Getting rid of the intentional foul in basketball


The NBA basketball championship playoffs are currently underway. Even though the Cleveland home team the Cavaliers are the defending champions, I am not a basketball fan and have not watched any of the games so far. Part of the problem is that it is a very fast moving game (when it is not stopped for timeouts and the like which are the bane of American sports but allow for plenty of commercials) and I do not know the finer points of tactics and strategy to fully appreciate what is going on.

But when I have watched a game at the homes of others who are fans, I have been annoyed by the fact that towards the end of a game, the losing team often deliberately commits a foul on their opponents if the latter looks to be on the verge of getting a basket. This results in that fouled player getting two free throws and the thinking seems to be that there is a chance that at least one of the free throws will miss, resulting in that team getting just one point or less instead of the two for getting the basket. This tactic is used widely and results in the end of the game getting dragged out, as foul after foul is committed and the foul throws are set up. The last twenty seconds of actual playing time can last as much as 10 minutes in real time.

I think it is wrong that it should ever be considered advantageous to deliberately break the rules in any game. If players and teams seem to think it a good idea, it means that the penalty is not stiff enough. Clearly teams in basketball think that the payoff is worth it but one fan Nick Elam has studied this so-called comeback strategy and says that it almost never achieves its goal of enabling the losing team to mount a comeback.

Elam has tracked thousands of NBA, college, and international games over the last four years and found basketball’s classic comeback tactic — intentional fouling — almost never results in successful comebacks. Elam found at least one deliberate crunch-time foul from trailing teams in 397 of 877 nationally televised NBA games from 2014 through the middle of this season, according to a PowerPoint presentation he has sent across the basketball world. The trailing team won zero of those games, according to Elam’s data.

That undersells the effectiveness of the strategy, of course. Elam’s sample doesn’t include most NBA games. There were a lot of instances in which fouling teams came from behind to tie games, but lost later.

Elam has a suggestion for a better, more dynamic way to end the games, rather than the intentional foul that slows things down interminably.

Under Elam’s proposal, the clock would vanish after the first stoppage under the three-minute mark in the NBA and the four-minute mark in NCAA games. Officials would establish a target score by taking the score of the leading team and adding seven points — then restart the game without a clock. The team that reaches that target score first wins.

In simpler terms: If the Clippers lead the Jazz 99-91 when Rudy Gobert hacks DeAndre Jordan with 2:55 left, the game then becomes a race to 106 points. Utah must outscore the Clippers 15-6 to win.

The appeal was simple to Elam. He loves basketball, and he would like to see more of it. The start-and-stop hacking at the end of close games isn’t basketball. A trailing team could never use that strategy under Elam’s system; they would be giving away points to a rival that needed only seven to win. They would have to play real two-way basketball, and play it really, really well over a condensed period. Most games would end in baskets — exciting!

The only people who benefit from the current system are advertisers who can cram a lot of ads into the last moments of the game when people are watching most raptly. Hence I think the rule will not be changed since whatever the game, money is always the winner.

Except for curling, perhaps the last sport that is played in the true spirit of sportsmanship at even the highest levels, where, as fellow FtB blogger Intransitive explained (when commenting here under the pseudonym leftOver1under) deliberately fouling your opponent would be an unthinkable breach of etiquette.

Unlike many strategic games, curling isn’t a game of secrets. You could tell your opponent your team’s entire strategy before the game begins and it wouldn’t matter. What matters and determines who wins is who makes the shots. People often deride the game as “shuffleboard on ice”, but it would be more accurate to say it’s like baseball pitchers throwing curve balls three times as far, at a space a quarter of the size.

The other great thing about curling is the sportsmanship. It’s a game where players police themselves, where cheating and bad sportsmanship are frowned upon and quickly pointed out, even by players’ own teammates (with very rare exceptions). There are referees, but they are rarely involved except when measuring the rocks’ distance in the house. Even the fans will get involved, getting vocal when a player “burns” (touches) a rock or does something unethical (e.g. blocking another player’s attempt to sweep rocks). Teams will take notice of fan reactions.

Here is an introduction to the game.

I watched a curling match during the Olympics and noticed that, not knowing the rules at that time, I could only hazard a guess as to whether any given ‘curl’ (is that even correct?) was good or not because the players did not give any clue. They did not whoop or holler or pump their fists or beat their chests or taunt their opponents or genuflect or point to the skies to thank their god, the routine antics in football that so disgust me.

Stephen Colbert tells us about an innovation that is threatening to rock the world of curling.

