Eliminating foul outs, and six more radical NBA ideas to ponder during the coronavirus sports hiatus

We love the NBA, but we can all agree it’s not perfect. Whether you think there’s too much video replay or too many timeouts during crunch time, part of the fan experience is complaining about certain aspects of the game. Well, there’s no better time to come up with solutions than right now, with the NBA on pause for the immediate future because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Now is the time to get all those little annoyances off your chest and come up with answers — some reasonable, some a little bit crazy. I watch a lot of NBA basketball, and over the years I’ve come up with a few changes that I think would benefit the game. It’s usually not worth the time to bring them up since most of them will never happen, but now the audience just might be captive enough to consider them.

Plenty of smart people have come up with suggestions to help “fix” the NBA — eliminating corner 3-pointers, getting rid of live-ball timeouts, having players shoot one free throw for two points — so I tried to steer clear of those. Some of these ideas are fully implementable and some would take a lot more finesse, but here are a few radical changes we can make to the NBA.

All I ask is that you keep an open mind. Most poo-pooed the idea of the Elam Ending when it was announced, but the fourth quarter of the 2020 All-Star Game proved that change isn’t always a bad thing. Here we go.

Eliminate foul outs

The problem: You’re three minutes into Game 1 of the NBA Finals, when those dreaded words make their way out of the announcer’s mouth: “That’s his second foul, and he’ll have to head to the bench.” The player exits, shaking his head in frustration, not to be seen until the middle of the second quarter, when he has to play like he’s social distancing for fear of picking up his third foul before halftime. It’s not as noticeable when it’s a defensive stopper who gets in foul trouble, but when it’s Klay Thompson or Giannis Antetokounmpo? It immediately takes the wind out of the sails of any big game. Speaking of Giannis, we saw foul trouble rear its hideous head as recently as last postseason, when he fouled out of a crucial Eastern Conference finals Game 3 against the Raptors in the second overtime period. If Antetokounmpo doesn’t foul out and the Bucks win that game, they’re up 3-0 in the series and might have gone on to win the NBA title.

Wouldn’t you think that the NBA, with all the discussion of declining revenue even before the coronavirus hiatus, would want its best players to be on the court as much as possible? Isn’t that the best way to serve the fans who keep the league alive? That’s not even to mention players like Mitchell Robinson and Jaren Jackson Jr., young, exciting talents who have seen their minutes severely diminished and staggered over the past two seasons because of constant foul trouble.

There’s also the gambling and fantasy angle, where individuals are putting thousands of dollars on the outcome of the game or the performance of a player, only to see a superstar limited to 21 minutes because of the fear of a foul out. It also breeds vitriol toward referees, since at least one of the six fouls is often debatable at best, awful at worst. Then you get the “swallowing their whistles” phenomenon, where the refs know a star has five fouls and might be slightly more hesitant to call a foul knowing it will put the player everyone wants to see on the sideline.

Life doesn’t have to be this way, people. 

The solution: There are several, but the first is the simplest: Just eliminate foul outs. Can you even figure out the point of them? If it’s to stop a team from fouling too much, we already have the penalty for that. After the fifth team foul the opponent is getting two free throws, so it’s hard to imagine a Mark Madsen type running wild and fouling someone every five seconds with no individual limit. That being said, pretty much every NBA player or coach I’ve spoken to about this thinks eliminating foul outs is a bad idea.

“I was always someone who had to guard the best player, so I knew if I got two early fouls, our team was in for a long night because I’d have to move off the best player,” former NBA player Matt Barnes told CBS Sports. “So I think that adds a thinking element to the game and a strategy element to the game, and I think it would get ugly if there was no foul outs. I think that would probably raise the level of physicality — nah, I just don’t think it would work.”

Barnes would certainly know better than I do, but I will note the increased sensitivity to flagrant fouls in recent years in the NBA, so I’m not sure the raised level of physicality argument would hold true. Barnes also said that some NBA refs are “absolutely terrible” and “don’t need to be reffing any sport,” so he, more than anyone, gets where I’m coming from. Anyway, if you don’t like the idea of eliminating foul outs completely, here are a few options:

  1. Raise the foul-out number from six to 10. They do this in summer league and it has no noticeable negative effects. Occasionally a player simply can’t control himself and he actually gets disqualified after 10 fouls, but it’s extremely rare. At least with 10 you can likely keep your star in without fear, but there is a limit if things get out of hand.
  2. Every foul a player commits after No. 6 gives the opponent two free throws and possession. This creates a more proportionate penalty for the fouling team, as instead of losing a player for the rest of the game they simply lose two points. Since most disqualification fouls currently occur toward the end of games, it would still force players to be careful defensively for fear of giving up two free points in crunch time, but they wouldn’t be done for the night if they chose to aggressively defend a layup instead of letting someone waltz their way to the basket in the closing minutes.
  3. The penalty box. All right it’s a bit far-fetched, but it’s quarantine time so why not. After a player has six fouls, every subsequent foul by that player puts him in the penalty box — one minute for foul No. 7, two minutes for foul No. 8, etc., during which his team would be forced to play four-on-five. Power plays in the NBA! Fans heckling players in the penalty box! What’s not to love?

