If fans remember Oklahoma City’s improbable comeback in Orlando last Wednesday, it will be as the capstone of Russell Westbrook’s wild, screaming, relentless MVP case.
Nick Elam, a 34-year-old middle school principal from Dayton, Ohio, watched it with annoyance — and then excitement — for very different reasons. The Thunder, trailing the entire fourth quarter, fouled twice in the last 30 seconds to prolong the game before Westbrook’s leaning 3-pointer tied it with 7.1 seconds remaining. The final 20.9 seconds of regulation lasted 10 minutes and three seconds in real time.
Elam, a Mensa member, has devoted most of his spare time since 2004 to solving the slog of NBA crunch time. Oklahoma City’s win was remarkable to Elam because the Thunder’s deliberate fouling worked.
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.
Still: The process was ugly, and it rarely upended outcomes. It didn’t seem worth it to Elam. “Comebacks are just so startlingly rare,” Elam said. “And the method teams used to get there was so artificial and unsightly.” He would devise a better way.
He knew about the most common solutions: harsher penalties for intentional fouls, or allowing hacked teams to take the ball out of bounds instead of shooting free throws. (Others have suggested letting teams pick their foul shooter as a way of dissuading opponents from grabbing Dwight Howard types.) None of them presented trailing teams with a better alternative to fouling.
Elam landed on something more radical: eliminate the game clock from crunch time. 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!
He chose seven points because it amounts to about 1/16th of a typical team’s per-game scoring output, just as three minutes amounts to 1/16th of an NBA game. He tinkered with more mathematically complex methods of calculating the target score, even some that would vary from game to game, but ultimately found that basic worked better. (This is not dissimilar from how Danny Biasone chose the length of the 24-second clock.)
In 2007, Elam starting sending his proposal to every connection he had in the basketball world. He knew it was a long shot. “The NBA is a thriving league,” he said. “I’m up against a pretty big force. It seems radical on its face. I knew it would be hard to gain favor.”
A few higher-ups — including NBA GMs and TV announcers — replied that they liked the idea, but it would never fly. “It’s actually a great idea,” Mark Cuban emailed Elam in 2012. “We couldn’t do it in the NBA, but it could be fun in the D-League.” (Cuban verified the email in an exchange with ESPN.com last week.)
Responses today from league officials and team higher-ups tend to follow the same pattern. As you explain that you’ve heard about another solution to what seems an intractable problem, you can see the eyes begin to roll: “Oh, great. Another wackadoo idea.” But when you detail Elam’s proposal, they stop in their tracks, pause, and say something like: “You know what? That’s not bad.”
“You know what?” Kiki Vandeweghe, the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball operations, remarked to ESPN.com this week. “That is really interesting. Honestly, that is a really creative idea.”
It is too far outside the box right now even for the D-League, the NBA’s mad-science lab, Vandeweghe said. “It’s more aggressive than anything we’ve discussed,” he said. Smaller changes would slice a lot of fat from crunch time: limitations on consecutive timeouts and replay reviews, and a FIBA-style prohibition against live-ball timeouts. That nutty Thunder-Magic game from last week is instructive; needless reviews and timeouts called by inbounds passers accounted for most of the crunch-time marathon.
Still: League officials would like to see Elam’s idea tested elsewhere. But where?
Enter The Basketball Tournament, the $2 million winner-take-all single-elimination 64-team tournament entering its fourth year this summer. Jonathan Mugar, the founder and CEO of TBT, received Elam’s PowerPoint via email last summer. Mugar is a self-described basketball traditionalist. When he first pitched TBT, he contemplated having no shot clock at all.
In other words: He is not Elam’s target audience. “I consider myself a purist,” Mugar said. “Every sentence I read in that email, I expected to click the close button. But it seemed to be making an increasing amount of sense.”
Mugar eventually read the full presentation. “It’s impossible for me to watch basketball anymore without thinking about Nick’s proposal,” he said. “It highlighted how rare it is that deliberate fouling works. Why are we putting ourselves through this unappealing form of basketball?”
He was hesitant to introduce the rule into TBT. He was sure there would be unintended consequences. The entire tournament is based on the idea that high stakes coax teams toward optimal basketball — team-first, unselfish, playing to win. “We don’t want to be seen as gimmicky,” Mugar said.
