Time’s Up for Basketball’s Game Clock (Research Paper Exhibited at 2016 SPEIA Basketball Analytics Summit)

April 14, 2016 (updated June 20, 2016)
Nicholas Patrick

Any basketball fan – from the most casual to the most ardent – understands that quality, style, and pace of play changes drastically during the late stages of most games (especially close games). That in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But we must finally admit, as much as it pains us to do so, that the quality, style, and pace of play during games’ most crucial stages is clearly inferior to that displayed during the earlier stages of games, and that this unfortunate phenomenon is directly attributable to one factor – the overbearing and outdated influence of basketball’s game clock.

This paper discusses:

  • Time Warp: The many ways in which, and the exact extent to which, basketball’s game clock causes quality, style, and pace of play to suffer during the late stages of games
  • The Incredible, Expendable Clock: The reason basketball, unlike any other sport governed by time, can realistically abandon its game clock (and why basketball shouldn’t abandon its game clock entirely, but only partially)
  • The Necessary, Sound, Feasible, Superior, Anti-Gimmicky Cure: A Hybrid Duration Format: The solution that would directly eliminate or alleviate every flaw currently caused by basketball’s game clock, and would introduce a number of residual benefits to position basketball as the most fair and exciting sport played in this world

TIME WARP

The game clock warps the quality, style, pace, palatability, and overall excitement of the great game of basketball in the following ways:

  • Compels trailing defense to commit repeated and deliberate fouls
  • Compels leading (and in some cases, tied) offense to stall
  • Forces trailing (and in many cases, tied) offense into sloppy/rushed/incomplete possessions, especially during a game’s final possession
  • Compels trailing team to overtly concede game (whether by choosing not to commit a deliberate foul while on defense and/or choosing not to play at a frantic pace while on offense, etc.)
  • Dampens celebrations and introduces anticlimax during clock reviews
  • Adds unnecessary controversy through clock malfunctions and operator errors
  • Reduces the likelihood of a late comeback (from a deficit of any size) and dampens arena atmosphere by making a late lead disproportionately safe
  • Dampens arena atmosphere during late stages drawn out by frequent interruptions of play (deliberate fouls, timeouts with tangible incentives, clock reviews, etc.)
  • Leads to an unceremonious ending, and in many cases, the complete absence of a signature moment to define even the most competitive and/or highly-anticipated game
  • Necessitates overtime periods (which rarely match – and hardly ever exceed – the excitement provided by the end of regulation)
  • Compels leading defense to allow uncontested lay-ups (out of fear of committing a clock-stopping foul)
  • Compels teams to intentionally miss free throw attempts (whether trailing team hoping to maintain possession, or leading team hoping to saddle opponent with an unfavorable final shot)
  • Warps final score and margin of victory (by precipitating such an unnatural style of play)
  • Punishes trailing team for having committed too few fouls earlier in final period (whenever fouls-to-give remain at the time deliberate fouling begins)
  • Poses dilemma for dominant team (about whether continuing to score exemplifies poor sportsmanship)
  • Leads to greater number of foulouts (by players committing fouls deliberately and/or committing fouls in overtime)
  • Compels teams to employ ridiculous and unsightly strategies (trailing offense rolling inbounds pass with game clock stopped, leading offense vacating lane during free throw attempts so as not to commit foul during possible rebound, leading offense throwing ball directly into air to exhaust final seconds, etc.)

Consider data collected from a large sample of games, including:

  • Every nationally-televised NBA game played during the 2014-2015 regular season and postseason (more specifically, the final three minutes of every 4th quarter and overtime period played in those games); 322 games/358 periods
  • Every nationally-televised NBA game played during the 2015-2016 regular season and postseason (more specifically, the final three minutes of every 4th quarter and overtime period played in those games); 339 games/360 periods
  • Every NCAA Division I men’s basketball game televised on ESPNU during the 2014-2015 regular season/conference tournament season, every 2015 NCAA Tournament game, and every 2015 NIT game (more specifically, the final four minutes of every 2nd half and overtime period played in those games); 408 games/446 periods
  • Every NCAA Division I men’s basketball game televised on ESPNU during the 2015-2016 regular season/conference tournament season, and every 2016 NCAA Tournament game (more specifically, the final four minutes of every 2nd half and overtime period played in those games); 362 games/392 periods

DELIBERATE FOULING
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)

2014-2015 NBA: Trailing teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 156 of the 358 sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods.

