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Game Changer: How The Shot Clock Saved The NBA & Basketball

Game Changer: How The Shot Clock Saved The NBA & Basketball

Jason Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports

Everyone has heard it: a mid-game buzzer that simultaneously causes cheering or disappointment, excitement or dread, depending on which team you’re rooting for. 

A team hasn’t launched a shot in time, and now they must turn the ball over to the opposing team. Some consider the shot clock violation, with its sudden turnover, one of the most annoying in basketball.

However, this unforced error has not always existed in the history of basketball. Instead, its implementation was one of the most important rule changes in basketball, reshaping the game for good. 

In fact, adding the shot clock was one of the biggest benefactors of modern basketball’s pace of play. 

Though annoying now, the alternative was much worse.

The importance of clock management

Clock management is an integral part of any sport with a game clock. 

In soccer, with a continuously running clock, teams with a narrow lead may take extraneous amounts of time to retrieve the ball for a throw-in at the end of the game. The opposing team, on the other hand, may try to play long balls into the box, trying to quicken play to find an equalizer. 

In football, the team leading near the end of an NFL game might be encouraged to run the ball more, as incomplete passes stop the game clock and downed runners do not. 

The team behind, on the other hand, might try to pick up more yards per play by passing to players near the sideline who can exit play and stop the clock. 

For basketball, prior to 1954, the clock only stopped after the ball left play or a team called a timeout. This lack of play-stopping ability permitted teams to adopt drastically different play styles. 

Teams behind in score maintained the ability to take time off of the clock by holding the ball, depriving their winning counterparts of the opportunity to score. The opposite also occurred, with teams leading by a small margin preventing the opposition from closing the point gap. 

In modern basketball, the shot clock prevents this phenomenon.

The origin of the shot clock

In the early 1950s, less than 10 years after the unification of the Basketball Association of America (BAA) and the National Basketball League (NBL), the newly established National Basketball Association (NBA) was dying. 

Attendance and ticket sales dipped with the pace of play. Total points scored averaged around 82 points, with a field goal percentage hovering around 37%. 

Total rebounds stalled at around 51 per game, and fouls climbed from an average of 20.8 fouls a game to 28.8, still the highest recorded average in the history of professional basketball. 

During this time, play sometimes slowed to a crawl as teams used defensive tactics to hold onto the ball. But two games in particular stood out as especially frustrating for both the league and the fans.

Lakers vs. Pistons

On November 22, 1950, the NBA arguably hit its lowest moment. In a game between the Minneapolis Lakers and the Fort Wayne Pistons, the two NBA teams scored a combined 37 points

Entering the game, the Pistons knew that they could not seriously compete with the reigning champions and the likes of star George Mikan. Instead of allowing someone like Mikan to rebound any and every missed shot, the Pistons opted not to shoot at all. 

Players leisurely passed the ball around the backcourt, forcing the Lakers to foul to gain possession. The Lakers then adopted the same attack, knowing that the Pistons would continue to stall upon regaining possession. 

By the end of the game, the two teams made a combined eight field goals of just 31 attempts and seven assists. In total, the teams rebounded the ball 17 times and committed 24 fouls, leading to 21 free throws made on 32 attempts. 

Of these statistics, all but the free throws and fouls measure one-third of the respective season average per game. This game still stands as the lowest score in NBA history and is highly unlikely to be challenged in the future.

Yet, if the infamous stalling game did not send a strong enough message, a game six weeks later was the final straw.

Royals vs. Olympians

On January 6, 1951, the Rochester Royals played the Indianapolis Olympians. Extrapolating the final score from the first three quarters, the Royals should have ended the game with around 80 points, just shy of the season average of 84 points per game. 

However, the Royals and Olympians soon progressed into a standoff, scoring 20 combined points in the fourth quarter with the Olympians tying the game at 65 to end regulation. 

The standoff continued into the first overtime. Each team made one field goal, moving the game into a second overtime in which neither team scored. 

The third overtime proceeded as the first, with each team successfully adding a bucket to their score. The fourth overtime yielded no change nor scores, while the fifth segment of added time concluded with each team scoring four points apiece. 

Finally, in the sixth overtime, the Royals outlasted the Olympians and scored the final basket, bringing the score to 75-73 in what still stands as the longest NBA game in history.

In what should have been a massively exciting game of back and forth offensive attacks, both the Royals and Olympians stalled and played the clock more than the opposing team.

The invention of the shot clock

Concerned about the future success of the sport, Syracuse Nationals owner Danny Biasone met with the team’s general manager, Leo Ferris, and head scout, Emil Barboni in the spring of 1954. 

