Improving the NBA

Being a sports fan and a game designer, I can't help but want to modify the rules of the sports I follow. If I were made lord and master of the NBA, these are the changes I would make to improve the game (in order of importance).

Fix How Fouls Work

While fouls are necessary, the implementation of fouls in modern basketball is terrible. They slow the game down too much and allow effective defensive strategies based on aggressive fouling. At the end of close games, the trailing team is essentially required to continually foul their opponents, turning what should be an exciting finish into a free-throw shooting contest. The fix is to leave what constitutes a foul untouched, but to change the consequences of fouling, as follows.

  • DEFENSIVE FOUL: The player fouled takes a single free-throw, then his team gets the ball out-of-bounds at the normal spot for a foul. It does not matter if the player fouled was taking a shot or not, except that any made baskets still count (in addition to the free-throw). After a made basket, possession changes even if there was a defensive foul on the play.
  • OFFENSIVE FOUL: The defending team gets the ball out-of-bounds at the normal spot for a foul, but does not get a free-throw.
  • TECHNICAL FOUL: Remains as it is--the opposing team gets a single free-throw (by any player) and possession does not change. A player (or coach) who gets two technical fouls in the same game is automatically ejected from the game.
  • FLAGRANT FOUL: Counts as a normal foul and a technical foul.
  • DANGEROUS FOUL: Counts as a normal foul and two technical fouls (meaning the fouling player is ejected). In addition, the fouling player is automatically suspended from the next game (plus an additional game for every previous dangerous foul committed).

There are no foul totals for players or teams, no traditional "fouling out" or foul limits per quarter. A player can play defense as aggressively as he wants (barring flagrant or dangerous fouls), but each foul is just giving away points, so it is only worthwhile to be aggressive for very skilled defenders. This change will also dramatically improve the ends of games by making it impossible to deliberately foul to get the ball back. Instead, defenders will have to just aggressively try to steal the ball, which is much more interesting.

Rework Overtime

Overtime in the NBA works okay, but if a game is tied at the end, it should always end dramatically and the current overtime rules often result in non-dramatic finishes. To fix this, change the rules to state that the game is only over when time runs out if the team in the lead has possession of the ball or the trailing team is down by four points or more. This means a trailing team that is down only one to three points (and has the ball) gets the full shot clock for their final possession, but any turnover or foul is fatal.

If time has expired and the two teams are tied, the game just continues normally (play does not even stop) until someone scores and the game ends immediately. Now the final possession of a close game is guaranteed to be dramatic, regardless of what happens (even a foul will be dramatic, due to the changes to the fouling rules). Note that this rule change also eliminates almost all of the odd situations at the end of games where there is less than a second left and refs have to somehow keep track of tenths of a second (this could still happen with the shot clock, but that is much less likely).

Five Game Playoff Series

Seven game playoff series may be good for revenue, but not for the drama of the playoffs themselves. Currently, too many games in a series feel like they are unimportant. A series that goes 1-0, 1-1, 2-1, 2-2, etc. doesn't even feel like it starts until the fifth game. A series that goes 1-0, 2-0, 2-1, 3-1, 3-2, 4-2 doesn't feel dramatic at all, even though six game were played. The solution is to change all playoff series into best of five series. The common 1-0, 1-1, 2-1, 2-2, 3-2 sequence will feel incredibly dramatic, but even if a team is down 2-0, they will feel like they have a chance.