This week, basketball fans witnessed the odd spectacle of a coach complaining that a foul was not called on his player.
In context, in sort of made sense. Spurs star Kawhi Leonard tried to foul the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook in the closing seconds of the fifth game of their playoff series. The Spurs trailed, and if they fouled Westbrook, they would regain possession and have a chance to tie the game. In this case, despite Leonard’s mugging of Westbrook, no foul was called (and Westbrook scored on the play). After the game, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich groused the call was “pretty obvious.”
Fouling for possession at the end of the game has become so routine that we don’t consider the strangeness of the ritual.
Consider the purpose of the foul in the structure of basketball. The game is, ostensibly, not a contact sport. Given human nature, play can get rough. Fouls are in place to regulate the violent impulses of players. And generally, defensive players try not to foul—or try not to be called for fouling, a difference—and complain when they are. The offensive player then goes on to take one, two or three free throws, depending on the game situation
But after the free throws, the offensive team surrenders the ball, whether they score or not. And that quirk of the rules is exploited at the end of games, when coaches hedge that regaining possession is worth more than the chance that the other team scores. As a result, the last minute of any close NBA game is gummed up by a procession of fouls, free throws, times outs and more fouls.
It’s not just an aesthetic problem, though, but a distortion of the game. It’s hard to imagine this was envisioned in 1924, when the rule establishing that the fouled player take the free throws was first established.
The exploitation of the rule follows the law of unintended consequences, an economics principle that holds that actions of people—and especially of government—always have effects that are unanticipated.
In the real world, my libertarian instincts are tempered by the knowledge that power is asymmetrical, and people and institutions that hold it will take advantage of those without it, unless their are rules to hold them in check.
In sports, however, where the playing field is (literally and figuratively) even, I’m much more laissez-faire. Sports should have as few rules as necessary to protect the integrity of the game and the safety of players, and they shouldn’t be tinkered with to correct some new wrinkle in strategy. I hated the illegal defense rule in basketball, think picks should be legal in the NFL and cringe at the idea of banning the shift in baseball.
In the case here, the losing team is relying on a loophole in the foul rule to do something they can’t through skill or defensive strategy: regain possession. By closing the loophole teams would be forced to steal the ball or get it back through a defensive rebound. In all likelihood, the team with the lead would keep it, just as they do now, but the games would end faster.
Fouls in basketball serve a necessary purpose, and getting rid of them all to restore sanity at the end of the game makes no sense. One option would be to give referees discretion about when they call them, and if the player is clearly fouling t regain possession, they could ignore it. But that puts even more control in the hands of the imperfect refs, and could give players incentive to commit rougher fouls in order to get them called.
Unfortunately, I think the solution is another rule: Any foul committed in the last minute of the game results in four free throws (or, if they’re not in the bonus, a two-and-one-and-one). By increasing the penalty for fouling, the calculus for coaches and players would shift. Fouling for possession would no longer be the default strategy, but one weighed against the cost.
I’m not fixed on the details. Maybe the number of free throws should be three, or five. Maybe it goes into effect with 90 seconds left, or 45. But it would be a clear improvement over the current end of game drudgery.