A comprehensive plan to get rid of the worst part of the game of basketball

The best aspect of basketball is the constant action on both ends of the court. Teams go back and forth and the phases of play often blend together, creating a sort of beautiful chaos that attracts both hardcore strategists and casual fans. Basketball shares this trait with soccer, the most popular sport in the world, and hockey, which is immensely popular in the countries in which people grow up playing it. However, there is one key area in which soccer and hockey differ from basketball that makes the latter markedly worse: free throws.

The NBA knows that free throws are the worst part of their sport. That’s why they’re trying to speed up that part of the game by trialing a system in the G League in which all shooting fouls will result in a single free throw, rather than two or three. Should the NBA adopt these rules in the near future, they could shave precious time off the average game in a sport where more than 40 fouls are called per game. While not all fouls are shooting fouls, the majority of them are. In 2018-19, an average regular season game saw 46 free throws taken by both teams. Cutting down on free throws by making each trip to the line one-make-takes-all-the-points will be an improvement on the length and flow of the game, but it doesn’t go far enough to address the core issue: free throws aren’t interesting to watch and unnecessarily lengthen games.

Soccer and hockey have stoppages when fouls or penalties are committed; soccer teams line up their free kick routines and hockey offenders take their time getting into the box. The difference between these sports and basketball aren’t in these individual actions but in the grand total – there were an average of 20 fouls per match in the English Premier League in 2018-19, while NHL referees whistled just seven penalties per game last season. Compare that to 42 fouls per game in the NBA and there are far, far more stoppages in the average NBA game than there are in soccer or hockey.

It’s not that NBA referees are whistle-happy compared to their cross-sport peers; there are just more fouls in a typical basketball game. The league could instruct referees to let more things go in an attempt to speed up games, but that would bring with it the unintended consequence of making the game far less interesting to watch, even in a shorter time frame. The league has consistently made things easier on offensive players, from calling fouls for hand-checking in the mid-00s to placing an emphasis on “freedom of movement” ahead of the 2018-19 season. 

As more defensive actions become fouls in order to increase scoring (which, to a point, will increase casual fan interest), the games will get longer. Forbes’ Shlomo Sprung found that the increased “freedom of movement” calls added about two minutes to the average non-overtime game in 2018-19 versus 2017-18. The league is in a great place, but fouls and free throws remain uninteresting and a time-sink on NBA games.

In one game in 1954, the NBA experimented with shooting free throws all at once at the end of the quarter, rather than as they occurred throughout the quarter. In that game, teams continued to play during the first and third quarters when a foul occurred, then convened at the end of those periods to shoot free throws and add to their scores. That game also included a 12-foot rim, which drew a lot of criticism from players and coaches.

This isn’t a bad solution; free throws could take place during the between-quarter breaks when the television broadcast is already in a commercial, which would shorten games and create more time with the ball in play during each broadcast.

The biggest issue with this rule change would be the end of games. There would be no more game-winning shots or clutch situations. Whatever the score is when the clock hits 0:00 isn’t the actual score; the teams still have to shoot the free throws they’ve earned throughout the period. This alone makes this idea a non-starter, which is likely why the NBA only did it once, only applied it to the first and third quarters, and never revisited it.

The solution, rather than cutting all trips to the line down to one shot or shooting all the free throws at the end of the quarter, is to get rid of free throws altogether.


There are seven general types of fouls in an NBA game: personal non-shooting (including offensive fouls), personal shooting (including and-ones), flagrant 1, flagrant 2, technical, clear path, and late-game intentional.

Each of these require a different stoppage to the game. Some of them trigger a video review, which is a different conversation for a different day. Rather than shooting free throws (and perhaps getting possession of the ball after the free throws), the offending team should be punished in such a way that continues open play.

Let’s go through each of the seven foul types and modify them to fit a more open, modern NBA.

Personal Non-Shooting Fouls

In my new system, the only foul that wouldn’t change at all is the personal non-shooting variety. As things stand, a personal non-shooting foul moves the ball to the sideline, where the offended team inbounds to restart play. The shot clock increases to 14 seconds if it was below 14 when the foul occurred, but otherwise play continues as normal after the ball is inbounded. There’s no reason to change this; it’s already about as quick as it could be from foul to restart. If the non-shooting foul is committed by the offensive team, it’s a turnover. Again, there’s no reason to change this.

