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HoopIdea: Ending the Beneficial Foul

ESPN's Truehoop has had a strong few weeks. They've been rolling out an excellent ad-hoc series based around rule improvements and other game enhancements to the game of basketball that could make things better for the players and the fans, titled HoopIdea. Today, Adam will share his own idea to make the game better: ending the beneficial foul. 

A series of good passes leaves a player wide open for a three. He catches the ball, rises, and hits the shot. But before that can happen, the refs blow the whistle, and the ref gives his team the ball out-of-bounds. You see, a reach-in foul on the floor a second earlier had stopped the play. It hadn't stop the passer, it hadn't stopped the play, but it was a foul nonetheless. Sometimes the fouled team gets an extra free throw, but usually this kind of foul ends with a side-out and nothing else.

Later, in the same game, a big man catches the ball near the rim. He goes up, only to be pummeled. The player sighs loudly going to the free throw line. After all, he hates shooting free throws. And as two shots clank off the rim, the opposing coach applauds his player, while the announcers swoon about how good a foul that was. The fouled team loses the game by two points, two points that they could've spared had their big man not been forced to shoot pressure free throws. Do you know any other sport where breaking the rules, committing a foul actually benefits a team? Where a foul is a strategic device rather than a mistake with grave consequences? I don't. I propose that basketball shouldn't be such a sport either. What's more, the changes couldn't be easier to make.

Let's sketch out the two major situations, and how I'd tweak the rules.

• • •

Late-game fouling: The most egregious example of beneficial fouls. You see it in almost every close game. A team is losing, the opposition has the ball, the clock is running out. Instead of taking the loss, the other team fouls, allowing it to get the ball back. The other team may even hit both free throws, but a lucky three (or a lucky and-one) can bring them right back to the game. And if the winning team misses their free throws? Overtime might be around the corner. Why are we allowing the losing team to benefit from breaking the rules? I've heard people suggest three foul shots for reach-in fouls committed outside the three point line in the bonus and such, but that doesn't change the main issue: Fouls and free throws are suddenly more important than having played 47 minutes and being down 5.

Why not just allow the coach of the fouled team choose what he wants his players to do? Free throws? Fine, go ahead, your choice. An out of bounds play? Sure, and the fouled player should even choose where he wants to take it out of bounds. Would you want to play Hack-a-Dwight, or in fact, foul Dwight on shots at all if it meant the possibility of a out-of-bounds play run from the baseline? These plays are high percentage, and pretty deadly if drawn up right, you know. They don't stop the clock either, which makes the whole concept of the intentional foul as pointless as committing fouls should be.

Reach-ins to stop a sure basket: There are two obvious situations in which this happens: on the fast break (when somebody's barely ahead of the play on defense which saves the open path to the basket), and a reach-in foul that just happens to stop an easy three pointer. There are plays in which players get easy baskets after a foul is committed on the passer. The ball is stopped, the foul might just save 2 points. There are plays where a big man gets an easy putback of a miss caused by a foul. The fouled player might miss some foul shots, shots that he wouldn't have to miss have the refs let the play develop before blowing on the whistle.

Soccer has a neat solution: if a foul is committed and the fouled team keeps the ball moving, the referee usually gives advantage and lets the play flow. In hockey, when a penalty is called, play isn't stopped until the other team gains possession of the puck. But in basketball all we have is a rather loosely defined continuation rule, and nothing else. Why not let the putback happen? Why not let the fast break continue? Why let the opposition benefit from fouling? It's so easy to change the rules so that the ref can swallow his whistle and let the play unfold before he decides to stop it.

These fouls are annoying, break the flow of the game, and don't belong in basketball. It's easy to create rules that don't benefit the felon, and yet (as it stands) the NBA doesn't seem to realize that the game is way more exciting when the players are trying to make plays, instead of fouling everything that moves. How many games have been lost because of Hack-a-Big-Guys? How many points and highlights have been wasted because of off-ball touch fouls? How many times have announcers said "I like that foul"? How many fast break dunks have we missed because of almost-clear-path fouls? The truth it doesn't really matter how many times these things happen, considering the current alternative is a disruption in flow at crucial points in the game, an awkward strategic relic, and a more stilted product. I admit there are strategic end-game situations that would be essentially eliminated and in the beginning the game might flow very differently at times. But I'd argue that it's worth it to create a more entertaining, more compelling sport.

