It’s the Three and the Shot Clock, Stupid

If you follow college basketball, you know one of the current flames being fanned these days is how scoring is down, and what the cause might just be. For me, this is just one more of those things that make we wonder about how people–and especially people who should know better– think.

First, let’s get something straight, this thing about scoring being down is not a new phenomenon. Scoring has been falling for over fifteen years. Here’s a chart from

So the entire argument is a take-off on the story of a frog swimming in a pan of water that gets slowly raised to boiling, and it’s been getting hotter for quite awhile. If you follow the link to statsheet, you’ll see a really interesting story playing out over the broad range of stats that are tracked. It’s not just that scoring is down. Free throws are down. Turnovers are down. Offensive rebounds are down, but defensive are up. Fouls are down, as are technical fouls and disqualifications (fouling out). Bottom line, the game is grounding to a stagnant halt.

Fans and commentators, though, being who and what they are, they wonder what’s wrong, they ask: why is scoring down? Interestingly (to me), they ask it in the following fashion. “Why, when we’ve got the shot clock and the three-point line, is scoring falling off so dramatically?” This is, of course, brilliant. The problem with phrasing the question like this is that it pre-assumes the shot clock and the three-point shot will serve to make the game much faster. It’s as if no one has ever heard of the law of unintended consequences. The clock and shot did serve to increase scoring for several years after they were installed, but it turns out that was the case because it took coaches a few years to figure out the right way to play the game under this very different structure.

You see, the reason that scoring is down is clearly because of the three-point line and the shot clock, not despite them. I admit that my comment might sounds nonsensical on first blush. I hear the complaints every time I talk about it to folks: They tell me that if we take away the clock and the three point line and you go back to the days of four corners and stall-ball. That’s what they say. But this is not really true–at least not fully. If I get aggravated enough perhaps I’ll blog on that in another post. This post, though, is about how the three and the clock are the source of the problem, so I’ll stick to that here.

The current thought on the subject seems to point to the fact that defenses are so much better, and that refereeing is so lenient as the source of this sudden loss of scoring. Jay Bilas had a nice bit of a rant on the approach officials are taking. I like Bilas. He’s one of the few who seems to actually think about the game itself rather than just parrot what other coaches and other folks say. It’s clearly true that the officiating has changed, and that this has a strong affect on scoring. But Bilas hasn’t gone far enough. He needs to ask: Why are defenses so much better today that before and what is the relationship between defense and refereeing. Everyone I’ve heard discussing the subject seems to be just peachy happy about these two sources (officiating and defense), but no one is digging any deeper (isn’t the rule of thumb that you should ask why something like five times?).

Let me cut to the chase.

Here’s why defenses are so much better:

  1. Since the advent of the thee-point shot, the defense has had two places they need to guard with their lives–the paint, and the land behind the arc. Hence defenses are designed to focus on both. In order to guard both areas, coaches teach defenders to be much more aggressive.

  2. With the 35-second shot clock, teams have a sixth defender. The goal of defense, after all, is to force a turnover or a bad shot. Knowing you need to play defense for only 35 seconds means that defenses can exert themselves at max effort and the offense will soon be mandated to throw the rock up from somewhere.

Perhaps you don’t agree with me. But I ask anyone here who has followed college basketball since the 70s, to think about the following strategic things:

In the old days, a team sped the game up by playing hard defense. Today a team plays hard defense specifically to slow the game down. In the old days, an offense with good ball handlers could run a team who extended the defense out too far into the ground. Bobby Knight’s IU teams would do this…run constant motion, make you play that extended defense for 50 seconds or a minute or whatever, and find a great shot. IU scored a lot of points most of the time–they had great ball handlers, and they took great shots. In the old days coaches and players had many tools–both offensive and defensive– at their disposal with which to attempt to control pace. Today, pace is completely controlled by the defense, and the goal is to force offenses to use 30+ seconds. It’s possible to play a sub-40 possession game, and the time is coming when we may actually see them.

This brings me to refereeing. Yes, it’s gotten far too lax. This is 100% true. But it’s related to two other human dynamics–first, coaches (and some behavioral scientists) discovered that refs seem to have a limit to the number of fouls they will call. They let the teams determine some rough baseline of physicality, set that as the level of expectation, then they start calling fouls. This means that on average, refs have a tendency to call the same number of fouls every game–and they have a human tendency toward “fairness” (meaning they will even up the calls over time with the exception to having a slight bias toward the home team, hence the very real Home Court Advantage). Given that defenses are stretched to cover more ground and that coaches are teaching more rugged approaches, this means that what has constituted a foul in real life action has slowly evolved to the point where the game is a scrum of pushing and shoving and bumping and holding.

This slows the game.

And then it’s made even worse because well-meaning fans, in their naiveté, scream bloody murder when refs “insert themselves into the game” and call a bunch of fouls. The fan feels the game slowing down and wants the refs to step aside and let the kids play. The problem here is that the average fan is not exactly a Rhodes Scholar during the time that their favorite team is playing. They don’t understand that by asking the refs to not call fouls they are actually throwing gasoline on a fire. All they know is that they want things moving, and a ref has stopped the game. But this call for letting guys play on causes refs to evolve to the point where they call even fewer fouls, thereby feeding the coaches ability to teach more physical play, thereby feeding back into an even slower game.

The fouls chart on the stat sheet shows this dynamic happening. It’s not really scoring that’s dropping–it’s fouls and pace, and those are driven by the three and the clock. Yes, field goal percentage is down a little, also. But the major influence in the lack of scoring is that (if my quick math is close to correct) the average possession is now about 18 seconds. It used to be about 16.7. That may not seem like much, but it’s a nearly 8% slow-down…and realize that the average fast break possession is still no more than 3-6 seconds long. All the gain is in half-court possessions–so the true increase in the average half-court possession is probably more like 2-3 seconds rather than 1.3. That would be a 16-20% slow-down.

The problem with scoring in the college game is not something that’s happening despite the three point shot and the clock, it’s happening because of them, because they slow the game down–a process aggravated by the way the game is called.

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