THE BASKET INEFFICIENCY: THE BLARE OF A HORN VS. THE SWISH OF A NET

December 18, 2016
Nicholas Patrick

Under basketball’s current playing rules, nearly every game ends unceremoniously – with a leading player stalling to run out the clock, or with a trailing player stalling to run out the clock, or with a meaningless shot attempt, or with an unsuccessful meaningful possession – all to the sound of a horn blaring (some even to the cacophonous sound of a horn blaring and a rim clanging). Only a tiny percentage of games (and none of the games sampled for this particular article) end with a meaningful made basket – and the sound of a net swishing. Under the hybrid duration format described here, every basketball game would end with that sweet sound, prompted by a clinching three-pointer, or two-point jumper, or lay-up, or dunk, or free throw, etc.

Consider the November 6 Bucks at Mavericks game. Under a hybrid duration format, the Bucks would have been leading 68-67 at the end of the timed portion, setting up an untimed sprint to 75 for the win. If the next few possessions had proceeded the same way, this game would have encountered a 74-74 tie – leading to a true sudden-death finish. Instead, basketball’s current duration format allowed the game clock to mangle play as it so often does. And after a failed buzzer beater attempt by the Bucks to end regulation, and after some deliberate fouling by the Bucks in overtime – including a foul-to-give that worked to the Bucks’ disadvantage, and after the Bucks eventually conceded the game overtly, and after the Mavericks stalled to run out the clock, the Mavericks won anticlimactically by 11 points, 86-75.

Consider many other games played during the early stages of the 2016-2017 season. Each listing below shows the score at the end of the timed portion, a would-be sudden-death scenario encountered later in the game, and the actual unceremonious ending type:

  • October 26: 76ers 93 vs. Thunder 92 (could have had 76ers ball, trailing 99-97, playing to 100; instead got trailing player stalling to run out clock)
  • October 30: Wizards 96 at Grizzlies 95 (could have had Wizards ball, trailing 102-100, playing to 103; instead got leading player stalling to run out clock)
  • November 2: Thunder 79 at Clippers 78 (could have had Clippers ball, trailing 85-83, playing to 86; instead got unsuccessful meaningful possession)
  • November 10: Bulls 88 at Heat 83 (could have had Bulls ball, leading 94-92, playing to 95; instead got leading player stalling to run out clock)
  • November 25: Hornets 96 at Knicks 96 (could have had Hornets ball, trailing 102-101, playing to 103; instead got unsuccessful meaningful possession)
  • December 1: Rockets 106 at Warriors 104 (could have had 111-111 tie, playing to 113; instead got leading player stalling to run out clock)
  • December 5: Celtics 102 at Rockets 102 (could have had Celtics ball, trailing 107-106, playing to 109; instead got leading player stalling to run out clock)
  • December 9: Suns 111 at Lakers 104 (could have had Suns ball, leading 117-115, playing to 118; instead got leading player stalling to run out clock)
  • November 17: Xavier 67 vs. Missouri 65 (in Orlando) (could have had Missouri ball, trailing 73-71, playing to 74; instead got unsuccessful meaningful possession)
  • November 24: Temple 82 vs. Florida State 78 (in Brooklyn) (could have had Florida State ball, trailing 87-86, playing to 89; instead got unsuccessful meaningful possession)
  • November 24: Nebraska 71 vs. Dayton 64 (in Fullerton) (could have had Dayton ball, trailing 77-76, playing to 78; instead got unsuccessful meaningful possession)
  • November 27: Quinnipiac 71 vs. Indiana State 63 (in Orlando) (could have had Quinnipiac ball, trailing 77-76, playing to 78; instead got unsuccessful meaningful possession)
  • November 27: Dayton 52 vs. New Mexico 47 (in Anaheim) (could have had New Mexico ball, trailing 58-57, playing to 59; instead got leading player stalling to run out clock)
  • December 7: Georgia Tech 68 at VCU 63 (could have had 73-73 tie, playing to 75; instead got unsuccessful meaningful possession)

Oh, what could have been.

This particular sample includes each of the 69 nationally-televised NBA games played October 25, 2016 – December 11, 2016 (four of these games proceeded to overtime – including one that proceeded to double overtime – so 74 total 4th quarter/overtime periods are considered), and each of the 60 NCAA men’s games televised live by ESPNU from November 11, 2016 – December 11, 2016 (three of these games proceeded to overtime, so 63 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 32 of the 74 sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods, and trailing NCAA teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 32 of the 63 sampled 2nd half/overtime periods, with the following level of success:

NBA NCAA
Counterproductive 28 (87.5%) 24 (75.0%)
Futile 4 (12.5%) 7** (21.9%)
Partially Successful 0 (0.0%) 1* (3.1%)
Completely Successful 0 (0.0%) 0 (0.0%)

 

*November 18 (2H): Oklahoma, vs. Northern Iowa (in Orlando), before losing in overtime

**Includes November 24 Dayton, vs. Nebraska (in Fullerton), who took the lead at one point before falling behind again for good on the next possession

STALLING
Leading NBA teams stalled in the overwhelming majority of the 74 sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods. In many other games, the leading team was deliberately fouled before it had the chance to stall. And in all 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.