Adam Koscielak
Adam studies law in Poland, which is odd considering he considers himself Canadian. Writes everything that comes off the top of his head, including but not limited to rants, appraisals and love letters to Steve Nash and Marcin Gortat.

8 thoughts on “HoopIdea: Ending the Beneficial Foul

  1. I wrote about this yesterday too! It's backwards that we've set up a game where it is beneficial to break the rules. Worst of all--these intentional fouls take away the game's most fun plays (fast-break dunks, layups/dunks in traffic, and crunch-time).

    I don't like that defenses, up 3 points, can foul to prevent the game-tying three (an excellent strategy). Why would we ever want to replace that shot with free throws?

    anyway, here's my post: http://wp.me/pL3gS-Qv

  2. this is bad adn is not wht the games been all about for so many years. "tweaking" this rule makes the game boring and dumb.

  3. Great idea. The worst thing about basketball is watching it for twenty minutes only to see 40 seconds of basketball, eleven free throws and four time outs.

    I think something less drastic might work better, maybe disallowing the fouling team to take timeouts after fouls in the bonus in the fourth quarter, or not allowing them to inbounds the ball from halfway down the court (a pretty stupid idea in itself regardless of the sitaution)

    Or maybe something like the first two/three fouls that would be sending the team straight to the line, give them one free throw and the ball. This way, if a losing team wanted to commit to intentional fouling, they'd possibly have to give up 3pts along with 3 extra possesions to get to that point. which would make fouling hardly worth the effort.

  4. "Do you know any other sport where breaking the rules, committing a foul actually benefits a team?"

    Yes, only the most popular sport in the world: soccer. In soccer, though, the fouling player gets ejected if he was the last player standing between the attacker and scoring a goal. Both field players or goalies will be sent off and a penalty kick (or free kick, if outside the box) awarded.

    In most cases it's not worth it. But in some it can be, as was the case in the Uruguay - Ghana quarterfinal in 2010.

    1. Capo, the Ghana thing was opportunistic, and rather rare. I doubt it was planned, which it is in basketball. It's not like there's a whole strategy built around fouling in soccer. Unless we count the "KILL EVERYTHING THAT MOVES" strategy of the Netherlands in the Finals.
      Either way, in soccer it was an exception from the rule, not the standard.

  5. I think the easiest way around this would be to allow players to take the foul shot from where they were fouled or allow the team to take it in from out of bounds (their choice). If bigs are fouled trying to dunk, two automatic layups. If someone if fouled 45 feet from the basket? Take it out from where you want it and the other team just wasted another foul.

  6. Well done...your myopic post forced a response.

    First, your underlying thesis is simply idiotic.
    "Do you know any other sport where breaking the rules, committing a foul actually benefits a team? Where a foul is a strategic device rather than a mistake with grave consequences? I don’t."
    It's rather clear that you do not watch American football...If you did you'd clearly realize it happens ALL THE TIME.
    ---The defensive end beat the tackle and has a clear shot a the QB for a 10 yard sack...HOLD. The offensive loses 10 yards, but retains possession and previous down AND IS IN A SUPERIOR POSITION BY COMMITTING THE PENALTY.
    ---The DB/S/LB has been beat in coverage and the WR/TE/RB has an easy catch and TD ahead of them...Pass interference/Defensive Holding

    Similarly stupid questions to the ones you posed...Do you know of another sport (that uses a puck/where bats and gloves are used and the specifications of the playing field are left to the individual teams to design/which uses an oval ball and always only four possessions to advance 10 yards in order to retain possession)?
    Perhaps you don't realize it, but basketball uses a tool to curb the problems you are talking about, its called a fucking foul limit.

    How many fouls are football players allowed per game before being ejected? Hockey? How many times can a second baseman obstruct the base-path before he is objected?

