by Brian on March 19, 2004

Despite having lived my entire life in two of the leading basketball countries of the world, there are many things about basketball I still don’t understand. Like, how can a foul you intended to give not be an intentional foul? I suspect that’s one of those odd quirks of the interpretations like the outside strike that we just have to live with. But here’s a more serious question.

Why is it that players are always taken out of the game when they get into foul trouble?

If they stay in the game, the worst thing that can happen is they foul out. And the cost of fouling out is that you have to spend part of the game on the bench. So to avoid the risk of the player spending a chunk of time on the bench, you make them spend a chunk of time on the bench. This doesn’t obviously make sense.

I can think of three possible explanations for this practice, none of them in general very good. (The last explanation might work in a few cases, but I think it’s fairly rare.)

First, minutes at the end of the game are more highly valued than minutes in the middle of the game. So sitting the player down so they can come back at the end is important. The problem is that there’s little evidence I can see that that claim is true. Buckets don’t count more at the end of the game, for instance.

Second, there might be some strategic loss from not having the option of moving the player in or out once they’ve fouled out. But that wouldn’t explain why star players, who would normally play most of the game anyway, sit when they’re in foul trouble. And the strategy coaches actually follow of automatically benching guys when they get in foul trouble seems to lead to just as large a loss of strategic options.

Third, if the player is part of a platoon, where two players rotate in and out of the one spot to each get a reasonable amount of rest, you might not want the other player being forced to cover the last ten or twelve minutes on their own. This one I think does make sense, but only when the players actually are meant to be platooned in this way.

So I think in general coaches would be better off leaving the players in foul trouble in, and telling them to be a bit careful about picking up cheap fouls.

Of course, I’m 11-5 in my selections after day 1 of the tournament, so you might want to ignore everything I have to say about basketball because I clearly still have a lot to learn.



John Quiggin 03.19.04 at 7:01 am

I have wondered about this. I think there is some combination of the ‘hot hand’ and ‘regression to the mean’ fallacies at work here.

The ‘hot hand’ fallacy is obvious enough – the player gets several fouls, so it’s inferred he is ‘hot’, but not in a good way.

The ‘regression to the mean’ fallacy is somewhat similar – coaches observe that when bad performance is followed by punishment/intervention, an improvement usually ensues (of course, it would usually ensue anyway).


Brian Weatherson 03.19.04 at 7:17 am

In some cases I think there might really be a ‘cold hand’ phenomenon. I know in baseball although there’s no statistical evidence for ‘hot hands’, there is strong statistical evidence for ‘cold hands’. In this case it’s because a string of poor performances usually means the player is carrying an injury, but they think the best thing for the team is to try and play through it. Since injured players stay injured without treatment, poor performances tend to lead to more poor performances. In basketball, some fouls seem to be caused by tiredness, so in that case a ‘cold hand’ type explanation would work. But that wouldn’t explain why pulling players is universal.


Andrew Boucher 03.19.04 at 7:56 am

Assume a rested player is better than a tired player. Assume a person in foul trouble has an estimated 5 minutes of playing time before his last foul, which sends him out of the game. He will perform those 5 minutes best at the end of the game, when he is well rested. Thus better to take him out now.


Charles 03.19.04 at 9:03 am

I though the idea was to bench a valuable player to reduce his playing time and thus exposure to new fouls, so if they need to put him back in the game in a pinch (i.e. they fall behind), he hasn’t fouled out already.

Anyway, your question on intentional fouls reminds me of an incident when I was in Jr. High school. The boys basketball team played a game against the teachers and coaches as a benefit for charity, everyone came to watch, even the parents. At the end of the game, the teachers were behind by 2, they had the ball and were racing down the court with 10 seconds left. The teacher with the ball was known to be a bad free throw shooter, so the star of the basketball team intentionally fouled him, as he had previously been coached and as he had done in real inter-scholastic games. The idea was to foul the guy, he’d probably miss the free throws and the kids team would preserve their lead and win the game. This is perfectly legitimate, a standard strategy in basketball, but the teacher apparently didn’t know that.
The teacher was so irritated at missing his game-tying shot that he slugged the kid in the face and broke his nose. The game was declared over with time still on the clock. The teacher was suspended and charged with assault, I don’t know how that turned out but I heard he got sued for damages too. Serves him right, for his bad sportsmanship.