  • Counterproductive:            125/156 (80.1%)
  • Futile:                                     26/156 (16.7%)
  • Partially Successful:             5/156 (3.2%)
  • Completely Successful:       0/156 (0.0%)

2015-2016 NBA: Trailing teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 157 of 360 sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods.

  • Counterproductive:            130/157 (82.8%)
  • Futile:                                     22/157 (14.0%)
  • Partially Successful:             5/157 (3.2%)
  • Completely Successful:       0/157 (0.0%)

2014-2015 NCAA: Trailing teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 256 of the 446 sampled 2nd half/overtime periods.

  • Counterproductive:            208/256 (81.25%)
  • Futile:                                     23/256 (12.9%)
  • Partially Successful:             12/256 (4.7%)
  • Completely Successful:       3/256 (1.2%)

2015-2016 NCAA: Trailing teams committed at least one deliberate foul in 209 of 392 sampled 2nd half/overtime periods.

  • Counterproductive:            165/209 (78.9%)
  • Futile:                                     28/209 (13.4%)
  • Partially Successful:             12*/209 (5.7%)
  • Completely Successful:       4/209 (1.9%)

*Fool’s Gold: Deliberate fouling didn’t just seem to be more effective during the 2016 NCAA Tournament – it was more effective! Of the 12 instances when fouling precipitated a tie during the 2015-2016 sample of NCAA games, five occurred during the 2016 NCAA Tournament alone. We shouldn’t expect the game clock to treat us to such plot twists going forward.

STALLING
2014-2015 NBA: Leading teams stalled in the overwhelming majority of the 358 sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods. In many other games, the leading team was deliberately fouled before it had the chance to stall. And in many of the remaining instances, the trailing team overtly conceded the game before the leading team would have normally considered stalling. In only seven instances (2.0%) did circumstances align to allow a truly stalling-free 4th quarter/overtime period.

2015-2016 NBA: 3/360 4th quarter/overtime periods (0.8%) were stalling-free

2014-2015 NCAA: 7/446 2nd half/overtime periods (1.6%) were stalling-free

2015-2016 NCAA: 7/392 2nd half/overtime periods (1.8%) were stalling-free

SLOPPY/RUSHED/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, where we see some strikingly atrocious offensive play.

2014-2015 NBA: 71 of the sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods ended with a possession that could have tied or won the game. Only seven of those possessions (9.9%) were converted.

2015-2016 NBA: Two such possessions converted out of 49 (4.1%)

2014-2015 NCAA: 102 of the sampled 2nd half/overtime periods ended with a possession that could have tied or won the game. Only four of those possessions were converted (3.9%)

2015-2016 NCAA: 7*/81 (8.6%)

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), offensive play is only slightly less atrocious:

2014-2015 NBA: Converted only 40 of 162 such possessions (24.7%)

2015-2016 NBA: 20/109 (18.3%)

2014-2015 NCAA: 64/265 (24.2%)

2015-2016 NCAA: 53*/220 (24.1%)

*Fool’s Gold: Offenses didn’t just seem to execute more effectively during crunch time in the 2016 NCAA Tournament – they did execute more effectively! Of the seven instances when a team made an actual buzzer beater attempt during the 2015-2016 sample of NCAA games, four occurred during the 2016 NCAA Tournament alone. During the 2016 NCAA Tournament, teams converted 17 of 50 (34.0%) potential buzzer beater attempts, compared to 36 of 170 (21.8%) during the regular season/conference tournament portion of the sample. We shouldn’t expect the game clock to treat us to such, um, tolerable(?) offensive play going forward.

CONCEDING
2014-2015 NBA: Trailing teams conceded 241 of 322 sampled games (74.8%) 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 removing its best players from 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).

2015-2016 NBA: Trailing teams conceded 268 of 339 sampled games (79.1%)

2014-2015 NCAA: Trailing teams conceded 252 of 408 sampled games (61.8%) by choosing not to foul deliberately while on defense and/or by choosing not to play at a frantic pace while on offense

2015-2016 NCAA: Trailing teams conceded 250 of 362 sampled games (69.1%)

CLOCK CONTROVERSIES
2014-2015 NBA: The final three minutes of all 358 sampled NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods included 27 clock reviews, malfunctions, and operator errors.