    Just to remind you, in football, basketball, and hockey the types of fouls we are talking about are typically incidental to the game. THEY WILL OCCUR, IF ONLY AT LOWER FREQUENCY, EVEN IN THE BEST PLAYED GAMES.
    Football and Hockey have determined that yardage penalties and penalty box minutes/powerplays, respectively, are sufficient to curb these violations whether actually incidental or not.

    Likewise, basketball (AT EVERY LEVEL IN EVERY LEAGUE) has determined that a foul limit will be sufficient curb the problems you described, at least when viewed in totality of bball rules, specifically free throws/bonus and varying levels of fouls.

    There is a price to be paid when you foul someone. Where a team determines the result from the foul leads to a net positive for the team, they will commit that violation. This inherently implies risk. The violating team assumes the risk, at which point the violated team bears the burden of actually making them pay for taking that risk.

    I suspect that you may be confusing the at large connotation of "foul" with the basketball related definition. I get this not only from your overall tone, but because you refer to those who foul as "felons". You apparently lack an understanding of the hierarchy of criminal violations or you're very bad at hyperbole. In the basketball context, a foul is a MINOR violation of a rule while the ball is in play (intentional being an arbitrary distinction resulting in harsher relative penalty, a technical is a procedural violation, and a flagrant is a MAJOR violation.

    It really bothers me when people lazily throw around purported metaphors that are actually logical non sequiturs.
    If you really want to discuss this in terms of criminal/legal violations: non-shooting fouls would be traffic violations, shooting fouls would be low misdemeanors (arbitrary placement once in the bonus...think driving an arbitrary number of MPH above the posted limit which bumps up the fine/classification), technical fouls would be high misdemeanors. Only flagrant fouls could possibly be considered felonious, where as going after a coach/official/fan could be a capital felonious offense.

    To be clear, I'm not arguing for the status quo. But the last thing I want is a complex, convoluted answer to a simple problem. The solutions to these problems are equally simple and are already in place, if in need of modification. You want to reduce the types of foul that you mention?
    The primary tool would be to reduce the foul limit to further disincentivize these fouls, at least for players likely to play enough minutes for a foul limit to matter (which is typically everyone on the floor at the end of games, the type of fouls you loath most). Second, fouls should be deemed flagrant #1s much, much more often. A seemingly simple solution would be to redefine flagrant #1's as intentional fouls which should include the current flagrant #1 fouls plus: non-open path fastbreak, non-incidental contact fouls; fouling across the arms/shoulders where not going for the ball with an actual chance to get the ball without fouling; or any foul where the referee can reasonably determine the foul occurred outside of going for position or the ball.

    The soccer solution you propose is already in place, even if unofficially and not to an extent to satisfy you. Refs usually let a play unfold and hold the call on borderline foul plays. It happens with such frequency and has been occurring with such duration that there can be no question that it is sanctioned by the league office

    Finally, to your hack-a comment...every single human on earth with a relatively low baseline of size, strength, dexterity, coordination, motivation, and the necessary appendages can learn to CONSISTENTLY make free throws. Indeed, even great apes have been trained to CONSISTENTLY make free throws. If individual players choose to focus on other aspects of their games and not learn to CONSISTENTLY make free throws, that is of concern only the those individuals and their teams. It is not a league problem. Additionally, the opponents of those teams should absoluttely take full advantage of that flaw...Dwight Howard/DeAndre Jordan/similar should be fouled EVERY TIME they touch the ball just as a Rondo should be given a great amount of space because of his lack of shooting. Their teams choose to play them knowing their faults, the other teams should not be penalized to exploiting those weaknesses within the rules of the game.

    To anyone stupid enough to note the soccer Yellow/Red cards rule re: foul limit. The game of soccer has been structured where tackles/physical contact incidental to going for the ball are permitted. The game of basketball has been structured where physical contact incidental to going for the ball is permitted in a limited number of times and with consequent penalties (free throws, reset shot clock, etc.). Cards in soccer are not comparable to bball fouls; Cards in soccer are comparable to bball flagrant fouls/technical fouls.

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