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Does being in foul trouble really merit a substitution?

May 14, 2010, 12:30 PM EDT

Among the most sacred truisms in basketball is the concept of “foul trouble”; head coaches yank players out of the game without compromise and regardless of import due to the number of fouls the player has acquired relative to how much time is left in the game. Two fouls in the first quarter? Benched. Three in the first half? Benched. The very notion that a pivotal player could receive four fouls in a half of basketball is apparently so threatening to head coaches, that they simply refuse to even allow it as a possibility.

If only that strategy made the slightest bit of sense. Dr. Jonathan Weinstein of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, writing at The Leisure of the Theory Class, explains (via Jason Kottke):

Conventional wisdom seems to regard foul management as a risk vs. safety
decision.  You will constantly hear something like, “a big decision
here, whether to risk putting Duncan back in with 4 fouls.”  This is
completely the wrong lens for the problem, since the “risky”* strategy
is, with the caveats mentioned, all upside!  Coaches dramatically
underrate the “risk” of falling behind, or losing a lead, by sitting a
star for too long.  To make it as stark as possible, observe that the
coach is voluntarily imposing the penalty that he is trying to avoid,
namely his player being taken out of the game!

The most egregious
cases are when a player sits even though his team is significantly
behind.  I almost feel as though the coach prefers the certainty of
losing to the “risk” of the player fouling out.  There may be a
“control fallacy” here: it just feels worse for the coach to have a
player disqualified than to voluntarily bench him, even if the result
is the same.  Also, there is a bit of an agency/perception problem: the
coach is trying to maximize keeping his job as well as winning, which
makes him lean towards orthodoxy.

To put it a different way, the worst thing that could possibly happen by keeping a player in “foul trouble” in the game is that they could get their sixth foul, which would limit the amount of time they can spend on the floor. So in order to avoid that outcome, coaches…limit the amount of time the player can spend on the floor. It’s safe to say that in-game context can make things slightly more complicated, but on a basic level, it makes little sense to sit a player for any reason other than ineffectiveness or rest.

At the heart of this discussion is essentially a debate over whether or not fourth quarter minutes matter more than minutes played during the rest of the game. After all, that’s essentially what coaches fear in such a scenario: if a player picks up his sixth foul too early, he may miss playing time in the fourth quarter.

From where I’m sitting, the points all count the same. A first quarter run can demoralize an opponent, a second quarter run can protect a lead when it’s in danger, and a third quarter run can put the game out of reach for an opponent (see Celtics vs. Cavs, Game 5). The only thing the fourth quarter really has going for it is its finality, as teams can put up points without the clock allowing time for the opponent to bounce back.

Does that really make fourth quarter production that much more valuable? Hardly. It’s just different. Don’t get me wrong, it’s cool to have a very efficient fourth quarter scorer. It’s just not all that much cooler than having a very efficient first or second quarter scorer. The biggest factor seems to be the reputation that comes with fourth quarter scoring.

The significance of clutch scoring is rather obvious, but the affinity for player success in the entire fourth quarter likely has more to do with the common casual sports fan assertion that NBA games “aren’t interesting until the fourth quarter,” or that players “don’t really try until the fourth quarter” more than anything else. Considering how ridiculous both of those claims are, what criteria exist that could possibly elevate the importance of fourth quarter minutes? 

  1. Craig W. - May 14, 2010 at 12:52 PM

    Your article points out the ridiculousness of the current definition of clutch – ability to come through in the last seconds of a game.
    IMO, clutch should be defined as a player recognizing when there is a turning point possible in the game and then taking the appropriate action to make that event happen. This could be in any quarter of the game and could consist of points scored, assists, rebounds, defensive shutdowns, or just plain controlling the pace of the game.
    Of course this definition requires that the observer actually watch the game and not just review the stats afterward — a horrible handicap for most ‘talking heads’.

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