THE BASKET INEFFICIENCY: THE COMMISSIONER SAYS IT’S BROKE – LET’S FIX IT

January 16, 2017
Nicholas Patrick

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver rightly acknowledged recently that the late stages of games proceed at an unpalatable pace. However, Silver only half-rightly mentioned half-measures as possible solutions – specifically, reducing the number of timeouts available to teams, shortening the length of each timeout, and streamlining the replay review process. As long as…

  • Trailing defenses are incentivized to conserve time by deliberately fouling the leading offense
  • Teams are incentivized to call timeouts to design an unfamiliar style of play
  • Teams (especially trailing offenses) are incentivized to call timeouts to advance the ball to the frontcourt
  • Replay reviews are necessitated by inevitable game clock malfunctions and operator errors

…then Silver’s suggestions won’t fully solve the problem. The only way to eliminate/reduce the incentives/need for these clock interruptions during the late stages of games is to eliminate the game clock itself from the late stages of games.

Ice Cube will boldly eschew the game clock entirely in his new 3-on-3 basketball league, instituting a first-to-60-points duration format. But this completely clockless format presents its own major downside – that games will vary drastically in actual length based on rate of scoring. Inevitably, some marathon brickfests will leave fans sighing “are we there yet???” and some high-octane shootouts will leave fans lamenting “it’s over already???” This is problematic for any league dependent on spectator interest, and an absolute dealbreaker for any league dependent on a strong partnership with a television network. To enjoy the best of all worlds, basketball should adopt the hybrid (part-timed, part-untimed) duration format I describe here.

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 December 12, 2016 – January 15, 2017 (one of these games proceeded to overtime, so 57 total 4th quarter/overtime periods are considered), and each of the 84 NCAA men’s games televised live by ESPNU from December 12, 2016 – January 15, 2017 (one of these games proceeded to overtime, so 85 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 26 of the 57 sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods, and trailing NCAA teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 45 of the 85 sampled 2nd half/overtime periods, with the following level of success:

NBA NCAA
Counterproductive 22 (84.6%) 38 (84.4%)
Futile 4 (15.4%) 7* (15.6%)
Partially Successful 0 (0.0%) 0 (0.0%)
Completely Successful 0 (0.0%) 0 (0.0%)

*Includes Virginia, vs. Florida State on December 31, who used the deliberate fouling strategy to take the lead, only to fall behind again and lose in the same period

STALLING
Leading NBA teams stalled in the overwhelming majority of the 57 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 (1.8%) of the sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods was truly stalling-free:

  • December 16: Mavericks at Jazz

Similarly, only one (1.2%) of the 85 sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods was truly stalling-free:

  • January 8: California at USC

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. None of those possessions (0.0%) was converted (on 0.0 points per possession):

  • December 16: Mavericks’ Harrison Barnes fumbles inbounds pass at Jazz
  • December 20: Rockets’ James Harden misses stepback three-pointer off back of rim vs. Spurs
  • December 21: Trailblazers’ Damian Lillard misses three-pointer off side of rim vs. Mavericks
  • December 25: Warriors’ Kevin Durant airballs one-handed three-pointer while lying on ground at Cavaliers
  • December 27: Lakers’ D’Angelo Russell airballs three-pointer from hash mark vs. Jazz
  • January 6 (4Q): Warriors’ Steph Curry misses deep three-pointer off backboard and rim vs. Grizzlies
  • January 13: Hawks’ Paul Millsap airballs baseline two-point jumper vs. Celtics

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):

