Shoot Free Throws Later

Here's a plan to make the first three quarters of basketball relevant again.

It's a common saying among the most casual of basketball fans that the regular season doesn't mean anything and the first three quarters of any game don't mean anything. More than half the teams make the playoffs, so you're not really missing much if you skip the regular season altogether. And most games are decided in the fourth quarter anyway, so why bother watching the first three?

Here's a proposal to address the second of these concerns.

Basketball is fun to watch when there's movement, drama, and momentum. It's boring when you have to sit and watch people shoot free throws.

What if for the first three quarters, all free throws were shot at the end of each quarter?

The pros are that the game speeds up, there's more suspense since the final tally will depend on the free throws to be shot later, and there are two levels of momentum: the game-time runs, and the free throw shooting streaks at the end of the quarter.

The cons are primarily operational in nature. It is hard to keep track of all the required information. A referee or score keeper would not only need to note the total number of free throws remaining to be shot, but also who is going to shoot them. It requires a separate list. Furthermore, injured players who could have hobbled up and taken a free throw in the course of the game may be unable to do so at the end of the quarter. Finally, the players would have less time between quarters to relax or chat with the coach.

Let's address these three operational concerns.

First is the information. It is indeed more work and prone to more error. However, this is professional basketball we are talking about, not a pick up game or high school game. Each player would or should surely remember how many free throws he is entitled to shoot at the end of each quarter, much as they remember how many fouls they have and how many each of their opponents and teammates have. In other words, this shouldn't be a concern for the world's best league.

Second is the result of injuries. It is rare that a player is able to shoot a free throw right away but not later. It does happen but it is sufficiently rare that it is not much of a problem to treat it in a similar way as if the player was immediately unable to shoot a free throw. Perhaps that means the opposing team's coach gets to pick the replacement free throw shooter from anyone who has played in that quarter.

Third is the less time for players and coaches to chat between quarters. Actually there may be more time! While one player is shooting consecutive free throws, the rest and the coach can huddle and talk strategy.

Now, there is one non-operational, fundamental, basketball reason not to postpone free throws until the end of the quarter, and it has to do with offensive rebounds. A missed second free throw can be rebounded by anyone from any team, so there is at least a chance the fouled team could reclaim the ball. In certain end-game situations, it is even desirous to intentionally miss the free throw in order to try to get the offensive rebound and score more than just one point (score management), or to force more time to elapse before the defense can start their play (time management). If free throws are postponed till the end of the quarter, a lot of that goes away.

This is the most serious concern. It is the primary reason why I propose leaving fourth quarters the way they are, with free throws shot in situ, right away, and not postponed. But does it seriously or significantly affect the first three quarters of play?

Almost never is score management or time management an issue in the first three quarters. I can't remember ever seeing someone intentionally miss a free throw in the first three quarters. (Can you? Email me!)

I have, however, often seen the fouled team rebound the missed free throw in a huge momentum-shifting play. This would be lost for the first three quarters. Would the gains be worth it? To decide that, we need to formalize the new rule.

There are three main possibilities after a foul is committed and the free throw(s) are recorded to be shot at the end of the quarter:

1) Possession goes to the fouled team.
2) Possession goes to the fouling team.
3) Possession alternates.

Any one of these would result in at least slightly different incentives for fouls than currently exist. If it always goes to the fouled team, for example, the number of fouls committed would drastically reduce. If it always goes to the fouling team, it would slightly increase. If possession alternates, then it would increase when the possession arrow would be pointing toward the fouling team and decrease otherwise. That's too much change and not worth it.

So here is my proposal:

1) On and-1 situations where the basket was made and there is one free throw to be shot, possession goes to the fouling team. They are penalized anyway with the potential extra point so there is no extra incentive to foul a shooter if he makes the shot.
2) On fouls in the paint where the basket was not made and the shooter gets two shots, possession goes to the fouled team. If you foul someone in the paint, pulling them down or hacking their arm purely to prevent an easy score, then you should be penalized. Possibly this should be just one free throw and possession. This would be another major rule change and it would open up the lane for more exciting basketball and also minimize the damage people get going to the rim.
3) On fouls outside the paint where the basket was not made, possession goes to the fouling team.
4) Technical fouls do not change possession, though of course they are also shot at the end of the quarter.

This proposal has its strengths and weaknesses. An important thing to remember is it modifies incentives and reduces fouls in the paint.

But the primary thing is that it makes the first three quarters of a game relevant and interesting again even to casual fans.

We'll work on making the first three quarters of the year, the regular season before the playoffs, relevant and interesting again in a later exclusive.