Why timeouts are destroying the NBA.

The stadium scene.
May 23 2006 4:25 PM

A Timeout To Kill

The insidious clock-stopping menace that's destroying the NBA.

Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks. Click image to expand.
Dirk Nowitzki

Fans who slept through Monday night's Mavericks-Spurs game will wake up to read that Dallas pulled off a "thrilling" victory in a series that was "as good as basketball gets." I'll give it to you straight, sleepyheads: Reading about it was a lot more fun than watching it. The dramatic high point of Dallas'Game 7 victory came when Manu Ginobili's 3-pointer put the Spurs up three with 32 seconds to go. The Mavericks responded by calling timeout. After Dallas tied the game on Dirk Nowitzki's three-point play, San Antonio called timeout. A few missed shots and a two-minute commercial break later, the game went to overtime, wherein four more timeouts were called. In the game's final moments, there were nearly as many timeouts (six) as field goals (seven). If this is as good as basketball gets, please run 2,000 volts through my recliner.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

The extraordinary run of tight, fast-paced games in the first two rounds of the NBA playoffs has spawned talk that pro basketball is in the midst of a renaissance. That theory would make sense if close NBA games were actually fun to watch. The last few minutes of a playoff game should burble with tension. Instead, we get an interminable, deflating cycle of sideline reports, inbound passes, and detergent commercials. There is a simple, elegant solution to this endgame insanity: Ban the timeout.

In basketball, work stoppages are nothing but a buzz kill. Each team gets six full (100-second) timeouts per game, plus one 20-second timeout per half. You can take only three of those full timeouts in the fourth quarter, and only two of those can come in the last two minutes. In close games, teams will call for time as often as you'll let them. Game 6 of the Spurs-Mavs series featured four timeouts in the final 26 seconds. Game 5 of Nets-Heat had seven in the last six minutes.

Baseball's leisurely/boring pace means that a late-inning pitching change builds suspense rather than slows down the game's already sluggish metabolism. Basketball has the burden of being a game of sustained energy and momentum: Take a shot, get back on defense, defend the other guy's shot, run back to the offensive end, and on and on. Each player should be doing something—dribbling, defending, crashing the boards—at all times. The fewer the stoppages—fouls, turnovers, and especially timeouts—the closer the game is to its natural state and the more entertaining it is to watch.

Timeouts kill momentum in two ways. First, the game stops dead for several minutes. Second, the next sequence starts in an energy vacuum. What's more fun to watch: a game-ending possession that begins from a standstill, or one that starts with the offensive team advancing toward the goal and the defense frantically retreating to cover its basket?

It's hard to think of a situation in which calling a timeout is appropriate behavior. The least-defensible timeouts come from players in distress. A football player can't call timeout when he's getting tackled. Neither can a tennis player who's chasing a tough backhand. Yet NBA players plead for time when they can't throw the ball inbounds, when the shot clock is running out, and when they're surrounded by defenders. This is both unjust and unsporting—a tactic that would be ridiculed on the playground. The offensive player's only punishment for wussing out this way is that he has one less timeout to call later. While timeouts are a scarce commodity, they're not nearly so scarce that losing one is an effective deterrent.

Timeouts called by coaches are similarly despicable. NFL coaches call time because it keeps the clock from running out. NBA coaches don't have that excuse, as most fourth-quarter timeouts come when the clock has already stopped after a foul or a made basket. Instead, they use timeouts to show the world that they're really coaching—settling their team down, drawing up a play, making a considered substitution. During the game, the focus is on the athleticism and creativity of the players. In a timeout, it shifts to the guy with the whiteboard and the Magic Marker.

Why take timeouts away from coaches? It's more exciting to watch Dwyane Wade dunk than to watch Pat Riley squint. It's also a lot more exciting to watch Dwyane Wade think than to watch Pat Riley think. Coaches can draw up plays in practice. But you don't get an SAT tutor during the test. When there are a few seconds left in an important game, the players should apply their knowledge and work it out on their own. If the coach isn't happy with the decisions they make, he should get better players.

Coaches also reflexively call timeout in the final seconds because it confers an unearned advantage. If you signal for time from the back court in the last two minutes, you can advance the ball to the front court without having to dribble there yourself. As a consequence of this asinine rule, fans are deprived of the chance to watch the game's great players make decisions on the fly. The NCAA Tournament generates more memorable moments than the NBA playoffs because callow college basketball players are allowed to freelance more in the final seconds than their pro counterparts. Why? Because the NCAA doesn't have the stupid frontcourt rule.

Basketball games stop least when there is the least at stake—when coaches believe that calling timeout and fouling intentionally aren't worth the effort. That's why, paradoxically, NBA games are more entertaining in the fancy-free first half than the nip-and-tuck second. I attended Game 6 of the Wizards-Cavs series, a contest that featured two dramatic late-game shots. Yet the game reached its zenith in the second quarter, when LeBron James and Gilbert Arenas raced around trading baskets. What of the closing moments? The teams ruined the suspense by calling a stultifying nine timeouts in six-and-a-half minutes.

Timeouts aren't totally pointless. For one thing, they keep the NBA in business. If it weren't for commercials, there wouldn't be any televised basketball, and if it weren't for stoppages in play then there couldn't be commercials. While timeouts called by players and coaches can be legislated out of the game, breaks in the action are unavoidable. My solution: more TV timeouts.

Let's say the NBA eradicated timeouts from the bench and replaced them with TV timeouts at the nine-, six-, and three-minute marks of each quarter. The networks could sell the same amount of ads, the coaches could talk strategy and make plenty of substitutions, and the players could rest. Most important, the endgame could be presented without commercial interruption. Maybe then the final act of a playoff game would be as exciting as the first quarter.

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