So he landed on a compromise: This edition of TBT will use Elam’s rule over the last four minutes of every play-in game among teams competing for the final four spots in the real tournament — 12 games in all.
Those games will be streamed. The NBA will be watching. Groups within the NBA’s basketball strategy and referee operations departments already meet for weekly (or almost weekly) brainstorming sessions to kick around unconventional ideas just like this. It will be some poor staffer’s summer job to track those dozen games.
“We will definitely watch it,” Vandeweghe said. “We’ll look at all of the data and see what comes out of it.”
The thorniest strategic questions surround that four-minute marker, the point at which regular basketball will transition into an entirely new game. If the leading team has the ball when the game crosses that border, they might want to stop play as soon as possible to lock in the score — especially if they get the ball first in the endgame. They may even throw the ball off an opponent’s leg to stop play.
Having the ball first in that scenario would create a huge advantage. Hit a 3, and you’re almost halfway there. A league could counter that edge by starting the untimed portion with a jump ball, or triggering it only with made baskets. In this summer’s TBT, any dead ball after the four-minute mark will switch the game to untimed play.
Some built-in advantage for the leading team is fine with Elam and Mugar. It rewards them for arriving at the four-minute mark ahead. It addresses a larger source of fretful curiosity among team executives and league higher-ups: Would Elam’s system make comebacks too easy? Is seven points enough?
The NBA has long been concerned — at least on a theoretical level — about whether they need to inject more randomness and unpredictability into the game. Long playoff series are murder on underdogs. But how much randomness is too much?
“I think it will lead to more comebacks, but I think [the number] is in the sweet spot,” Elam said. “And to get those comebacks, you have to play real basketball.”
Some team officials cautioned that the plus-seven target score could extend some games — including blowouts — even longer than they go now. This seems like a minor problem; seven points can come fast in the normal flow, and close-but-not-really-close games take forever as is.
“This idea would address the number one viewer issue I see in NBA games — the endless trips to the free throw line and timeouts at the end of games,” Daryl Morey, Houston’s GM, told ESPN.com.
But what happens if close games proceed deep below the four-minute mark without any stoppage? Would we really have wanted this system applied to Game 7 of last year’s Finals?
It might drive teams with big leads to stall a bit in the fourth quarter: If you’re up 20 with that untimed portion coming, you might want to limit the number of possessions opponents have to catch up. (Mugar is unconcerned. “I think it’s hard for teams to deviate from what got them a 20-point lead,” he said. It might even backfire. “It could be like when football teams loosen up into prevent mode.”)
The untimed ending creates at least one instance in which teams will, and should, intentionally foul: If they are ahead, either one or two points from the target score, and the other team has the ball three points shy of the target. The defense should hack away so that the opponent can’t get off a potential game-clinching triple.
But a version of that scenario exists now in the NBA: Teams often foul when they are up by three points in the final seconds. (They should probably do this a bit more, though studies have been inconclusive.)
Or imagine this: A team shooting one free throw is two points from the target score, but its opponent, about to get the ball back, is just one point below the target. Should the team at the line insert all its best offensive rebounders, miss the free throw intentionally, and try to get the ball back? Does the probability of actually snagging that rebound — and then scoring — outweigh the benefit of scoring a single point on that free throw?
Teams one or two points from the target score may start driving out of control into the paint, begging for fouls. That would be ugly, but no uglier than hack-fests. It may not work if referees are dialed in, Elam said. “There are downsides,” he said. “But leading offenses playing more aggressively is better than stalling that we see now.”
Overtime would vanish. So would buzzer-beaters, though baskets that push a team across the threshold would bring the same tingly mix of anticipation and jubilation. Fouling out could prove even more costly. Teams with big enough leads might even cherry-pick. Trailing teams might chuck 3s indiscriminately. Elam is almost hoping for the opposite — that coming from behind under his system won’t require so many frenzied 3s. Big men could remain more involved.
Regardless, Elam is excited to see his idea in action. Adam Silver will have eyes on it — maybe even his own.
“All along, I thought I had what might be a game-changing idea for a sport I love,” Elam said. “My fear was that someone would take it, run off and leave me in the dust.”
Mugar and his partners have ensured that won’t happen. They initially called the untimed portion the Mensa Rule. But they’ve reconsidered. They have christened it the Elam Ending.