Similarly, none of the 63 sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods was truly stalling-free.

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 11 of the sampled NBA 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 0.0 points per possession):

  • October 28: Raptor’s Kyle Lowry shotputs catch-and-shoot three-pointer from hash mark off backboard vs. Cavaliers
  • October 29: Time expires before Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns can attempt full-court heave at Kings
  • October 30 (4Q): Wizards’ John Wall misses runner off backboard at Grizzlies
  • November 2: Time expires before Clippers’ Blake Griffin can attempt full-court heave vs. Thunder
  • November 6 (4Q): Bucks’ Giannis Antekounmpo misses long two-point jumper at Mavericks
  • November 9: Spurs’ Lemarcus Aldridge misses tip-in vs. Rockets
  • November 22: Time expires before Bulls’ Taj Gibson can attempt catch-and-shoot three-pointer at Nuggets
  • November 25 (4Q): Time expires before Hornets’ Kemba Walker can attempt full-court heave at Knicks
  • November 25 (OT): Hornets’ Kemba Walker three-pointer blocked by Knicks’ Derrick Rose
  • December 1 (4Q): Time expires before Warriors’ Klay Thompson can attempt full-court heave vs. Rockets
  • December 1 (OT): Time expires before Warriors’ Stephen Curry can attempt putback vs. Rockets

Nine of the sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods ended with a possession that could have tied or won the game. None of those possessions (0.0%) was converted (on 0.0 points per possession):

  • November 17 (2H): Xavier’s Edmond Sumner misses three-pointer off front of rim vs. Missouri (in Orlando)
  • November 17 (OT)*: Time expires before Missouri’s Cullen VanLeer can attempt full-court heave vs. Xavier (in Orlando)
  • November 18 (2H): Northern Iowa’s Jeremy Morgan misses stepback long two-pointer off front of rim vs. Oklahoma (in Orlando)
  • November 24: Florida State’s Xavier Rathan-Mayes misses three-quarter-court heave off front of rim vs. Temple (in Brooklyn)
  • November 24: Dayton’s Ryan Mikesell full-court inbounds pass deflected away vs. Nebraska (in Fullerton)
  • November 27: Indiana State’s Everett Clemons misses three-pointer off front of rim vs. Quinnipiac (in Orlando)
  • November 30: Nebraska’s Tai Webster misses runner off rim and backboard at Clemson
  • December 7 (2H): VCU’s Justin Tillman misses catch-and-shoot three-pointer high off backboard vs. Georgia Tech
  • December 7 (OT): VCU’s Doug Brooks misses catch-and-shoot halfcourt shot off backboard and rim vs. Georgia Tech

*Of the buzzer bloopers listed, this one was especially comical. Trailing by one point with 0.3 seconds remaining and set to inbound the ball from the opposite baseline, Missouri called timeout to set up a play – sure to include a long-range inbounds pass. Instead, the Missouri inbounder inexplicably passed the ball to a surprised Cullen VanLeer, standing just a few feet away, who could not launch a full-court heave before time expired.

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 four of 29 (13.8%) such possessions (on 0.45 points per possession), and NCAA teams converted only four of 21 (19.0%) such possessions (on 0.38 points per possession).

CONCEDING
Trailing NBA teams conceded 53 of 69 sampled games (76.8%) 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 nine instances when a team conceded while trailing by six points or fewer.

Trailing NCAA teams conceded 46 of 60 sampled games (76.7%) 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.

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

CLOCK CONTROVERSIES
The final three minutes of all 74 sampled NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods included four clock reviews/errors/malfunctions, including the following especially laughable instances…

  • October 28 Cavaliers at Raptors: A three-minute delay (to reset the clock from 0.0 to 0.3 after the Raptors called timeout) was followed by a hideous and hopeless Kyle Lowry missed three-pointer, and preceded by a steal forced when the Raptors’ attempts to commit a deliberate foul were not called!
  • November 22 Bulls at Nuggets: Two clock reviews in the final 0.6 seconds (the first review reset the clock from 0.0 to 0.6 after the Bulls committed a deliberate foul; the second review reset the clock from 0.0 to 0.3 after the Bulls called timeout immediately upon gathering a defensive rebound)

…and does not include the following laughable instance that lasted only a few moments:

  • November 19 Timberwolves at Grizzlies: After the Grizzlies willingly accepted a shot clock violation in the closing seconds while leading by 22 points, the officials asked to reset the game clock from 2.1 to 2.5. The clock operator initially struggled to fulfill the request, as the clock read 25.0 for a moment, then 50:00 for a moment, before finally being set correctly to 2.5. During this time, the cameras spotted the Grizzlies’ Marc Gasol on the sidelines sighing and rolling his eyes with impatience. To boot, the Timberwolves made no attempt to score after the ensuing inbounds pass, content to run out the clock

The final four minutes of all 63 sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods included four clock reviews/errors/malfunctions.