2015-2016 NBA: The final three minutes of all 360 sampled NBA 4th quarter/overtime periods included 12 clock reviews, malfunctions, and errors.

2014-2015 NCAA: The final four minutes of all 446 sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods included 60 clock reviews, malfunctions, and errors.

2015-2016 NCAA: The final four minutes of all 320 sampled NCAA 2nd half/overtime periods included 43 clock reviews, malfunctions, and errors.

INTERMINABLE FINAL STAGES
2014-2015 NBA: The final minute of at least* 46 sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods lasted ten actual minutes or more.

2015-2016 NBA: The final minute of 49 sampled 4th quarter/overtime periods lasted ten actual minutes or more.

2014-2015 NCAA: The final minute of at least* 64 sampled 2nd half/overtime periods lasted ten actual minutes or more.

2014-2015 NCAA: The final minute of 41 sampled 2nd half/overtime periods lasted ten actual minutes or more.

*This information was not collected for games played before December 1, 2014

UNCEREMONIOUS ENDINGS
The final moment of a given basketball game can usually be categorized in one of five ways:

  • 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)

2014-2015 NBA: The 322 sampled games ended in the following ways:
Meaningful made basket: 4 (1.2%)
Unsuccessful meaningful possession: 32 (9.9%)
Meaningless shot attempt: 49 (15.2%)
Leading player stalls: 194 (60.2%)
Trailing player stalls: 43 (13.4%)

2015-2016 NBA: The 339 sampled games ended in the following ways:
Meaningful made basket: 0 (0.0%)
Unsuccessful meaningful possession: 28 (8.3%)
Meaningless shot attempt: 49 (14.5%)
Leading player stalls: 205 (60.5%)
Trailing player stalls: 57 (16.8%)

2014-2015 NCAA: The 408 sampled games ended in the following ways:
Meaningful made basket: 3 (0.7%)
Unsuccessful meaningful possession: 61 (15.0%)
Meaningless shot attempt: 86 (21.1%)
Leading player stalls: 245 (60.0%)
Trailing player stalls: 13 (3.2%)

2015-2016 NCAA: The 362 sampled games ended in the following ways:
Meaningful made basket: 6* (1.7%)
Unsuccessful meaningful possession: 44 (12.2%)
Meaningless shot attempt: 63 (17.4%)
Leading player stalls: 232 (64.1%)
Trailing player stalls: 17 (4.7%)

*Fool’s Gold: Games didn’t just seem to end more memorably during the 2016 NCAA Tournament – they did end more memorably! Of the six instances when a game ended with a meaningful made basket during the 2015-2016 sample of NCAA games, four occurred during the 2016 NCAA Tournament alone. We shouldn’t expect the game clock to treat us to such memorable endings going forward.

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 the 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)

2014-2015 NBA: 17 overtime periods were played after February 16, 2015* in sampled games. The ending of 13 of those periods (76.5%) failed to match the excitement of the preceding period’s ending. The ending of four of those periods (23.5%) managed to match the excitement of the preceding ending. None of those periods ended in a more exciting fashion than the preceding period.

2015-2016 NBA: Of 21 overtime periods played during sampled games:
17 (81.0%) failed to match excitement of preceding ending
4 (19.0%) managed to match excitement of preceding ending
0 (0.0%) exceeded excitement of preceding ending

2014-2015 NCAA: 13 overtime periods were played on or after February 16, 2015* in sampled games.
8 (61.5%) failed to match excitement of preceding ending
5 (38.5%) managed to match excitement of preceding ending
0 (0.0%) exceeded excitement of preceding ending

2015-2016 NCAA: Of 30 overtime periods played during sampled games:
14 (46.7%) failed to match excitement of preceding ending
15 (50.0%) managed to match excitement of preceding ending
1 (3.3%) exceeded excitement of preceding ending

*This information was not collected for games played before February 16, 2015

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
2014-2015 NBA: Leading teams allowed at least 39 uncontested field goals during sampled games so as to avoid committing a clock-stopping foul.

2015-2016 NBA: At least 50 uncontested field goals allowed

2014-2015 NCAA: At least 66 uncontested field goals allowed

2015-2016 NCAA: At least 71 uncontested field goals allowed

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).