  • December 18 (2H): Miami (Ohio)’s Marcus Weathers misses three-pointer from hash mark off back of rim at Central Florida
  • December 22: Utah’s JoJo Zamora’s catch-and-shoot three-quarter-court heave lands twenty feet short of basket vs. San Francisco (in Honolulu)
  • December 31: Virginia’s London Perrantes airballs halfcourt shot vs. Florida State
  • January 4: Tulsa’s Corey Henderson, Jr. misses long two-pointer while picking himself up off ground at Houston
  • January 8: USC’s Jordan McLaughlin driving lay-up attempt blocked vs. California
  • January 13: Rider’s Kahlil Thomas fumbles long inbounds pass at Manhattan
  • January 14: Minnesota’s Akeem Springs misses putback off backboard at Penn State
  • January 14: Cal State-Northridge’s Kendall Smith misses running three-pointer vs. UC Davis
  • January 15: Colorado’s George King misses double-pump, long two-pointer (while trailing by three points) vs. USC

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 22 (18.2%) such possessions (on 0.55 points per possession), and NCAA teams converted only four of 25 (16.0%) such possessions (on 0.64 points per possession).

CONCEDING
Trailing NBA teams conceded 46 of 56 sampled games (82.1%) 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 63 of 84 sampled games (75.0%) 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 six 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 57 sampled NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods included two clock reviews/errors/malfunctions.

The final four minutes of all 85 sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods included four clock reviews/errors/malfunctions.

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

  • December 12 Trailblazers at Clippers: 25 actual minutes (2 made field goals)
  • January 5 Thunder at Rockets: 12 (0)
  • January 8 Jazz at Grizzlies: 13 (1)

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

  • December 21 Clemson at South Carolina: 10 (0)
  • December 28 Cincinnati at Temple: 11 (0)
  • January 5 Minnesota at Northwestern: 14 (3)
  • January 13 Rider at Manhattan: 13 (2)

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 56 sampled NBA games and 84 sampled NCAA games ended in the following ways:

NBA NCAA
Meaningful Made Basket 0 (0.0%) 0 (0.0%)
Unsuccessful Meaningful Possession 6 (10.7%) 8 (9.5%)
Meaningless Shot Attempt 3 (5.4%) 14 (16.7%)
Leading Player Stalls 38 (67.9%) 56 (66.7%)
Trailing Player Stalls 9 (16.1%) 6 (7.1%)

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)

One overtime period was 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: 0
  • Ending of overtime period exceeded the excitement of preceding period’s ending: 0

*January 6 (OT) Grizzlies at Warriors: Warriors did not have possession within three points of lead for final 2:04 of overtime, en route to losing by nine points

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: 1*
  • 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

*December 18 (OT) Miami (Ohio) at Central Florida: Miami (Ohio) did not have possession within three points of lead for final 24.0 seconds of overtime, en route to losing by seven points

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 seven uncontested field goals during sampled games. Leading NCAA teams allowed at least 19 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 three 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.

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

FOULOUTS
During sampled games, four NBA players committed a sixth foul deliberately and/or in overtime. 18 NCAA players committed a fifth foul deliberately and/or in overtime.

ROLLED INBOUNDS PASSES
During sampled games, trailing NCAA offenses rolled at least 40 inbounds passes in an effort to conserve time, including in the following especially bleak situations…

  • December 13: South Carolina State, trailing by 26 points with 42.0 seconds remaining, at Clemson
  • December 14: Princeton, trailing by 11 points with 15.8 seconds remaining, vs. Saint Joseph’s
  • December 23: Hawaii, trailing by 16 points with 16.0 seconds remaining, vs. Utah (in Honolulu)
  • December 25: Stephen F. Austin, trailing by 11 points with 12.6 seconds remaining, vs. Utah (in Honolulu)
  • January 6: Iona, trailing by 21 points with 39.6 seconds remaining, at Monmouth
  • January 8: Wake Forest, trailing by 17 points with 2.4 seconds remaining, at Virginia

VACATING THE FREE THROW LANE
During sampled games, leading NCAA offenses vacated the foul lane in 58 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 tied, and again later when trailing*!

*January 13: Oakland, while tied with 2:38 remaining, and again while trailing by three/two points with 34.8 seconds remaining, vs. Detroit Mercy

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)

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

Two trailing NCAA teams employed the strategy during sampled games. Both were immediately unsuccessful and ultimately unsuccessful. No leading NCAA team employed the strategy.