Comments

  1. says

    It’s an interesting idea. Kinda shifts the game to more of a pickup style (game played to a certain amount of points). I don’t see the NBA ever implementing such a fundamental change though.

  2. Holms says

    Or, if the foul is deemed intentional, change the free throw from two single point shots, to one single point shot plus one point. Or hell, two two point shots. No one will want to risk such a heavy penalty.

  3. jrkrideau says

    Re “curl’. I am not a curler but I think the term you are looking for is “throw”.

    I very seldom watch sports of any kind but curling can be rather interesting (mesmerizing?) to watch. Given the choice between curling and US-style football or basketball, I’d take curling.

    I’d prefer to give them all a miss.

  4. Reginald Selkirk says

    I have been annoyed by the fact that towards the end of a game, the losing team often deliberately commits a foul on their opponents if the latter looks to be on the verge of getting a basket.

    The same problem applies to college basketball, and the explanation is incomplete. The team that is behind may foul even if the other team is not about to shoot. The aim is not just to curtail points, but to curtail clock usage by the team with the ball.

  5. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    I see Reginald has beat me to it. A little more detail, albeit from a non-fan:

    AFAIK, there is another big reason to foul people at the end of the game. At the end of the game, the winning team can just run out of the game-clock, limited by the shot-clock. For example, if the team is up by 1 point, and they have possession, assuming no fouls, then perfect play is to sit there, hold the ball tightly, and do nothing else, in order to run out the clock, because doing anything else risks losing possession and allowing the other team to score. In that kind of situation, if the winning team chooses this strategy, then the only possible path to victory for the losing team is to foul the winning team, in order to force free throws, in order to force a change in possession, in order to avoid running out the game-clock.

  6. screechymonkey says

    Holms @2,

    Or, if the foul is deemed intentional, change the free throw from two single point shots, to one single point shot plus one point. Or hell, two two point shots. No one will want to risk such a heavy penalty.

    Well, if you’re desperate enough, you would. For example, if you’re trailing and on defense with less time on the game clock than the shot clock, your opponent can simply run out the clock and win. I suppose there’s the minute chance of a steal or other turnover, but realistically you’re still going to foul and hope for the missed shots.

    It’s the ability to get a chance at possession that drives the intentional fouling. I can think of two proposals that would work: (1) intentional fouls late in the game mean free throws PLUS the non-offending team keeps possession; or (2) the non-offending team has the right to decline the free throws and keep possession with a new shot clock.

    The down side to such proposals is that you would make it easier to run out the clock late in the game. But that basically happens in American football already — the team with possession and a lead can “take a knee” and everybody starts shaking hands and walking off the field while the game clock runs down, and nobody seems to think that’s a serious flaw in the sport.

    Re curling: one of the nice side benefits of it “not being a game of secrets” is that TV coverage allows you to listen to teams discussing their strategy in real time. There’s no incentive for the other team to have someone listening to the TV coverage and tip them off about what you’re planning, so nobody objects to being “miked up.” (Other sports have “miked up” players and coaches occasionally on the broadcast, but it’s heavily edited and rarely interesting.)

  7. deepak shetty says

    The last twenty seconds of actual playing time can last as much as 10 minutes in real time.

    Way back when , I was studying for a final exam and taking a five minute break and decided to put on the TV and ESPN was showing what happened to be , the first NBA basketball game I watched. The scores looked close and there was 2 minutes remaining and my break was 5 minutes. Cool. 25 minutes later I wondered what happened here (But it had Karl Malone and John Stockton and they won on last possession so it wasn’t that bad). Also as a cricket fan I can’t complain about games taking time in between active play!
    I’d prefer a system like rather than individual fouls ,they count towards the team and say every 6 fouls means the teams top scorer sits out for 2-5 minutes .
    @EnlightenmentLiberal
    But you can only run out the clock for what 24 seconds maximum ? Football (or soccer if you prefer) does that too and its not so bad.

  8. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    But you can only run out the clock for what 24 seconds maximum ? Football (or soccer if you prefer) does that too and its not so bad.

    Something like that. However, imagine you’re 5 points up, with 1 minute left. If the team-that-is-ahead decides to delay, then the only practical way for the team-that-is-behind to win is to foul. It interrupts the shot-clock and game-clock, and greatly extends the game, which is precisely what the team-that-is-behind needs.

  9. deepak shetty says

    @EnlightmentLiberal
    Well – you shouldnt have let the other team go 5 points ahead then right :).
    You’d probably limit the amount of time a player can just hold the ball without passing or dribbling though..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *