Hybrid Format for Basketball Game Duration – Part 2 of 3

In this 2007 NCAA Tournament contest, an 81-81 tie game at the end of regulation became an uncompetitive 96-84 Georgetown victory over North Carolina. In the overtime period, the Tar Heels made just 1 of 13 shots from the field and committed five personal fouls. (Photos by Joe Shlabotnik)

Time’s Up for Basketball’s Game Clock, Part II

I’m not suggesting that basketball should ditch its game clock completely. I propose a hybrid duration format that incorporates time AND accomplishments, allowing basketball to reap the benefits of each type (specifically and respectively, reduction in game length variance and preservation of natural style of play). Variations could be used at different levels of play, but 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):

1. The first half would be a familiar, 20:00 timed period
2. The second half would be split into two portions:

  • A 16:00 timed portion (I would prefer for this portion to end naturally – instead of sounding a buzzer and stopping play as soon as the clock reaches zero, allow play to continue until the next whistle)
    Upon returning from that timeout, the game clock is abandoned for good and the target score is established for that game (Target Score = Leading Team’s Score + 7). For example, if the score is 70-62 after the timed portion, the target score would be 77; if the score is 65-64 after the timed portion, the target score would be 72.
  • An untimed portion is played until one team’s score matches or exceeds the target score

A number of factors could be adjusted if necessary, but the idea is to abandon the game clock just before it compels teams to deviate from the basic objectives of the sport. This format would easily and effectively serve its primary purposes, as leading offenses can simply focus on scoring (not stalling), and trailing defenses can simply focus on regaining possession through legitimate means (not fouling). And that’s not all. A hybrid format would bring a number of positive residual effects, including:

  • Guarantee of a walk-off made basket (Basketball’s fluid nature and frequent scoring mean that even the most competitive and/or highly-anticipated games might lack a signature moment. A hybrid format would provide an absolute stockpile of game-clinching highlights to remember for a lifetime)
  • More exuberant end-of-game celebrations by teams and fans
  • An increase in late comebacks overall, while still eliminating fluky (foul-fueled) comebacks
  • An improved arena atmosphere leading up to a game’s end (Beating traffic will become a dead art, as fans grapple with the unpredictability of a game’s outcome and a desire to witness the clinching shot)
  • Elimination of sloppy/rushed/incomplete possessions by trailing teams that so often lead to hopeless heaves during critical moments
  • Elimination of late-game clock malfunctions, errors, reviews, and controversies
  • Elimination of overtime (and the added actual time and anticlimactic endings that often come with it)
  • Improved officiating (as refs can focus their attention to what is happening on the court)
  • Trailing teams will no longer be compelled to concede games (Basketball is unique in that trailing teams usually control the proceedings late in games. Consequently, when a team elects not to foul or play at a frenzied pace, one can actually pinpoint the moment when a team has given up. It’s something we just don’t see in other sports – even time-based sports – and for good reason!)
  • Elimination of silly scenes at the end of games (This usually includes a leading team player unceremoniously dribbling out the clock, but we also see many other types of endings less satisfying than a meaningful made basket)
  • Elimination of uncontested lay-ups (Currently, leading teams often allow such baskets to avoid committing a clock-stopping foul)
  • Elimination of misleading margins of victory (The unnatural style of play currently seen late in games can mangle final scores, which is significant in a data-driven age)
  • Elimination of the fouls-to-give dilemma (Although rare, from time to time a trailing team needs to send its opponent to the free throw line when the leading team is not yet in the bonus)
  • Guilt-free scoring, even in blowouts (A written rule requiring teams to score would replace the unwritten rule discouraging leading teams from doing so)
  • Fewer foul outs (many of which are currently caused by late-game fouling and overtime play)
  • Elimination of other unsightly late-game practices (e.g., rolling inbounds passes, throwing the ball straight in the air to exhaust time, etc.)
  • Elimination of booing, injuries, and fights prompted by late-game deliberate fouls
  • Introduction of traditions associated with the clinching basket (I won’t even venture to guess what teams and fans would devise. I just know it would be fun)

Basketball’s governing bodies often resist change, but a hybrid format appeals in the most important ways. It’s not gimmicky (in fact, it smacks of a throwback quality), and diehard fans would embrace its ability to purify the game. New and casual fans would tune in for the novelty, and would return to see more thrilling finishes and memorable moments.

Basketball is great, but it can be greater. This is the necessary, sound, feasible, superior way to make it happen. Until then, time’s a-wastin’.

Nicholas Patrick

Nicholas Patrick serves as a school principal, doctoral candidate at Miami University, member of the Cincinnati Reds grounds crew, devoted fan of the Dayton Flyers, and founder and coordinator of M-SportsFans (the official national Special Interest Group of Mensa members dedicated to sports and sports analytics). His research and writing have been featured at the SPEIA Basketball Analytics Summit, Mensa Annual Gathering, Sports Illustrated/The Cauldron, RushTheCourt.net, Redleg Nation, and the University of Cincinnati's Sports By the Numbers course.