Luke Weiger 03.19.04 at 9:23 am

Ever watch Michael Jordan play in the last few minutes of a close game? Youd wouldn’t get that sort of effort with four minutes to go in the third quarter…


free patriot 03.19.04 at 9:28 am

All of this is college ball, 5 foul rule

Taking a player out after two fouls in the first half saves the three remaining fouls for the second half.

A player who picks up two quick fouls can also get very pissed at a ref if he gets a third quickly. Can you say technical, and that would be four

Most teams have only one dominate center, and this is the position where fouls are most valuable. A big man in the middle is still the best way to win.

The late part of game is more crucial to determining the outcome, and the star player who fouls out gives the other team a boost.

I agree that fouling to stop the clock should be an intentional foul, but what can ya do ??

Think about the other side. Some teams prepare thier rosters so that they’re able to foul Shaquille O’Neil 18 to 20 times a game. It is called HackaShaq, and it really pisses Shaq off


Nels Nelson 03.19.04 at 9:43 am

The ability to give fouls at the end of a game, in order to stop the clock and get the ball back, is critical. There are two considerations with this:

(a) it’s preferable to have your star players on the court with a few fouls to give in the last minutes. If only two scrub players on the court have fouls to give, then either (1) a star player fouls out, hurting your offense, or (2) those two scrub players have to scramble around trying to foul whomever has the ball, which wastes valuable time and weakens the defense.

(b) if one of your players, especially a star player, is in early foul trouble while the opponents are not, on every possession they’ll drive right at him, hoping to force an additional foul or capitalize on his conservative defense. Late in the game, the hope is the opponents will also be in foul trouble and will be less likely to do this for fear of themselves picking up an offensive foul.

You too quickly dismiss the benefits of having all players available at the end of a game; star players are not necessarily the best in every situation. Down by three points with only a few seconds remaining, coaches will throw their four best shooters out there, with a good passer to inbound, regardless of star power or minutes played up to that point in the game. Other players may be needed for their ability to come up with a critical steal, use their athleticism to hound the inbounds passer on a final play, set a 250 lbs. screen, or shoot free throws with a high percentage.

Also, most players will try to avoid fouling out, even if it’s only subconsciously. Star players in particular want to be on the court for the final minutes of a close game. If they get into early foul trouble and are left in, they’ll play conservative defense for fear of fouling out before the game ends. It’s best if fouls are spread around a bit so that nobody is one foul away from fouling out in the final minutes of the game.

The final explanation, which might seem obvious and is what Brian mentioned, is that a player who is picking up quick or early fouls is quite possibly playing poorly, rather than just having gotten unlucky with a few calls. He may be outmatched, tired, injured, frustrated, or simply having an off day. The bottom line is winning, so it makes sense to substitute in another player and see if he can perform better.

Overall, the main concern is that players in foul trouble (other than designated hackers) will play conservative defense and therefore provide easy targets for opponents to drive at or around.

Also, think of it like this: early in a game, or even most of the way through, how the game will end is unknown. As the game draws closer to the finish, the number of possible outcomes dwindle, until only a single play, or series of plays, remains, and you are close to knowing with certainty what must be done for the game to end in your favor. In basketball, perhaps you know you need a 3-point play. In football, you might know you need a touchdown and a 2-point conversion. In baseball, you know you need four runs and the bases are loaded. If all your outside shooters have fouled out, you burned your last timeout challenging a call which was upheld, and your best power hitter was pulled for a base runner in the 7th inning, you’ve squandered your options on unknowns instead of saving them for knowns.


