Hybrid Format for Basketball Game Duration – Part 3 of 3

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

I certainly don’t blame coaches and players for manipulating the game clock and circumventing the spirit of certain rules under the current format. I would do the same in a heartbeat, considering such practices can lead to the best chance (or only chance) to win. If this compulsion provides the impetus for a change in duration format, then any worthy replacement must not breed its own brand of unsavory practices.

Make no mistake – if a hybrid duration format were introduced in basketball, coaches and players would (rightly) aim to maximize their chances of winning, no matter how ugly the means. But the opportunities just aren’t there. Good, clean basketball will trump any other crazy strategy that can be concocted. The hybrid format is strikingly sound.

Still, it’s not perfect, as one specific flaw exists. Consider the scenario where the trailing team has the ball, exactly three points from victory, being defended by a team either one or two points from victory. In such a situation, the trailing offense may be advised to attempt a three-pointer to win the game immediately. However, the leading defense may be advised to foul to prevent such a shot. And if the offense makes the first free throw attempt (bringing them within two points of victory), they may be advised to intentionally miss the second free throw attempt in an effort to retain possession. Some of that makes me cringe, until I consider the following reasons this flaw is much more forgivable than what we see under the current format:

  • This scenario would arise in a very small percentage of games, unlike fouling and stalling under the current format
  • Even in games affected by this scenario, these strategies could likely be used only once, unlike the repeated fouling and stalling under the current format
  • This scenario would always precede a thrilling finish, unlike the current fouling and stalling that often sends fans to the exits early
  • Effective measures could easily be taken to prevent the deliberate foul or intentionally missed free throw, unlike fouling, which the NBA and NCAA gave up on preventing decades ago:
    • To spare leading team players from scrambling to foul an opponent (and prevent the possible controversy of a trailing team ballhandler chucking the ball toward the basket at just the right moment, perhaps even from the backcourt, in an effort to earn three free throws), coaches could declare their desire for the game to be stopped (and their team assessed a foul) if the aforementioned scenario arises in a game
    • To prevent the second free throw attempt (in the aforementioned scenario) from resembling an onside kick, a compromise could be implemented that calls for the lane to be cleared of all players (and automatically grant the ensuing possession to the defense) and for the offense to select their most capable player to attempt the free throw (to offer them the best chance to score the point)

Now let’s get real. This imperfection would be a microscopic impediment to the hybrid format’s adoption. The biggest obstacle will likely be the insistence by those in authority that basketball is just fine as it is, and the unwillingness to acknowledge that a good thing could be made even better. They may also be concerned by a possible slight decrease in late-game timeouts. I believe the eventual increase in basketball’s popularity would easily make up for the revenue lost from the corresponding commercials (and even generate significantly more revenue), but others may see the phenomenon only negatively.

As for fans, we may be initially concerned by the elimination of overtime. Then again, an overtime period often fails to match the excitement of the end of regulation. In this age, some may also be concerned about the effect on certain statistical measures, but I contend that the current unnatural late-game style of play (and overtime play of any kind) has a more powerfully misleading effect.

Without a doubt, though, our greatest initial concern is about the loss of the buzzer beater phenomenon. But don’t worry. For starters, the possibility of fun circus-style buzzer beaters will be preserved, as the buzzer will still be around to signal the end of earlier periods during any given game. In addition, consider that the presence of the game clock so often leads to the sloppiest play during the most critical moments. Frantic action can be fun, but most of the time it’s simply inferior. During the 2013 NCAA Men’s Basketball Division I Tournament, ten 2nd half/overtime periods ended with a meaningful possession, yet none were successful. During the 2013 NBA Playoffs, 24 4th quarter/overtime periods ended with a meaningful possession, and only two were successful. Most of the missed shots weren’t even close. These aren’t buzzer beaters – these are buzzer bloopers.

Comparing the excitement of game endings across timed sports, sudden death is one of the best. Some timed sports inexplicably lack a sudden death scenario. Others that include sudden death still must contend with shortcomings. For instance, while the likelihood of scoring on a given possession makes NFL sudden death very tense, some of the excitement can be diminished considering each possession may last several minutes. Conversely, the rapid exchange of possession makes hockey’s sudden death very tense, but the unlikelihood of scoring on any given possession can diminish the excitement.

Although basketball doesn’t currently have a true sudden death, its scoring system (which doesn’t always count up by one) offers a rare make-and-win/miss-and-lose scenario at the end of games. But as indicated above by the 2013 data (just a small sample of the disproportionate late-game ineptitude seen in basketball in all eras and all high-level leagues), the poor quality of offensive play diminishes the excitement in its own way. A hybrid format would introduce a possible sudden death scenario free of the downsides mentioned above. 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 may allow basketball to boast the most exciting game-ending scenario in any sport.

Photo by Andrew Bardwell

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.