NBA Playoffs: Big games shouldn’t be ruined by foul trouble

Jalen Brunson, New York Knicks (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Jalen Brunson, New York Knicks (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images) /

For a sports fan, there are few things worse in sports than sitting down to watch a crucial basketball game and having it decided in the first few minutes because a star player gets into foul trouble. It usually takes a quarter to figure out how tightly the refs are going to call things, and by the time that process works itself out, a pivotal player could be glued to the bench for the rest of the first half.

After Iowa lost several players to foul trouble early in the NCAA Women’s title game, there were numerous articles calling for the end of fouling out. There’s some merit in that idea, but you can’t help but wonder how some of the more physical teams or players in the league would play if they could commit as many fouls as they wanted with no consequence. There should be some middle ground.

Is there a fix for the foul trouble problem?

One idea would be that any time a player commits two fouls in a quarter, he has to sit out the remainder of that quarter. He begins the next quarter, however, with a clean slate. Theoretically, this means that the more thuggish players in the league could commit up to eight fouls in a game. It might also mean that a player could commit two fouls early in the fourth quarter and be unavailable for the clutch moments of the game, regardless of how many fouls he committed in the first three quarters.

So there are pros and cons to that idea. You could tweak it and allow three fouls in the fourth quarter, but it seems like that sort of tweak invariably leads to some sort of goofy scenario that we can’t anticipate. But the idea of guys having to sit out after two fouls in a quarter would act as a counter to the endless fouling that goes on in the final minutes of most games because you can only foul so many times before you start losing players.

It’s possible that the solution is for the coaches to just let the players stay on the court. How often have we seen star players miss more time in the first half than they likely would have missed if they’d played through the foul trouble, even if they’d fouled out sometime in the second half? In that women’s title game, for example, it turned out that Caitlin Clark still played 35 minutes for Iowa and never fouled out. In Clark’s case, she clearly provides enough value offensively that it made sense to let her be careful on defense, even if it meant a few extra baskets surrendered.

Coaches may be key to fixing the issue.

If you’re sensing that coaches overreact to players picking up, say, two fouls in the first quarter, you might be onto something. In the entire NBA this season, there were a total of 282 disqualifications from fouls. That’s an average of nine players per team, or about one player every nine games. Only 56 players in the entire league fouled out more than twice this season, but those 56 accounted for almost half of the DQs for the entire league.

Which should tell you that most players can handle a little more leeway. For example, Jalen Brunson missed most of the first quarter of Game 1 in the Knicks’ series against Cleveland because he committed two fouls early on. As a result, he had only eight points at halftime. But, turned loose after halftime, he ended up with 27 for the game.

More to the point, he only committed one more foul. Clearly, the Knicks need Brunson on the floor as much as possible, and, should this happen again, they should trust him to be careful so they can benefit from his scoring as much as possible.

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The bottom line is that there are guys who are foul-prone, but when a coach takes them off the floor, we should ask what he is saving them for. Are they so essential at the end of the game that you should keep them on the bench for twice as much time in the first half? How often does it turn out that, by saving them for the end of the game, you end up with the game already decided by then?