Tuesday, April 03, 2007

NCAA: Should you bench your superstar so he doesn't foul out?

In his column today in Salon, King Kaufman suggests a new strategy for NCAA teams. They should run at the opposing team's best player until he commits a couple of fouls. At that point, his coach will take him out of the game for awhile, to keep him from fouling out early. When he comes back in, they should run at him again, until he does foul out.

I don't know enough about basketball to be able to guess if this would actually work (although the idea seems interesting). But it does seem to me that the strategy of benching the fouling player until later doesn't make much sense.

Suppose, as in Kaufman's example, a player commits two quick fouls in the first three minutes. What's the point of benching him? Suppose if you didn't bench him, he would foul out after an average of, say, 25 minutes. By benching him for awhile, you might get his 25 minutes later in the game, instead of earlier. But so what? Points scored early in the first half count exactly as much toward the final score as points scored late in the second half. Unless you think that this particular player plays better in the clutch than at other times, and that there's a good chance of the situation becoming clutch without him, the benching does absolutely no good.

As Kaufman puts it,

"It's kind of like never driving your car so you don't get a flat tire, because if you get a flat tire, you can't drive your car."

The strategy obviously has a negative expectation. There's a reasonable possibility that even if you let the guy play, he won't actually foul out. In that case, you get 35 minutes out of him instead of 25. Benching him takes that possibility out of the equation. Why would you waste ten minutes of the best player on your team?

The best reason I see for taking the guy out after two fouls is if he's committing those fouls carelessly, and you want him to take a time out and relax so he'll stop doing whatever dumb thing it is he's doing. But that's not what Kaufman implies is happening. He describes coaches reflexively pulling their star in the first half after two fouls, and then in the third quarter after his third foul – the only purpose of which is to make sure he's available later in the game.

That doesn't seem to have a positive expectation. In the best case, it's neutral, and in the worst case, it's negative. Am I missing something?



At Tuesday, April 03, 2007 9:48:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

you're not missing anything. it really appears to be a sub-optimal strategy to sit stars for extended periods of time. i agree a minute or two to "cool off" might make sense, but that's about it.

as for the strategy of running right at a star player to induce foul trouble, unfortunately it seems to be effective. refs favor the offensive player on aggressive drives to the basket. assuming FT % is 70% and average points per possession = 1.0, then you only need to draw a foul 71% of the time for the strategy to have a positive effect on expected points per possession -- and that's not even including the benefit of the star foul count.

some journalists are calling for the elimination of the "foul out" rule, i disagree because it stresses the importance of having a quality bench and the value of the team over the individual. however, encouraging refs to call more offensive charges would limit the boring tactic of bull-rushing opponent's star players.

At Tuesday, April 03, 2007 10:04:00 AM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Thanks, Nate, I don't know much about basketball, appreciate the explanation.

It's interesting that you like the "fouling out" rule not for anything actually to do with fouls, but just because it's just a method of getting the bench players into the game ...

At Tuesday, April 03, 2007 11:02:00 AM, Blogger Brian Burke said...

I've wondered about the wisdom of holding out players with foul trouble many times.

The only good reason I can think of is fatigue. If you have a player that is highly likely to only have x number of minutes left before he fouls out, it makes sense to distribute those x minutes with several periods of rest on the bench. The player will play far less fatigued.

Plus, fouls are often committed by fatigued players who are beaten to the hoop. Anyone who still plays pick-up games can testify to this.

So a periodically benched player in foul trouble spends his time on the court less fatigued and less likely to commit further fouls.

But I seriously doubt coaches think along these lines. They probably fall prey to the "crunch time" fallacy that points at the end of the game matter more.

At Tuesday, April 03, 2007 11:45:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Damn, beaten to the punch about the fatigue thing.

But I think there's also the issue of matchups. Since basketball allows more or less free substitution, it will probably sometimes be optimal to take him out and leverage his limited minutes optimally by playing him only when it MOST benefits your team.

If the player for example is your defensive stopper, you may want to only play him when the other team's best scorer is on the court, or when your second best defensive player ISN'T on the court, or some such reason.

Granted, that's not quite the explicitly given reason, but I'm sure it factors into the decision, since coaches don't always take a player out in the second half when he's in foul trouble.

Coaches likely just wait till the second half to maximize their ability leverage AND to maximize the fatigue factor. After a long rest, the player will be relatively even MORE rested than the other players, who have played for much longer.

At Tuesday, April 03, 2007 1:23:00 PM, Blogger Bob Timmermann said...

As I mentioned to Phil before, basketball coaches, especially at the college level, are control freaks. They believe they can manipulate game situations to their best advantage if the game is close, so they want to have the star available at the end. Although it may not be useful to have the star available at the end if you fall down by double digits at halftime.

At Wednesday, April 04, 2007 2:31:00 PM, Blogger King Kaufman said...

Thanks for linking to my column.

One argument I've heard in favor of the benching strategy is that a player in foul trouble plays tentatively and isn't as effective. This is the most compelling argument I've ever heard in defense of the strategy -- much more compelling than wanting the guy at crunch time. I simply don't believe it's true.

It hasn't been my observation that players in foul trouble play tentatively in hopes of avoiding the next foul. In fact, how often do we see a guy pick up one foul to get into minor trouble, then pick up another one right away to get into major trouble?

But that's anecdotal. I'd love to see a study. How do players in foul trouble, on average, play? Are they more or less effective/efficient/etc.?

At Friday, April 06, 2007 1:32:00 PM, Blogger Bob Timmermann said...

In the championship game, Greg Oden managed to avoid picking up fouls and played a lot of minutes.

And CBS announcer Billy Packer then moaned how Oden was playing too many minutes and he was going to get tired out. Despite the fact that he was far and away the best player for his team that day and quite possibly the best player on the court for both teams. He just didn't get much support from his teammates.

So maybe Oden should have just picked up fouls early, gotten a rest and been fresh for the whole second half? In which case, Ohio State would have lost by 20 instead of 10.

Florida did use strategic fouling on Oden, rotating three big players on to Oden and essentially playing 15 fouls to 5 with that one position.


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