Hybrid Format for Basketball Game Duration – Part 1 of 3

In our debut column, Nicholas Patrick proposes to change the format of basketball games from a clocked duration to a hybrid format. This is part one of a three-part series on the topic.

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

Basketball is awesome…until it’s not awesome. During the late stages of nearly any game that’s remotely competitive, leading teams will repeatedly and deliberately stall, and trailing teams will repeatedly and deliberately foul. I would argue that these practices are abjectly unfair, as they directly violate the spirit of the rules. Of course, teams employ these strategies only because a more favorable option doesn’t exist (especially for the trailing team). I would even argue that this unnatural style of play often prevents us from identifying the superior basketball team (and isn’t that the point?), but then again, fouls and free throws are justpartofthegame. But I can’t overlook the fact that fouling and stalling so often make the late stages of previously entertaining games predictable (as even slim leads are disproportionately safe), interminable, and downright borrrrrring. (Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals exemplifies this perfectly in an indirect way. Many regard it as one of the greatest basketball games of all time, primarily because a team actually overcame a five-point deficit late in a game. Gasp!)

Don’t take my word for it. Through some or all of the following attempts (including those that have come and gone) to address fouling and stalling, the NBA and NCAA 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 interested parties 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
  • Calling deliberate fouls by the book (as intentional 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 basketball. Blame the game clock directly responsible for such play, as we also see stalling in football, ice hockey, soccer, and just about every sport that bases the duration of its games on time. Basketball is unique, though, in allowing the trailing team to control the proceedings (and with an unseemly strategy, to boot). But while the game clock may affect basketball most detrimentally among time-based sports, basketball is the only such sport that could realistically turn its back on the clock that causes these flaws.

Think about it. Obviously, not all sports are governed by time. Duration formats come in various types, including a relatively common type that is based on the accumulation of fundamental accomplishments. Baseball, softball, tennis, and volleyball use this format, and can do so because outs and points are accumulated with relative ease and frequency. Whether you enjoy these sports or not, they are immune to the style-of-play-warping strategies that afflict time-based sports (though the length of competitions within each of these sports varies widely in actual time, a noteworthy drawback indeed).

Football, ice hockey, soccer (along with field hockey, lacrosse, water polo, etc.) endure the downsides of their game clock (and must continue to do so) because accomplishments (e.g., scoring possessions in football, goals in the other sports) are accumulated with relative difficulty and infrequency. Basketball shared this trait – about a century ago and before, shortly after the great Dr. James Naismith so ingeniously invented it. But for many years since, baskets have been accumulated with ease, distinguishing it from other time-based sports. It’s time for basketball to evolve, and see that we enjoy a fair, exciting, natural style of play through the end of every game.

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.