Personal Shooting Fouls

Personal shooting fouls (whether they’re actual shooting fouls or non-shooting fouls when the offended team is in the bonus) comprise the largest portion of fouls committed during the average NBA game. Therefore, these fouls slow the game down more than anything else (other than timeouts and commercials, but I don’t think the owners nor the players want to give up the revenue generated during timeouts in order to speed up the game). What can we do to fix shooting fouls in order to keep the game interesting and cut down on the overall time each game takes?

The solution isn’t a hockey-like penalty box; that’s far too punitive in a sport that sees as many shooting fouls as basketball does. Even a one-possession penalty box is too far for my taste and would give too much of an advantage to the offended team. 

Any solution to the timing issue surrounding free throws should also address the punitive nature of shooting fouls in general – players are so good at hitting free throws that getting fouled and going to the line is up there with the best outcomes a possession can have. Outside of an open dunk or a wide-open corner three for a great shooter, getting free throws is the next best outcome. Generating around 1.5 points on a possession by getting fouled (on average; great free throw shooters can get that number up near 1.9) is such a good outcome that foul-seeking behavior is actively rewarded, no matter what the post-game fine is for getting caught for flopping.

Changing the free throw rules should not only cut down on boring, time-wasting free throws but also fundamentally change the advantage offensive teams receive when a foul is called on their opponents.

Under my new system, the game would be stopped for the whistle, as it is now, but instead of the shooter going to the free throw line and the rest of the players lining up around him, the ball would go to the nearest sideline (like after a non-shooting foul) and the offending player would line up at the opposite free throw line. The offended team would inbound the ball and as soon as the ball is touched and the game clock restarts, the offending player is allowed to leave his spot at the opposite free throw line and move back into the play.

The offended team would have the significant advantage of playing 5-on-4, but it would only last a few seconds at most, as the offending player would quickly return to the play. The distance from one free throw line to the other is about 56 feet, which shouldn’t take more than three seconds for a world-class NBA athlete to traverse. However, in those few seconds, the offended team would have a good chance at generating a good shot.

Even in a 5-on-4 situation, offenses might have trouble generating a shot that produces 1.5 points per possession. 1.5 points per possession is a 75 percent two-point shot or 50 percent three-pointer; there are teams who will come close to this number with smart offense, but I’d be willing to wager that the average efficiency on these so-called “foul possessions” would be less than the 1.5 points per possession that currently accompanies a two-shot foul. Last year, the best team on wide-open three-pointers shot “just” 42.3 percent, so even a team that generates that shot wouldn’t necessarily be game-breaking in the same way free throws currently are.

Shooting fouls would therefore penalize defensive teams less than they do now, but there would still be an advantage to the offensive team. There are no numbers on a team’s offensive rating when playing 5-on-4, particularly out of a dead ball situation, even for just a few seconds, but I’m confident the best teams would quickly be able to generate open shots in this situation. After test runs in the G League and in preseason, the NBA can certainly tweak with the timing and placement of the offending player; if defenses are committing more fouls because the penalty isn’t severe enough, then the rules could place the offending player further away from the play or force him to stay out of position for a few extra seconds before reentering play.

Reducing the impact the officials have on the game would be a positive side effect of these rules changes. If the offended team gets a smaller advantage from being fouled, then a missed call or non-call wouldn’t have as much of an impact on the game, which would cut down on the number of conversations fans, commentators, players, and coaches are having surrounding officiating. Officiating is always going to be an important issue in sports, but the league cutting down on the impact of those decisions should put a damper on those conversations and keep the focus on the players and the game itself.

And-Ones

Personal shooting fouls where the offended player continues through the contact and scores (and-ones) would not give the offended team an advantage possession on top of the made basket. Instead, that foul will still count against the offending player for his six-foul limit and against his team toward the quarterly bonus, but the offended team would no longer get the opportunity for an extra point at the free throw line. Similar to soccer’s advantage rule, the offended team essentially played through the foul and scored anyway, so there’s no need for another scoring opportunity on top of that. However, in order to avoid having “free” fouls committed by defenders, the foul will still be tallied against the offending player and team.

Flagrant Fouls

Flagrant 1 fouls would be treated the same way as personal shooting fouls, except the offended team would also get possession back after the ensuing “foul possession”. The “foul possession” would play out with the offending player standing at the opposite free throw line and reentering play when the ball is inbounded, but as soon as that possession ends and the defense gains possession, the referees would blow the play dead and the ball would be returned to the sideline, where the offended team would inbound again for a regular 5-on-5 possession. In this second possession, the offending player would play defense like he would in a normal sideline out of bounds situation.