INTERMINABLE FINAL STAGES
The final minute of 11 NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods lasted ten actual minutes or longer, including the following noteworthy instances:

  • October 29 Timberwolves at Kings: 15 actual minutes (1 made field goal)
  • November 15 Raptors at Cavaliers: 14 (3)
  • November 16 Warriors at Raptors: 10 (0)
  • November 16 Grizzlies at Clippers: 13 (1)
  • November 22 Bulls at Nuggets: 17 (1)

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

  • November 17 (OT): Xavier vs. Missouri (in Orlando): 13 (0)
  • December 7 (OT): Georgia Tech at VCU: 12 (0)
  • December 10: Temple vs. DePaul (in Miami): 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 69 sampled NBA games and 60 sampled NCAA games ended in the following ways…

NBA NCAA
Meaningful Made Basket 0 (0.0%) 0 (0.0%)
Unsuccessful Meaningful Possession 6 (8.7%) 6 (10.0%)
Meaningless Shot Attempt 15 (21.7%) 7 (11.7%)
Leading Player Stalls 41 (59.4%) 41 (68.3%)
Trailing Player Stalls 7 (10.1%) 6 (10.0%)

 

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)

Five 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*
  • 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

*October 30 (OT) Wizards at Grizzlies: Wizards did not have possession within three points of lead for final 4:14 of overtime, en route to losing by nine points
*November 6 (OT) Bucks at Mavericks: Bucks did not have possession within three points of lead for final 2:36 of overtime, en route to losing by 11 points
*December 1 (2OT) Rockets at Warriors: Warriors did not have possession within three points of lead for final 2:10 of double overtime, en route to losing by five points

Three 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: 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: 0

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

UNCONTESTED SHOTS
Leading NBA teams allowed at least 12 uncontested field goals during sampled games. Leading NCAA teams allowed at least seven 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 six periods, essentially punishing the trailing team for having committed too few fouls earlier in the period!

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

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. Two leading NBA teams used a foul-to-give to its advantage during sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods, and one leading NCAA team did so during sampled 2nd half/overtime periods.

FOULOUTS
During sampled games, two NBA players committed a sixth foul deliberately and/or in overtime. 15 NCAA players committed a fifth foul deliberately and/or in overtime.

ROLLED INBOUNDS PASSES
During sampled games, trailing NCAA offenses rolled at least 24 inbounds passes in an effort to conserve time, including in at least three especially bleak situations…

  • November 21: George Washington, trailing by eight points with 13.9 seconds remaining, vs. Georgia (in Kansas City)
  • November 25: Illinois, trailing by 14 points with 55.8 seconds remaining, vs. Florida State (in Brooklyn)
  • December 4: Bowling Green, trailing by 26 points with 54.0 seconds remaining, at Cincinnati

…and not including one instance when a player attempted unsuccessfully to execute the rolled inbounds strategy:

  • November 18: Clemson player intended to allow inbounds pass to roll while trailing by six points with 5.9 seconds remaining vs. Xavier (in Orlando), but was too close to sideline when receiving the pass and turned the ball over out of bounds

VACATING THE FREE THROW LANE
During sampled games, leading NCAA offenses vacated the foul lane in 35 instances during the last free throw attempt of a trip, for fear of committing a clock-stopping foul during a rebound attempt. One team inexplicably vacated the foul lane while trailing*!

*November 18: Clemson, trailing by six points with 36.6 seconds remaining, vs. Xavier (in Orlando)

INTENTIONALLY MISSED FREE THROW ATTEMPTS
A trailing team will sometimes intentionally miss a free throw attempt if circumstances are just right (have one free throw attempt remaining, during closing seconds of game, usually trailing by exactly two or three points) as a way to continue a crucial late possession. A leading team will sometimes do the same under a similarly restrictive set of circumstances (have one free throw attempt remaining, during closing seconds of game, usually leading by exactly one or two points) as a way to saddle its opponent with an extremely unfavorable ensuing final shot.

The effectiveness of the intentionally-missed-free-throw strategy can be measured by its immediate success (whether a trailing team indeed gathered an offensive rebound; whether a leading team indeed saddled its opponent with a subsequent shot less favorable than it would have faced if the free throw had been made) and its ultimate success (whether a trailing team indeed overcame its deficit; whether a leading team indeed protected its lead). The contrasting success of these strategies further illustrates the disproportionate difficulty of overcoming a late deficit (and the correspondingly disproportionate ease of protecting a late lead)

No trailing NBA teams employed the strategy during sampled games. One leading NBA team employed the strategy, and was immediately successful and ultimately successful.

No trailing or leading NCAA teams employed the strategy during sampled games.

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