NBA Debated Cutting Down Free Throws to Shorten Game


The NBA is a league that has new rules implemented and altered with each passing season. Ever since the creation of the NBDL, the minor league has served as an experimental ground for rule changes to see if the alterations are effective and should be placed into the NBA at large. One complaint some have about the league currently is that the game takes too long, which has also been expressed in other leagues. As such, some team leaders have debated ways to shorten the NBA game by cutting free throw attempts down to one per appearance at the strike. It is a controversial idea which could change the professional basketball league significantly.

The idea of the change in free throw attempts was endorsed by D-League president, Dan Reed, and the general manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, during the 2014 All-Star break. With the new rules in place, whenever a player was fouled, whether it was in an attempted two-pointer or three-pointer, the player would attempt only a single free throw. If the fouled player made the shot, he would give his team a full two or three points. In changing the amount of free throw attempts, the league would drop from an average of 47 attempts per game to about 26.

Changing the amount of free throws would significantly decrease the total time an NBA game takes. From the time a whistle is called until the first free throw is shot is usually about 45 seconds. For each additional free throw, it has been estimated to take approximately another 15 seconds. This means that if the player attempted a two-pointer, it takes about a minute, while if he takes a three-pointer, the time at the strike takes about 75 seconds. These averages do not take into consideration the likelihood of a substitution after the first free throw, which would increase the length of time by another 30 seconds. By cutting down the second or third free throws, the proponents of the change believe it would cut almost 15 to 20 minutes from the game.

One of the co-sponsors, Morey, stated that “We’re an entertainment product, and the more free flow in basketball, the better.” There are a couple of problems with Morey’s quote. Basketball is a sport, not entertainment. Certainly, many spectators treat it as entertainment. However, the athletes who participate in the league do it for their job and from years of practice. Additionally, they want the game to be competitive, just like the fans do. The sport is more engaging during the five-on-five sequences. However, cutting free throws by almost half would likely result in a huge backlash, as it would create a less competitive game, which would hurt the fanbase as well.

More importantly, the NBA has had the same free throw system since its inception in 1949. The idea of a free throw per point attempted is to have the player work for their points, considering they are taking a shot completely uncontested. Eliminating one or two free throws per strike attempt would affect a number of areas. Statistically speaking, players tend to have more success with their second or third free throw than their first, at  77.7 percent against 73.2 percent. Because of this, it is quite possible that decreasing total free throws will result in lower free throw percentages, which will not only mess up statistics, but it would be a disadvantage to the player shooting the free throw. They are the player getting fouled, and the point is to penalize the other team. This would change the perspective and strategy of the game entirely.

One complaint that has been raised, in terms of the rules in the past, has been the intentional foul. For example, “the hack-a-Shaq” strategy that was created years ago, and is still in place today, where teams will intentionally foul a bad free throw shooter late in the game to gain an advantage. If the goal is to minimize the time of an NBA game, decreasing the amount of free throws to one could quite possibly increase more visits to the strike. In turn, it would be questionable exactly how significant the time of the game would get cut down.

Another problem with this move is strategy at the end of a game. Beyond the hack-a-Shaq method, close contests will have a dumbed-down strategy. If there is a three-point game and a player gets fouled, there is a much smaller gray area in what can happen. Either the team fouled will have a much harder time surpassing its opponent, due to the smaller percentage first shot or, for some, it could give an advantage to the other team due to them only needing to make one basket.

The NCAA, as well as high school and other basketball leagues, would not be a part of this new rule. This is one of the bigger controversies if this rule is enacted in the NBA. While there are subtle differences in rules between the college and pro game, decreasing foul shots is a major one. If the NBA has this rule in place, but the NCAA does not, it would mean the league’s rules would be dumbed down from college to the pros, and it could hurt the legitimacy of the NBA.

Yet another problem in reducing free throws is that it would alter other elements of the game. For instance, substitutions and timeouts. With how it is currently played out, substitutions and timeouts can take place after the first free throw. If there is only one free throw, this means that either this process would have to be moved to before the free throw or eliminated completely when players are at the strike.

At the end of the day, Morey and Reed are using free throws as a scapegoat. If one looks at the changes within the NBA over the last few years, the main principle change is how refereeing is done. Up until modern times, calls were made from what the refs saw on the floor live. In today’s game, many calls are made after reviewing footage from various angles. The NBA has done a great job in ensuring calls are properly called to the best of the refs’ abilities. It has come at a price though. It is these refs viewing the plays over and over, from a myriad of camera angles, that has slowed the game down. If these two executives, among others possibly, want to shorten the game, minimizing review time is what should happen. In reality though, the more efficiently plays can be reviewed, the more legitimate the game becomes.

While some may be in fear of free throws being minimized, this idea is unlikely to happen in the league. Commissioner Adam Silver is not the kind of guy who wants his league to be looked at as having weaker rules than the college game. He wants real competition. Additionally, he does not want to complicate rules that are commonplace in any other place basketball is played. From the business side of things, Silver would never do this. It is during free throws that many commercial dollars are made. Either the announcers will bring up sponsors or there will be a short commercial break. By shortening the length of a game, it likely would make the league less money, something the commissioner does not want to do.

In any sport, there are always going to be rules that are heavily debated. There are always going to be those who complain that the game takes too long. Rules are meant to be altered, changed and cut, but only to a point. Cutting down free throws to one shot per strike appearance to shorten the game should not be debated within the NBA. Executing such a drastic rule change would not only alienate players, but it would induce a backlash from the fans, who are the people that Reed and Morey are trying to appease in the first place. As such, it is a discussion that should probably end before it damages the integrity of the NBA.

Commentary by Simon Mounsey

Photo Courtesy of Gary Denham РLicense
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