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What Rule Changes Might Be on the NBA’s Horizon?

If head coaches had their way, the games would run faster

Getty Images
Getty Images

In professional sports, it’s all too convenient to view coaches and managers as fleshy, self-contained strongholds for antiquated ideas about the sport they’ve dedicated their lives to teaching. For some, MLB may never escape the war on fun. The NFL, in spite of spread offenses pointing in a new direction, will always have guardians instilling lessons from the smashmouth ideal of their heyday. But with the NBA changing so rapidly in scheme and style, there isn’t any time to dwell on the past. The future has to be won, and no one understands that more than the coaches. At the annual NBA head coaches meetings in Chicago last week,’s Steve Aschburner asked several coaches what they’d like to see changed in the rule book, and it’s heartening to hear that there isn’t much of a disconnect between what fans and team personnel hope the league prioritizes moving forward.

Any changes that might arrive in the coming years could have a monumental effect on the growth of the league. As it stands, the NBA, as a showcase of skill and talent, has never been better. By effective field goal percentage, 2015–16 was the most efficient shooting season in professional basketball history; teams also turned the ball over less frequently than all but one season since 1974, the first year turnovers were officially logged as a statistic. (The 2015–16 turnover rate of 13.2 matched the record low turnover rate in 2007–08). All this was accomplished in a season in which games were played at their fastest pace in 24 seasons. And yet, general sentiment from the head coaches meetings was more or less the same: The NBA’s biggest problem is how long it takes for games to end.

Hornets coach Steve Clifford suggested giving teams the ability to advance the ball past the baseline in the final two minutes of a game without using a timeout to do so; Sixers coach Brett Brown said he appreciated the FIBA offensive rebounding rule, which resets the shot clock to 14 seconds on the extended possession as opposed to granting the team a full 24; new Grizzlies coach David Fizdale wants to adopt the FIBA rule that allows a player to inbound a ball without having to let an official touch it first, which might be the easiest and most sensible FIBA rule to implement in the NBA. These are just coaches spitballing at a casual meeting, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see at least a few of these put up for consideration by the NBA’s competition committee — a collection of owners, general managers, head coaches, and a players’ association representative that meets annually to discuss potential rule changes to be voted on by the league’s Board of Governors.

The drawn-out nature of NBA games is clear to anyone who’s stayed up to catch a late-night Clippers game. It’s even more evident when juxtaposed with a game from the 2016 Rio Olympics last month, when games ended exactly when you expected them to, if not earlier. July’s decision from the NBA Board of Governors to amend the Hack-a-Shaq rule aimed to address the stop-and-go that persistent intentional fouling creates. However, fouls aren’t necessarily the main culprit when it comes to the lag, and they don’t explain why the international game tends to run smoother. NBA teams last season on average fouled far less frequently per 40 minutes than Euroleague and Eurocup participants. In the eight men’s basketball knockout-round games in the 2016 Olympics, there were 43.9 fouls called per 40 minutes; in the seven-game Finals series between the Warriors and the Cavaliers, there were only 35.4 fouls called per 40.

The NBA is looking for ways to preserve the flow of the game, and all of the suggestions tossed around in Chicago would help incrementally. But if the league is genuine in its desire, it will eventually have to revisit the strangest rule in professional sports: the live-ball timeout, by which a player or coach can interrupt live action at will, up to eight times in regulation. Think about it — there aren’t many sports leagues that give a coach the agency to pause the game in the middle of action, let alone an athlete. FIBA rules dictate that coaches can call timeouts only during dead-ball situations, and they are given only five in regulation (two in the first half, three in the second). Micromanagement is minimal; teams have to rely on what they were taught in practice. Flow of the game isn’t something to be won back in the international game; it’s intrinsic to the sport.

But some rules, calcified over several eras, become a part of the culture. Players and coaches alike have more control over the NBA game. Diving for a loose ball and being able to call a timeout to guarantee possession is very much a part of something we identify as basketball. Hack-a-Shaq isn’t a tool that promises success (DeAndre Jordan has attempted at least 20 free throws in eight different games; the Clippers won seven of them), but it has been a way for coaches to control a deficit without burning time. That kind of gamesmanship will always be a part of a league that allows the stoppage of play to occur at any time. Changing the intentional fouling rule, however, shows that the league is reorienting its priorities.

Controlling pace had been the imperative over the past decade in NBA basketball; we’re moving beyond that now. The league is full of versatile athletes, increasingly adept at playing up-tempo basketball without compromising their defensive wherewithal. Pace is a given; a rule system that not only maintains that but also fosters the way in which basketball will be played in the future is still in development. The NBA won’t become FIBA overnight, nor should it, but the league’s head coaches are on to something with their suggestions. The future is free-flowing, and the last thing the NBA should be doing is impeding its path.