No matter the solution, it’s clear that foul outs should be addressed. It’s an unnecessary part of the game when you really think about it, and takes away from the league’s entertainment factor. Let’s make this happen.

Automatic two-point penalty for Eurofouls

The problem: The Eurofoul, the bane of every potential NBA fast break. Kevin Durant and Steph Curry out on a two-on-one break? Nope, here comes Joe Ingles to commit an intentional foul to ruin everyone’s fun.

The NBA has a clear-path rule, but it doesn’t apply to defenders in front of the offensive player, so we end up with several of these “Eurofouls” every game, making it nearly impossible to execute one of the game’s most exciting moments — the fast break.

The solution: Give the fast-breaking team two points and possession of the ball. That’s the penalty for a flagrant foul, and some would argue that these Eurofouls are more egregious than some of the flagrants being called in the NBA. But let’s get rid of the free throws — no reason to slow the game down even more. Just add two points to the scoreboard, give the team the ball and let’s go. Players will stop doing this pretty quickly if the penalty is that severe.

Mid-range 3-point zone

The problem: The NBA 3-point arc is built upon a false premise — that a shot’s difficulty increases the farther away from the basket you move. Analytics have consistently shown that 3-pointers (shot from at least 23 feet, 9 inches, 22 feet at the corners) go in just as often as long 2-pointers, so why are we rewarding shots with three points just because they’re farther away?

The indisputable math has led to a proliferation of 3-pointers over the last 20 years (NBA teams averaged 13.7 attempts per game in 2000-01, and are averaging 33.9 per game in 2019-20) and has given rise to a fear of offensive homogeneity across the league. That is to say, most teams now play more or less the same way — spread the floor, let your playmakers create to draw defenders, then kick out to 3-point shooters. The Rockets have taken this to the extreme, launching a league-record 44 3s per game, and have drawn criticism for ruining the aesthetics of the game in the process.

Do we keep going along this path until teams are shooting 50 3-pointers per game with regularity? Or do we do something about it?

The solution: The reason teams cringe when one of their players takes a long 2-pointer is that, statistically, it has the same chance of going in as a 3-pointer but is worth two-thirds as many points. The long 2 has therefore become one of the most difficult shots in the league — the Hornets, Raptors and Heat are actually shooting a higher percentage on 3-pointers than on mid-range jumpers according to NBA.com.

So how about we flip the script and start rewarding mid-range jumpers? Instead of a 3-point line, we implement a shaded 3-point zone on every court between 18 feet and the former 3-point line. That would reward shots between 18 and 23 feet, 9 inches (22 feet in the corners) with 3 points. Anything in front of or beyond the 3-point zone would be worth two points.

It would take some time, but this would lead to some tremendous adjustments both offensively and defensively, and would put an end to the potentially boring trend of firing up 3-pointers at an incredible volume, since defenses would be able to defend the mid-range zone much more efficiently than the endless chasms of space that teams create now. People malign the disappearance of the mid-range jumper. This would not only bring it back, but would make it a premium skill.

Pro dunkers in the dunk contest

The problem: Outside of a few standout performances, the Dunk Contest as a whole has gotten pretty underwhelming — they’ve implemented countless format changes to liven it up over the years, and even got rid of it altogether in 1998. It would be fantastic if superstars like LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo would compete, but we know that’s never going to happen because of valid risk-reward concerns. Even when we see young, elite dunkers like Zach LaVine, Aaron Gordon and Derrick Jones Jr., there’s simply a limit to their creativity.

As entertaining as the 2020 dunk contest was, nearly all of Gordon’s dunks were some variation of him jumping over another person, while all of Jones’ featured some sort of between-the-legs maneuver. It’s not the players’ fault — they’re too busy worrying about playing actual NBA basketball to sit in the gym coming up with dunks we’ve never seen before. Even Blake Griffin, one of the best dunkers in history, gave up on the dunk contest after winning it in 2011 because of the redundancy.

“Everybody hypes it up so much and they’re like, ‘Oh, we can’t wait!’ But honestly it’s like, what can we do that hasn’t been done?” Griffin told Bill Simmons on a 2012 podcast. “It’s all about bringing something onto the court, like the car and stuff like that …Nobody’s gonna come and do a double-360, you know? Nobody’s gonna do a double windmill. Nobody’s gonna go between the legs twice. So that part of it just turned me off to the dunk contest.”