John Quiggin 03.19.04 at 1:15 pm

I’m interested that no-one has challenged your assertion that you’ve lived your entire life in two of the leading basketball countries of the world. Of course, we know that Australia is the leading country in all sports (except the ones that don’t matter), but I’m a bit surprised the readers accepted it.

Having just (last weekend) watched the (Brisbane) Bullets go down narrowly to be eliminated from the semifinals, the second time in a row they blew a big lead, I’m not feeling at all happy about basketball at present. But we’re good odds to win a fourth AFL flag in a row.


Arthegall 03.19.04 at 1:21 pm

I think the notion of “intention” in sports fouls is interesting. To some extent, every foul is intentional. Soccer (football, I guess, to those outside the U.S.) is another good example: all of the most serious fouls in the game (those whose commission is penalized with a direct kick) require the referee to believe the fouling player also intended to commit the foul. In some circumstances, although it’s rarely called, the intention alone (without actual success in committing the act) is enough to blow the whistle.

Back to basketball, where the situation seems to be remarkably different. Consider, in the NBA playoffs two years ago, when Kobe Bryant (with the ball) is swinging his elbows, and hits the forehead of Doug Christie, the man he’s being guarded by…. but Christie is called for the foul. That instance was probably a result of Kobe’s ‘star’ power in the fame-crazed NBA, but it’s a good example of the general effects-based reasoning in basketball fouls.

In basketball, the foul is called based on its physical effect, and “intention” is a shorthand for particularly vicious fouls, or those outside the normal run of play. In soccer, “intention” is assumed; occasionally, actions which are obviously unintentional are allowed to pass for precisely this reason.

I should say, my knowledge of soccer’s rules is maybe six or seven years old now; I suppose the “official” rules could have changed their wording in the meantime, but that’s the way it used to be…


Matt Evans 03.19.04 at 1:55 pm

There have been plenty of good comments on the foul trouble scenario, but I think a quick clarification of the “intentional foul” issue is needed. While it’s true that nearly every foul committed in the last minute of a close game is not an accident, the term “intentional” in basketball has a more restricted meaning. The “intent” referes to the intent to hit a player, regardless of the position of the ball. Examples would include grabbing a player from behind without making an effort to reach the ball in front of him, or pushing a player in the chest when he goes up for a layup. A foul committed to stop the clock at the end of game usually involves a player hacking at a ballhander’s arms, which although clearly designed to be a foul, does show a desire to make a play on the ball and not just the opponent’s body.

That being said, I don’t know if that is actually written in the NCAA rules, as I haven’t read the relevant section. It is, however, how refs are taught to distinguish between normal and intentional fouls. Also, at the end of close games, most refs are reluctant to call an intentional foul on anything short of felony assault


nick 03.19.04 at 2:01 pm

The problem is that there’s little evidence I can see that that claim is true. Buckets don’t count more at the end of the game, for instance.

Oh, but they do. My limited appreciation of basketball extends to the fact that the game doesn’t really start until the last five minutes, and those last five minutes are stretched out to about an hour, with timeouts etc, and as others have said, as time ticks down, the plays and outcomes and situations become much more atomic and designed around specific players and combinations of players. Losing an 85% free-throw shooter to foul trouble, for instance, makes it more difficult to win a game in which the opposition uses quick fouls and trips to the charity stripe to regain possession and claw back a deficit.

That’s one reason why I don’t quite understand the TV allure of b-ball: while it has lots of points and nice breaks for ads, it’s basically a yawn until the very end. And that’s only if it’s a close game.


Matt Weiner 03.19.04 at 2:45 pm

This is a rehash of nels’ (b) I think, but is it possible that players in foul trouble will play worse for fear of picking up the last foul, until the last minutes? This might not be rational but might nevertheless make it rational to bench them.