2014-2015 NBA: A trailing team employed the strategy five times during sampled games (including two instances when a player accidentally made a free throw, as evidenced by an order to miss by the coach and/or an unnatural shooting motion by the player and/or reaction of disappointment/frustration following the make), and was immediately successful only once, and never ultimately successful. A leading NBA team employed the strategy three times, and was immediately and ultimately successful every time.

2015-2016 NBA: Three trailing teams employed the strategy
Immediately successful: 1/3
Ultimately successful: 0/3

No leading team employed the strategy

2014-2015 NCAA: Eight trailing teams employed the strategy (including two accidental makes)
Immediately successful: 0/8
Ultimately successful: 0/8

Three leading teams employed the strategy
Immediately successful: 3/3
Ultimately successful: 3/3

2015-2016 NCAA: Two trailing teams employed the strategy
Immediately successful: 1/2
Ultimately successful: 0/2

Two leading teams employed the strategy
Immediately successful: 1/2
Ultimately successful: 2/2

FOULS-TO-GIVE DISADVANTAGE
2014-2015 NBA: During the final three minutes of sampled 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 31 periods, essentially punishing the trailing team for having committed too few fouls earlier in the period.

2015-2016 NBA: 41 periods

2014-2015 NCAA: During the final four minutes of sampled 2nd half/overtime periods, a trailing team committed a deliberate foul when its opponent was not yet in the bonus in 19 periods

2015-2016 NCAA: 13 periods

FOULOUTS
2014-2015 NBA: During sampled games, 25 players committed a sixth foul deliberately and/or during overtime. (This does not include players who fouled out while committing a legitimate foul, but who had committed at least one deliberate foul earlier in period.)

2015-2016 NBA: 23 such foulouts

2014-2015 NCAA: During sampled games, 111 players committed a fifth foul in a similar fashion

2015-2016 NCAA: 84 such foulouts

UNSIGHTLY STRATEGIES, ETC.
2014-2015 NCAA: During sampled games, trailing offenses rolled 163 inbounds passes in an effort to conserve time

2015-2016 NCAA: 155 rolled inbounds passes

2014-2015 NCAA: During sampled games played on or after January 1, 2015*, leading offenses vacated the lane in 195 instances during the last free throw attempt of a trip, in an effort to avoid a foul during a potential rebounding attempt

2015-2016 NCAA: 277 instances vacating the lane

*This information was not collected for games played before January 1, 2015

THE INCREDIBLE, EXPENDABLE CLOCK

All right, we get it. The quality, style, pace, palatability, and overall excitement of play suffers during the late stages of basketball games in a number of tangible ways.

Don’t take my word for it. Through each of the following attempts (including those that have come and gone) to address fouling and stalling, the NBA and NCAA themselves acknowledge that these practices are bad for the game:

  • Backcourt violations (of two types) as a way to limit a team’s space with which to employ a keep-away offense
  • Following late made free throws with a jump ball (rather than automatically granting possession to the fouling team)
  • Introducing a shot clock (and later reducing the time allotment on the shot clock)
  • Imposing an individual per-quarter foul limit

Some continue to suggest further measures, such as:

  • Allowing the fouled team to decline free throws if they wish, and take the ball out of bounds instead (or attempt one free throw and retain possession)
  • Calling deliberate fouls by the book (as flagrant fouls, resulting in free throws and possession)
  • Granting more than two free throws for late deliberate fouls
  • Allowing the fouled team to choose its free throw shooter once fouled

Each measure makes (or would make) fouling (and in some ways, stalling) less appealing. That’s a good thing. However, each of them fails resoundingly by not introducing an alternative more appealing than fouling or stalling. So leading teams continue (or would continue) to stall, trailing teams continue (or would continue) to foul, and the late stages of games become (or would become) even more drawn-out and predictable. Whoops.

But wait. Don’t blame the NBA, NCAA, or sport of basketball in general. Blame the game clock directly responsible for such play. It begs the question: does basketball really need a game clock? In a word, sorta.

Obviously, not all sports’ competition durations are governed strictly by time. Numerous different formats exist, including:

  • 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 a particular accomplishment at any moment:boxing, mixed martial arts, wrestling, etc.
  • Accumulation of Accomplishments:baseball/softball, golf, tennis, volleyball, etc.
  • Governed Strictly by Time:basketball, field hockey, football, lacrosse, ice hockey, soccer, water polo, etc.