Flagrant 2 fouls would operate in the same way, except the offending player would be ejected from the game and replaced by someone on his team’s bench. The replacement player would take the offending player’s spot at the opposite free throw line and the game would play out in the same fashion as a Flagrant 1, with two consecutive offensive possessions for the offended team.

Technical Fouls

Technical fouls would have a slight change; instead of the offending player starting at the opposite free throw line, he would stand in the middle of the court at the halfcourt line and reenter play from there. Just like on a technical foul in today’s game, the offended team would also get a regular possession after the technical foul is resolved. Placing the offending player at the halfcourt line would put him just a few feet from the play, but would still give the offended team a small advantage for whatever infraction the offending player committed. If a technical foul is committed by a coach or player on the bench, then the offended team would be given the choice of which offending player serves the penalty.

Intentional Fouls

The last pair of issues to resolve come up with intentional fouls, of which there are two types.

Intentional fouls that stop fast breaks have become as massive issue in the last few years and the clear path rules have not made a significant dent in the problem. Eradicating this behavior altogether would take a heavy-handed punishment, as would giving the referees more leeway to make their own judgment as to what constitutes a clear path foul. If a foul is deemed a clear path foul, with loosened language to give referees the discretion to call these whenever a player stops a fast break intentionally and without regard to where the offending player and his teammates are located on the court, then it would be treated just like a flagrant 1 foul, with the offending player moving to the opposite free throw line for a “foul possession” and a second regular possession for the offended team. Between a short-lived 5-on-4 possession and a regular offensive possession, the offended team should be able to recoup more than enough of the value lost by the intentional foul on the fast break. As players learn that giving up that intentional foul is worse than simply letting the fast break go or trying to defend legitimately, the game will see more fast breaks and more exciting action overall. Referees would also have the discretion to let play continue even if an intentional foul was given, if the offended team would have had a larger advantage from continuing the fast break.

Intentional fouls pop up in one further area – to extend the end of a game and allow a trailing team the chance to stage a comeback. While the very concept of intentionally breaking the rules because the penalty for doing so is less than the penalty for not doing it is a concept I don’t particularly like, I understand that intentional fouls at the end of games are usually the only way for trailing teams to give themselves a chance to win. If intentional fouls were treated the same as any other shooting foul, then they would be eradicated from the game and leading teams would run down the clock as much as they could.

The answer to this is an untimed possession for the offended team. A late-game intentional foul would play out the same way as a regular shooting foul, but the game clock would not run during the ensuing “foul possession”. The shot clock would continue like it normally does and the offended team would have a chance to add to their lead, but the game clock would not restart until the defensive team took possession of the ball, either through a steal, rebound, inbounding the ball after a make, or an offensive foul. If a regular shooting foul is committed during the untimed “foul possession”, then the game clock would run during the ensuing “foul possession”. Should an intentional foul be immediately committed in order to stop the clock and the player who previously committed a shooting foul had not gotten back into the play, then both players would be placed at the opposite free throw line for the next untimed “foul possession”, creating a 5-on-3 for the offensive team while allowing the defending team to get the ball back with no time removed from the game clock.

This is a bit confusing, so let’s work through a few examples. Let’s say the Memphis Grizzlies are leading the Sacramento Kings by 1 with 15 seconds left and have possession of the ball coming out of a timeout. Sacramento has to foul in order to extend the game and give themselves a chance to win, so they do so immediately upon the ball being inbounded. Buddy Hield is the offending player, so he walks to the opposite free throw line to wait for the ball to be inbounded on the ensuing “foul possession”, during which the game clock does not run. On the untimed “foul possession”, the Grizzlies would have a chance to add to their lead, but they couldn’t simply run out the clock. As soon as the Kings recover possession, the game clock restarts, similar to how it would after Memphis tried their free throws.

Now, let’s say Ja Morant draws a legitimate foul on the untimed “foul possession”. Harrison Barnes, who committed the foul, would take his place at the opposite free throw line, but since the foul he committed was not intentional, the game clock would run during the ensuing “foul possession”. In this situation, Memphis is still up by one point and can run out the clock if Sacramento doesn’t intentionally foul. The Kings have to do so, and if they do so before Barnes has crossed the halfcourt line in his recovery, both Barnes and the offending player on the intentional foul would stand at the opposite free throw line for the ensuing untimed “foul possession”, leading to the Grizzlies having an untimed 5-on-3 while both players scramble back into the play.

