Thursday, March 20, 2008

Zany Basketball Coaching Strategy: Ignore Foul Trouble

In basketball, when a starter gets into early foul trouble, the coach usually takes him out to save him for later. This is stupid for two reasons:

1. In theory, your team's performance at different points of the game is equally valuable. Why take out a starter early when he could be helping you build a lead? Why is it better to save him until later? Actually, taking a player out to save his minutes until the end of the game can make him less effective: if you are down and your opponent is managing the clock, you could get that player for fewer possessions. But in general, a player's performance in five minutes in the middle of the first half can be as valuable as his performance in the last five minutes: all baskets are worth the same amount at different points in the game.

2. If you take a player with foul trouble out, you are choosing to limit his playing time on the chance that he picks up more fouls. But he might not. Taking him out for foul trouble might mean you get him for fewer minutes than you would have if you just let him play. Don't take a starter with two or three fouls out and hope a substitute and the rest of the team plays well without him. Let him play as long as you know you have him; if he fouls out, then you put in a substitute and hope he and the rest of the team perform well.

I think basketball coaches should ignore foul trouble; they should play players when they know they have them available, not purposely limit the minutes to avoid the possibility of not having the player later. Possible objections to this zany strategy: the opponent may target the player to get him to draw more fouls, or the player could play more tentatively in order to avoid fouling. Any others?


  1. Anonymous2:31 PM

    I've always thought the same thing. I think the concern over passive playing is valid, but I don't think becoming a target for the other team should be an issue: again, either he'll sit later or he won't, but if you pull him now, he'll sit for sure. Also, your opponent is most likely getting out of their gameplan if they suddely start attacking one player.

    There is, however, something to be said for the psychological boost a team gets by having a star player return from the bench in the last minutes to save the day.

    If a guy has 4 fouls (5 in the NBA), I'd probably pull him, but if the rest of my players couldn't keep it close, he'd go right back in.

  2. I totally agree, and this is an argument I've tried to make for a while.

    Playing Devil's Advocate, though, there is one other reason why you might want to have a player available at the end of the game: if he is a specialist for some kind of situational play. For instance, if Reggie Miller is on your team, you're not going to run a play to get him a look at a 3 every time down the floor, but you might want to make sure that he hasn't fouled out before you're down 3 with one possession left.

    However, that by itself isn't nearly enough to overcome your logic in framing this argument.