Perry 03.19.04 at 3:35 pm

Let’s not discount the subjectivity of the refs. I would love to see some actual data on this, but I suspect there is significant bias with regard to refs blowing the whistle against star players near the end of a game (particularly a close game). Same goes with traveling and out of bounds calls – they become rarer at the end of the game (unless you are Chris Webber). Coaches know this so they play the odds and pull the player in foul trouble early. There is similar subjectivity in soccer refereeing; whether a red or yellow card is pulled often influenced by a) the star power of the player in question, b) the relative “roughness” of the match to that point, c) the number of cards already pulled, d) a closely preceding foul, e) even the “reputation” of the player/team, etc.

go Jaspers!


Ikram 03.19.04 at 3:51 pm

Despite having lived my entire life in two of the leading basketball countries of the world

You’ve lived your entire life in the US and Lithuania? The US and the Serbia?


Ben Keen 03.19.04 at 4:30 pm

Opposing players can ‘draw fouls’, too. Especially in the NBA, where a lot of offensive fouls (like charging) are very rarely called. Well, along with carrying the ball, double dribbling, and travelling, but that’s another story.

Of course, I have a personally biased view on this – I’m quite tall, and played center in church league in elementary school; at least half my fouls were charges that were called as fouls on me.


Skip Perry 03.19.04 at 5:27 pm

I’ve always liked the term “flagrant foul” much more than intentional foul. Like you say, you get the technical not for the intention — all fouls at the end of the game by a losing team are clearly intentional — but for the flagrancy or extreme nature of the foul itself.


Carleton Wu 03.19.04 at 6:51 pm

Someone mentioned that pulling a player allows him to rest and have the (possibly reduced) minutes he’ll play be the best he can give.

Given the limitations of the bench players, it’s also critical that those minutes be available to spell the other players at that position. If I have a good starting PF and C, and a decent player who can back both of them up (and the rest of my bench is scrubs)- if the PF gets in foul trouble, I need to be able to use his minutes to rest my other big men. Otherwise, when they get tired, I’ll be forced to put scrubs on the floor or play my guys regardless of fatuige.



Jason 03.19.04 at 8:29 pm

Why not just because when people get frustrated, they make bad decisions and play badly (I know I do)? If a person has just committed a couple of fouls, it’s a good sign of frustration, so sit them, and let them refocus/rest.

I also hate the ambiguity of the foul calls, particularly that charges aren’t called anywhere near as much as I would like (and I’m a guard).


dog1 03.19.04 at 11:42 pm

I think you are being neglectful of the power of conventional wisdom. If it is universally believed, as I think it is, that you must save an important player for the end of the game, then a coach might appear negligent if he did not do just that. And he would not only appear negligent to his bosses (not directly relevant to the outcome of the game in question), but to the other players he is coaching (potentially very relevant to the game in question).


Jeffrey Kramer 03.20.04 at 12:59 pm

Even if — logically speaking — the shot you make or miss when trailing 12-11 in the first quarter counts just as much as the shot you make or miss when trailing 100-99 with two seconds left, there is far more pressure on the latter shot because of the extra attention it gets. The assumption is that substitute players will be more likely to fold under that pressure, but will be capable of playing to their potential in the second and third quarter while the star player is benched with foul trouble. Under those assumptions, it’s rational to keep the star players eligible to take the fourth quarter shots.


zaoem 03.20.04 at 6:26 pm

I think you are right that coaches resort to this strategy too easily but there are some good reasons in some cases. One that is not mentioned is that especially post players in early foul trouble become vulnerable defensively. Teams will go at them thus forcing the player to risk further foul trouble or giving up easy lay-ups.

In addition, a player who is told to be careful may not be as effective, thus making the substitute relatively more attractive.


andrej 1500 03.20.04 at 7:37 pm

I think a player who commits enough fouls to be in foul trouble is a player who is probably tired (not playing defense with the feet, lack of concentration,etc).

So, the fouls are the symptoms of a player that needs rest (rather than the reason he/she is rested).

Comments on this entry are closed.