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My revolutionary plan for the final possession

Published: July 10, 2007

Men's basketball
New concepts in basketball are rare.
I have one.
Try to pay attention as I explain, because I told my friends about it during a Cavs game and they looked at me as if I was speaking Swahili.
OK. In the final possession of a quarter (or half), one team typically has the ball with the strict orders to run down the shot clock and get the last shot. Let's call them Team A.
Now, over the course of a game in basketball -- college or pro -- the amount of points scored roughly equals the amount of possessions. In other words, you average about 1 point per opportunity to score. When sent to the foul line, that amount jumps to about 1.35 points per possession (if you assume the foul shooter averages a middling 67 percent at the stripe).
Back to Team A. They have the ball with 20 seconds left. Their coach says, "Run down the clock, then shoot." My revolutionary concept comes as my role of Team B's coach. If I am Team B's coach, I tell one of my players to foul Team A before the clock ticks lower than 14 seconds, which is adequate time for my team to run an effective play after Team A shoots foul shots.
This plan runs in stark contrast to the end of each NBA and NCAA period I have ever seen.
Now let me explain why it works...
With 20 seconds left on the half's final possession, Team A statistically will average about 1 point. That means Team A will finish the half scoring 1 point more than Team B had with 20 seconds left. It doesn't have to be that way.
My plan says to foul Team A, putting them on the foul line, giving them an average of 1.35 points. Oh well. Swallow it for now, Team B. You get the ball with 14 seconds left. And you will average 1 point in that final possession of the game.
When the buzzer sounds, Team A will have an advantage of 0.35 points, rather than 1 point -- which it would have enjoyed under the conventional wisdom of today. (Where do I get 0.35 points? It's Team A's 1.35 points from free throws minus Team B's 1 point from the final possession) That is a net gain of 0.65 points -- my plan versus the typical plan.
Of course, there are caveats. First, you don't want one of your most foul-prone players putting the squeeze on the ball handler -- especially in college where players are afforded just five whistles before ejection. Second, it's best to foul once the ball reaches a non-jump shooter, working under the assumption that good field-goal shooters also are successful at free throws.
However, even if you foul Mark Price, you're giving up 1.81 points. But you'll get back 1 point after he's done at the line. With the best foul shooter of all time, you still have a net gain of 0.19 points per execution of my plan, rather than the conventional plan.
You can always make the argument that offensive rebounds are possible on missed foul shots. That would give Team A an even larger advantage. However, that risk is outweighed, in my opinion, by the frequency that Team B's foul will be their seventh, eighth or ninth of the half -- making it a one-and-one shooting situation. The one-and-one is exclusive to college basketball, of course.
A final caveat should go without saying, but this plan is conceived on a macro level, much like almost all baseball statistics. A lefty-lefty matchup works most of the time for the Indians. When it doesn't, you have to shrug it off and keep plugging in the best matchups, by the numbers.
I hear you saying, "So what?" This scenario only occurs once a game in college, three times for the pros. In those scenarios, your team will be Team B just half the time. Still, if a college coach chooses my strategy, his team will average 0.33 more points per game over the course of a season than otherwise. For an NBA coach, that total jumps to a full point.
Is 0.33 points or 1 point per game a huge deal? Not really. Could it make the difference in one game over a 35- or 82-game season? Absolutely.
I've really been itching to debate this with someone, because no one seems to understand the theory. I should just see what Keith Dambrot thinks about it. For now, I'd appreciate some fan feedback. I could be completely, totally out of my mind. Or someone could steal this idea and write a book about it.
A short, dull book.

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