC.
Trailing men’s offenses rolled at least five inbounds passes in an effort to conserve time.

One leading men’s offense vacated the foul lane during the last free throw attempt of a trip.

One trailing men’s team intentionally missed a free throw during the late stages of a game:

  • August 17: Croatia, trailing by three points with 2.1 seconds remaining, vs. Serbia (in Quarterfinal); immediately successful (led to offensive rebound), ultimately unsuccessful (did not overcome deficit)
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