Sports like baseball/softball, golf, tennis, and volleyball can forego a game clock because certain accomplishments (outs, or completed holes, or points – as the building block for games and/or sets) are accumulated with a relatively reliable rapidity.

Sports on the next and final list must depend on a game clock because accomplishments (whether it’s goals or general scoring possessions) are accumulated so sporadically. That is, except for basketball.

In the sport’s early decades, baskets were awfully hard to come by, which aligned basketball with other sports governed strictly by time. But for about the last century or so, baskets have been scored with an ease and frequency that would seem to align the sport more closely with those that allow accomplishments to govern their duration. Instead, basketball clings to its clock, and does so at a steep price – all of the warping drawbacks discussed in “Time Warp.”

To be fair, basketball’s game clock provides one significant benefit – it minimizes the variability of game length (as measured by actual time). Until very recently, we could be sure that NBA games would adhere to a 150-minute window of actual time, and that high-level NCAA games would fit nicely into a 120-minute window. Conversely, baseball’s game length variability provides an easy target for detractors, and the length of a tennis match is difficult to predict within the hour. If basketball were to abandon its game clock completely (and simply play first-to-x-points-wins), we would see some games end in less than 90 minutes, and others last well beyond three hours. That won’t work.

But basketball can have the best of both worlds, in a way no other sport can. Basketball could employ a game clock for most of each game, to reap its primary benefit (reducing game length variability), and abandon the clock just before it causes quality, style, and pace of play to suffer (using points as the basis for duration instead), preserving a familiar, natural, exciting brand of basketball through the end of every game.

THE NECESSARY, SOUND, FEASIBLE, SUPERIOR, ANTI-GIMMICKY CURE: A HYBRID DURATION FORMAT

The basic idea would be for each game to include a majority timed portion, followed by an untimed final act. By adopting such a hybrid duration format, basketball would eliminate or alleviate all of the flaws discussed above – all of which are directly attributable to the influence of the game clock.

The possible variations are endless, but an NBA game might look something like this (replacing the last three minutes of game-clock-focused play with a comparable amount of game-clock-free play):

  • Timed portion: At least 45 minutes of timed play (this would include three complete, 12-minute quarters, and at least nine minutes of timed play in the fourth quarter; after this threshold is reached, play continues briefly and naturally until the next timeout, dead ball, or made basket)
  • At this juncture, a target score would be set (equal to the leading team’s score plus seven)
  • Untimed portion: Play would resume, without a game clock, until one team matches or exceeds the target score

For example, consider Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. After 45+ minutes of timed play, the next timeout/dead ball/made basket (which happened to be a foul committed by the Warriors’ Steph Curry on the Cavaliers’ LeBron James) would have ended the timed portion, with the game tied, 89-89. At this juncture, the game clock would be abandoned, and the first team to reach 96 points would be declared the NBA champion.

An NCAA game might look something like this (replacing the last four minutes of game-clock-focused play with a comparable amount of game-clock-free play):

  • Timed portion: At least 36 minutes of timed play (this would include a complete, 20-minute first half, and at least 16 minutes of timed play in the second half; after this threshold is reached, play continues briefly and naturally until the next timeout, dead ball, or made basket)
  • At this juncture, a target score would be set (equal to the leading team’s score plus seven)
  • Untimed portion: Play would resume, without a game clock, until one team matches or exceeds the target score

For example, consider the 2016 NCAA Championship game. After 36+ minutes of timed play, the next timeout/dead ball/made basket (which happened to be a North Carolina three-pointer) would have ended the timed portion, with Villanova leading, 67-64. At this juncture, the game clock would be abandoned, and the first team to reach 74 points would be declared the national champion.

