Here's a HoopIdea: Crunch-time basketball is fantastically exciting -- the peak entertainment of the sport.
But the ball is dead a lot. Play stops for:
Timeouts, of which there are too many, and which are too long.
The referee's whistles, many of which, in crunch time, are for fouls committed intentionally.
Video reviews, which should take less time.
Free throws, which are boring and slow.
Substitutions, of which there are many.
The NBA would be a lot more fun to watch if play didn't stop so much.
Now, I don't want to be ignorant and suggest eliminating timeouts. Of course, the TV commercials that play then are a major source of NBA revenues.
But this has been studied for ages. The people who produce, say, "Modern Family," have the exact same worries. They have commercials less than a third of the time. People will put up with about that amount of waiting around.
NBA crunch-time, on the other hand, features nothing close to that much live action. I have taken to starting a stopwatch when there are two minutes left in close games. In every case, those two minutes of game time have taken more than 10 minutes.
The final two minutes of that exciting January Heat versus Hawks game, the one Chris Bosh sent into overtime with a clutch 3, lasted 15 minutes and 20 seconds. That means the ball was in play a mighty 13 percent of the time, as opposed to Modern Family's 60-plus percent.
At that rate, you might as well bring your iPad to the game to watch "Modern Family" during the breaks. You could watch an entire episode in fourth-quarter dead balls alone.
Coaches will tell you they need all those timeouts to create beautiful plays. I'd tell you that all that preparation helps the defense much more than the offense -- statistics are emphatic that offenses, in general, are far worse in crunch time than the rest of the game.
Why is it that tennis and soccer players can be trusted to make decisions with the game in the balance, but basketball players can't? What's wrong with taking the Phil Jackson approach, and letting players make more decisions in the course of play?
To some extent, the NBA seems to be thinking similarly. It has gone to trouble in recent years to speed up the game. This season it tweaked things like when players can enter the game and when referees can use instant replay. It also has a new "two horn" system to encourage timeouts to end somewhat on time -- if your players aren't moving to the court by the second horn, you get a delay-of-game warning. The league made all those changes, it says, with an eye to speeding up games.
The league has also bragged that average total game times have been getting shorter in recent years, especially games that are not on national television.
Surely the league's changes have been timid though, huh? We hit up TrueHoop Network bloggers, ESPN.com experts and you for some further suggestions. Here are some:
ESPN.com's Larry Coon: Give teams the option to decline free throws and instead take the ball out of bounds.
Mike Kurylo of Knickerblogger: Limit each team to one timeout in the final minute.
Colin McGowan of Cavs: The Blog: Restrict video reviews.
MJ from Baltimore emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org
: Award the free throws of crunch time after the play is done, like a soccer shootout.
MJ! That's so crazy it just might work. The real payoff is that it makes it impossible to foul for possession of the ball. The bonus is it makes the free throws more than they otherwise might be. The downside, to me, is that I'd rather see the game decided with dynamic team play, not on a dead ball. The end of game-winning buzzer-beaters is too steep a price to pay to sex up free throws.
Another idea: I'm also suddenly livid every time I see a team call a timeout to earn the right to inbound the ball from midcourt. That's a rule that rewards a coach for stopping play, even if he doesn't want to stop play. Why not let teams inbound from midcourt in the final two minutes whether they call a timeout or not? Bolder yet, why not let them move the ball only if they don't call a timeout?
Here's the thing about changing the rules, though: Funny things can happen. So I called a number of basketball experts in and around the league to see if they could see problems with our various suggestions.
To me, Coon's is brilliant and a no-brainer. Many experts felt is was too big a change, and one that would make it hard for trailing teams to get back into games.
The number of timeouts is a profound issue with big economic implications. Perhaps the league will budge here, but it won't come easy.
Video reviews are already restricted in several ways -- the stoppages are only supposed to last two minutes except when there's a special reason to go longer. But in an era of HD DVR replays, surely the referees on the court need as much information as everyone at home.
My idea about moving the ball confused a lot of people. But many seemed in favor.
But the most interesting comment out of all my phone calls came from three different hoops lifers, who said something along the lines of: "You know who has crunch time really figured out? FIBA." As in, the international governing body of basketball, whose rules govern, for instance, the Olympics, the World Championships and the Euroleague.
WHERE CRUNCH TIME IS HEAVEN
It is rare for people who work in the NBA to point overseas for answers to anything. But it's hard to find anyone in the NBA who doesn't enjoy the breakneck pace of a typical FIBA crunch time.
"They play the last two minutes," one expert jokes, "in about two-and-a-half minutes."
That's a bit of an exaggeration, but watch Panathinaikos and CSKA from this past November. The last two minutes of that game lasted just about six minutes. There are a ton of international games like that. Now imagine that same pace of play with NBA players all over the floor. That's top-shelf entertainment.
The beauty of stealing FIBA's system is that you know it works. A lot of rule changes have the potential to backfire once players and coaches start trying to exploit them.
How does FIBA make that happen?
No timeouts while the ball is in play.
This is the secret sauce right here. If the ball is in play, play. Even if you're falling out of bounds. Even if your team is down three and wants to draw up a play. Even if the coach needs to scream at somebody. Tough. Play.
ESPN.com NBA editor Royce Webb had a great line once, about players calling timeout when they they get trapped by the defense and the action gets heated. Why would the league want a play to stop then?
"That play," he says, "was just starting to get good!"
No timeouts if you don't have the ball.
Even when play is stopped, only the team with possession can call a timeout.
Timeouts can only be called in advance by the coach.
You put in your request for a timeout, and then you get it at your team's next dead ball. Gone entirely are spur-of-the-moment timeouts. And you can always cancel the request.
In the last two minutes, it's hard to substitute.
If the ball is dead after a foul, etc., both teams can substitute. After a made crunch-time bucket, though, the team that scored has to keep the same lineup on the floor. This one tweak does a lot: It decreases petty delays as players come and go. It virtually ends the strategy of offense/defense substitutions -- once they get in there, who knows when you can get them back out?
Once coaches are intent on simply playing their five best two-way players, it becomes increasingly important to keep them from fouling out. Those players are precious! Which may also lead to fewer fouls, more time with the ball in play, and less time watching players saunter to the free throw line.
In recent years, the NBA and FIBA have made efforts to standardize the rules between the two games. And it has resulted in real changes, at least from FIBA. Remember when the U.S. beat Turkey in the world championships? That was the last game played with the trapezoidal lane that used to be the hallmark of play outside the U.S. Now everyone plays with the same lane, and global standards are the trend.
The next step should be the NBA taking a page out of the FIBA book. Not to experiment with new rules that might backfire, but to embrace rules that have been around for a long time, and result in a much more exciting game, with a lot more basketball being played when the game is on the line.
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