Adding untimed possessions to games would certainly increase the overall length of the average NBA game, but these late-game intentional fouls are already increasing the length of the game and introducing the most boring part of the sport to the game’s most interesting moments. Close games late in the fourth quarter and overtime are a massive part of the casual fan’s interest in the sport and the NBA should capitalize on this interest by actually having the ball in play (whether the clock is running or not) as much as possible, rather than watching ten of the greatest athletes in the world stand around while one of them tries to make a set shot from 19 feet away.

Untimed possessions would not solve the age-old problem of casual fans remarking that “the last two minutes of an NBA game actually takes 20 minutes”, but there’s no way to permanently fix this and still allow trailing teams to have a chance to get back into the game. Perhaps there’s an argument that teams trailing that late in the game don’t deserve a chance to get back into the game in the first place, but removing late-game intentional fouls altogether would likely be met with a lot of resistance.

It would again be up to the referee what qualifies as intentional, as it would be for clear path fouls. It should be relatively obvious in a lot of situations, but leaving it up to the referees is a good solution – if the trailing team commits a foul deemed intentional but didn’t actually mean it to be intentional, they benefit slightly because the clock doesn’t run, while a leading team would never commit an intentional foul, so there would be no situation in which the referees would call one against that team. Intentional fouls in the middle of games to stop play for an injured teammate or any other reason would not result in untimed possessions, those would just be regular personal fouls.

Substitutions

Teams would be allowed to substitute after a foul occurs and before the ball is inbounded for the “foul possession”, but there would be some limits. If the offending player is subbed out of the game, that is the only substitution a team can make during that stoppage. If the offending player is not subbed out of the game, then teams can freely sub among the other four players. This rule would avoid the situation where a slower player commits a foul and a team makes a double substitution in order to put a faster player in the offending player’s position in the backcourt. 

For example, if Denver’s Nikola Jokic committed a personal shooting foul and it was his third in the first half, Mike Malone would want to take him out of the game as soon as possible. However, he would also like to put a faster player in the backcourt to serve the penalty. If they were allowed a double substitution in this situation, they could sub Jokic out for Torrey Craig and simultaneously sub out Gary Harris for Mason Plumlee, giving them a center to play defense on the foul possession and putting Craig in the backcourt to recover into the play faster. By getting rid of this rule, the Nuggets would either have to let Jokic play out the possession and any further possessions until they could get him out of the game, or they would have to only sub Plumlee in for him, assuming that they want to stay with a center on the floor. Should they want to go small, that’s an option as well, but they couldn’t sub in a small player for Jokic AND get Plumlee on the floor in the same stoppage.


The result of these changes is that there would be no more long stoppages when a shooting foul occurs to take the free throws; the game would be restarted nearly as quickly as it is after a non-shooting foul under the current rules. The games would be shorter and would feature more action overall, with a larger percentage of the broadcast time actually covering time when the ball is in play. Games would also be more interesting to watch, with fewer in-game breaks for the worst aspect of the sport and fewer players accentuating contact for fouls, as “foul possessions” wouldn’t be worth as much as going to the free throw line. Three-shot fouls would also be a thing of the past; there would be no difference between a two-shot and three-shot foul with these rule changes.

The downside to a plan such as this one is the loss of rest time for the players. Free throws give every player a chance to rest for about 30 seconds while the offended player takes his shots, and moving to this plan would eliminate that altogether. The game itself would become far more taxing for the players, giving rise to everybody playing fewer minutes overall, particularly in the regular season. For me, this isn’t a bad thing, because it would force teams to build their rosters with more depth, rather than relying so heavily on their top guys.

The league is already thinking about shortening the season, even if I don’t think they’re going far enough with the changes they’re making. Shortening the season even further (58 games is my favorite number for the regular season) is something they should do regardless, but particularly if they want to have their guys as well-rested as possible so that this change doesn’t impact players quite as much.

While a rule change like this isn’t necessarily something governed by the Collective Bargaining Agreement, it would be important for both the owners and players to be on board with such a drastic shift in how the game is played. The owners should be in favor of something that would make games more exciting for both casual and hardcore fans, as well as shorten game length overall.

The players are a more interesting conversation; on an individual level, this would likely mean fewer minutes per player, but the increased depth teams would have to use would perhaps offer up more opportunities for players at the end of teams’ benches, which should be of interest to the union as a whole. How that would affect team-building and the distribution of salaries across the players would be very important to the players as well; would the money for those guys at the end of the bench come out of the middle class, or would the union rather cut a few percentage points off the max salary to help redistribute it to the lower-end players?

There are a lot of hurdles to implementing such a massive change to the way basketball is played, but turning fouls from a long, unnecessary stoppage into something exciting should be a long-term goal of the NBA.