This strikingly simple change would be strikingly sound, too. It would strengthen the game clock’s lone benefit (specifically, the hybrid duration format would further reduce game length variability, by preserving a more natural style of play and eliminating the possibility of overtime), while eliminating or alleviating all of its aforementioned detrimental effects:

  • Trailing defense would not need (or want) to commit repeated and deliberate fouls, and could instead play legitimate defense (the hybrid format could also indirectly lead to the elimination of Hack-a-Player fouls, because NBA, etc. could realistically commit to handling all deliberate fouls by the book – as intentional/flagrant fouls that provide no incentive for committing such fouls)
  • Leading (or tied) offense would not stall, and would instead play assertively
  • Trailing offense would never need (or want) to rush possessions, and could instead make its best attempt to score
  • Trailing team would never concede game through style of play, and all on-court players would instead battle to the end
  • Late-game clock reviews would never be necessary, and could never dampen end-of-game celebrations
  • Late-game clock malfunctions and operator errors would never be possible, and could never add unnecessary controversy
  • A legitimate late comeback would be proportionately likely, compelling more fans to remain present and engaged through the end of each game
  • Late stages of game would proceed at a palatable pace, compelling more fans to remain present and engaged through the end of each game
  • Every game would end with a made basket, ensuring it would have at least one signature moment to define it
  • Every exciting game would be guaranteed an exciting finish, by eliminating the possibility of an anticlimactic overtime
  • Leading defense would never intentionally allow uncontested lay-ups
  • With appropriate minor rules modifications, neither team would ever need (or want) to intentionally miss a free throw attempt
  • Usefulness of various statistics would be restored, including final score and margin of victory, by allowing a more familiar style of play to continue through the end of each game
  • Trailing team would never be punished for committing too few fouls
  • All scoring would be guilt-free
  • Players would never foul out by committing a deliberate foul meant primarily to stop the clock and/or by committing a foul in overtime
  • Teams would not need (or want) to employ overly-timid and/or underly-dignified strategies

We fans often oppose changes to our favorite sports. A hybrid duration format would likely face such opposition initially, but its simplistic, throwback nature would quickly charm diehard fans and attract new fans. After all, a hybrid duration format is the ultimate anti-gimmick. When a game enters its final stretch, it’s just one team against the other – with no electronic third party to manipulate or be manipulated.

Even the few appealing game-clock-attributable phenomena we romanticize would be enhanced by a hybrid duration format. Consider this: every basketball fan loves a good buzzer beater. But any way you slice it, buzzer beaters are far too rare. Of 1431 sampled games, only 13 of them ended with a meaningful made basket (165 additional games ended with an unsuccessful buzzer beater attempt; the remaining 1253 games ended with a meaningless possession). But even this figure is a little too generous to basketball’s current format.

Game-ending made buzzer beaters come in two types:

  • Those released with the offense trailing (where a make immediately wins the game, and a miss immediately loses the game); applies to two of those 13 game-ending buzzer beaters
  • Those released in a tie game (where a make immediately wins the game, and a miss sends the game to overtime); applies to 11 of those 13 game-ending buzzer beaters

The first type (the do-or-die buzzer beater) is pretty cool, but not nearly cool enough to excuse its rarity (c’mon, two games ended this way out of 1431?!?)

The excitement of the second type of buzzer beater is somewhat dampened, because there’s no guarantee the game will be decided imminently. Such close hybrid-format games wouldn’t feature any wimpy make-and-win-OR-miss-and-head-to-overtime shots – they would feature heartpounding make-and-win-OR-miss-and-immediately-get-back-to-play-defense-for-your-life shots.

Speaking of overtime, we also romanticize this game-clock-attributable phenomenon because, if circumstances align just right, it can provide an exciting additional act to great games (we conveniently forget how often it fails to deliver, as noted earlier). Still, overtimes in other sports – specifically those that use a sudden-death format – are far more likely to provide a fittingly exciting ending.

But even those overtimes include imperfections. For instance, while the likelihood of scoring on a given possession made the NFL’s former true-sudden-death overtime very tense, some of the excitement could be diminished considering each possession might last several minutes. Conversely, the rapid exchange of possession makes hockey’s sudden-death overtime very tense, but the unlikelihood of scoring on any given possession can diminish the excitement.

Of course, a hybrid duration format wouldn’t introduce sudden-death overtime (or any overtime, for that matter) to basketball, but it would introduce a deliciously-common sudden-death scenario near the end of games – free of the downsides found in sudden-death scenarios in other sports. If both teams are just one score from victory, they could maintain the highest level of play, each of them would be about a coin flip away from scoring on any possession, and possession would change rapidly (until someone scores). Based on these factors, a hybrid format might allow basketball to boast the most exciting game-ending scenario in any sport.