The solution: NBA players might not have time to come up with new and interesting dunks, but there is an entire community out there that does — professional dunkers. The common NBA fan has gotten a taste of this with shows like ESPN’s “City Slam” and TNT’s “The Dunk King,” but there is a specific group of people in this world who actually dunk for a living. The result is a treasure chest of creative dunks that would floor any All-Star Weekend audience. Just imagine turning on the TV in the final round and seeing this:

Let’s go home, ladies and gentlemen!

So here’s the proposal. The NBA holds a season-long competition between these pro dunkers (think “American Ninja Warrior” — tryouts in select cities before a televised final round), and the winner gets to compete against NBA players in that year’s dunk contest at All-Star Weekend.

Not only would it give us a chance to see some of the world’s most creative dunks, but it would also force the NBA contestants to step up their game to avoid embarrassment. Throw in a massive financial reward if the pro dunker beats the NBA players, and we’d have a night full of drama along with some jaw-dropping athletic feats.

Late-game option to decline free throws

The problem: A team is down three points with less than 10 seconds left. While we hope someone will come through with a game-tying 3-pointer, we know that will never happen because the other team is going to intentionally foul, creating an endless sequence of extending the clock until it finally ends with an attempt to intentionally miss a free throw that never works.

Yawn.

The solution: This is pretty obvious. In the final two minutes of the game, simply give teams the option of shooting free throws OR taking the ball out of bounds. It would completely remove the incentive for the leading team to foul, forcing them to defend against a game-tying 3-pointer. It would also create an extra level of strategy for the head coach of the trailing team if there is a foul, deciding whether to take the two points or take the ball out of bounds and try for the three.

I suppose a team could just continue fouling, with the trailing team taking the ball out of bounds until the clock runs out, but they’d increasingly run the risk of fouling someone in the act of shooting and allowing three free throws, so that doesn’t seem likely. That’s really the only foreseeable downside to this rule, and it would make the end of three-point games infinitely more entertaining.

One 3-point foul shot for all three points

The problem: Getting fouled on a 3-point shot is the most efficient way to score in the NBA — even if the player only makes two of three free throws, that’s still a great possession. This fact, along with the rules preventing defenders from walking under shooters, has led to a league full of wildly flailing 3-point shooters sometimes more interested in drawing three free throws than making the shot. James Harden is the poster boy for this, but it happens all over the league. The specifics of a shooter’s follow-through are now part of scouting reports to protect against three-shot fouls.

In addition to the unpopular aesthetics, it’s also boring to watch a player shoot three free throws. There has to be a way we can speed this up.

The solution: The BIG3 already does this, so there’s a blueprint for success. If a player is fouled on a 3-point shot, instead of shooting three free throws from 15 feet, he gets one 3-point shot from above the break. If he makes it, his team gets three points. If he misses it, his team gets zero points. Boom. Done.

There would have to be slight changes in the way teams line up for the rebound, but that’s about the only major alteration you’d have to worry about. One shot for three points would provide peak entertainment and drama while making it slightly more difficult to cash in points after being fouled on a 3.

Garbage time fan sub

The problem: Blowouts — they just suck for everyone involved. The stars are trying not to get hurt. The reserves are trying to show off to earn more playing time. The fans who actually stick around are scrolling through Tik Tok or texting friends about where to meet up afterward. If you’re watching it on TV, forget about it — by the fourth quarter of a blowout you’ve long moved on to a cooking competition show or true crime mystery (spoiler alert: the spouse did it). How do we keep people engaged when a team is up by 20 points or more?

The solution: All right, I’ve gone back and forth on this one like that meme lady tasting kombucha, but I think it could actually be feasible. Well, probably not, but it’s a fun idea.

If the home team is up by 20 points or more with two minutes left in the fourth quarter, one fan, selected through an arena-wide drawing, can play for the home team for the duration of the game. Yes, I know it sounds crazy, but hear me out.

At a designated time during the fourth quarter, the arena game ops crew appears on the jumbotron to select the Garbage Time Fan Sub of the Game (the garbage bag company sponsorship opportunities are endless). They show the winning fan, keep a camera on them, and for the rest of the fourth quarter the entire arena is pulling for their team to keep the lead above 20 so one of their brethren can get in the game. You’ve seen how crazy fans go when tacos are on the line? This could be even wilder.

Obviously the fan has to be of a certain age and health, sign a release form and all that, but it would allow people to get a sense of just how big and athletic NBA players are. Ever wonder what a “normal” person would look like playing in an NBA game? Well now we get to find out. And it keeps everyone glued to the game despite the lopsided score.

(Note: I realize this would all come crashing down the second one of these klutzes falls over and injures an NBA player, but a boy can dream …)

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