The three men sat in Eastwood Sports Center, a bowling alley and coffee shop in Syracuse, and strategized ways in which to simultaneously preserve the true form of the sport through innovation.

Biasone, an Italian immigrant, owned the bowling alley. As a small business owner, he believed strongly in his community and wished the rest of the country and the world could see Syracuse the way in which he did. 

In investing in the local basketball team, the Syracuse Nationals, he aspired to do just that. 

Because of his ambitions, Biasone felt strongly about how basketball should be played. He much preferred the traditional ball movement and playmaking of the years past to the boring stalling method of the current time, knowing full well that stalling would beat his ideal offense at every opportunity while simultaneously keeping his team in games against tougher opponents. 

Ferris provided a unique balance to Biasone’s rigidity. He developed a reputation as an innovator; he enjoyed exploring new avenues and approaches, whether in his business or professional basketball. 

To say he was instrumental to the latter is an understatement. After helping establish a team in Buffalo, signing the first African-American player in the league, and becoming Vice President of the NBL, he orchestrated the merger between the competing BAA and NBL—a move that helped save both leagues from obsolescence.

Ferris’s innovative spirit sometimes clashed with Biasone’s perspective on how basketball should be played. This meeting, however, aligned them in purpose and goals, though the idea of the shot clock did not originate with these men. 

In fact, the third of the meeting’s trifecta, Barboni, drew upon a friend’s previous idea. Barboni’s WWII trench mate, Howard Hobson, had advocated and submitted a proposal for the implementation of a shot clock in the NCAA in 1954, shortly before the famous meeting between Barboni, Biasone, and Ferris. 

However, this group of executives had the power to push for the change; they only needed to figure out the number of seconds in which to set the shot clock.

Remembered for his mathematical prowess, Ferris crunched the numbers on the back of a napkin, examining box scores of the NBA games they found most exciting. On average, the teams took around 60 shots each for a total of 120 per game. 

The executives then divided the total seconds in a game—2,880—by that 120 figure, arriving at 24 seconds per shot. The conclusion?

A 24-second shot clock.

Implementing the shot clock

To work out the kinks, several fellow NBA owners and executives gathered in a small high school gym in Syracuse at Biasone’s alma mater, Blodgett Vocational High School. Below the executives observing from the bleachers, a scrimmage of all-stars played out, testing the 24-second shot clock.

In the first few possessions, the players felt the urgency of the new restricted time limit and acted in haste. After several possessions, the players settled down and got into the rhythm of the shot clock. 

Further into the scrimmage, the players began to create and innovate from within the new system. At first, the shot clock reset upon making contact with the backboard or a shot falling through the bucket. 

Soon, though, the athletes discovered ways around it; at least on one occurrence, a player intentionally hit the ball off the backboard as the shot clock wound down, resetting the clock and indirectly passing to a teammate, all while maintaining possession of the ball. 

This event caused the executives to reevaluate the shot clock mechanism. It was changed to reset upon contact with the rim to avoid abuse of the backboard. 

Soon after this scrimmage, every team adopted a 24-second shot clock for every basketball game in the 1954-1955 season. 

The impact on the game

The effect of implementing the 24-second shot clock became clear after just a few seasons.

In the first year after, the average number of field goals attempted per game jumped from 75.4 in 1953-54 to 86.4 in 1954-55, with the average field goals made increasing to 33.3 from 28.1

The average points scored by each team in a game rose from 79.5 to 93.1, as did field goal percentage, from .372 to .385. Average rebounds per game also increased to 56.1 from 50.9.

Overall, these numbers describe an overwhelmingly positive increase to the parts of basketball most fans deem exciting: more good shots leading to higher scores and a higher field goal percentage, and more rebounds to make the most of every possession. 

With a limited time for each possession, players moved the ball with intention and put up more shots, leading to more rebounds. 

Because of the finite time allotted, set plays became more common and passing became faster. As the pace of the game picked up, it made less and less sense to leave centers in the paint to prevent layups. 

Additionally, the stalling tactic could no longer be used to keep the ball away from the likes of George Mikan, so teams needed a diverse attack and defense in order to win the games. 

The NBA Finals in 1954 and 1955 demonstrated this comparison perfectly. In the 1954 Finals, the reigning champion Minneapolis Lakers defeated the Syracuse Nationals in seven games, scoring an average of 74.7 points to the Nationals’ 70.7. 

In the following year, the Nationals beat the Fort Wayne Pistons with average scores in the 90s. Between the two teams, average combined field goal attempts rose by over 35 attempts from the 1954 Finals to the ultimate playoff the year after. 

Thus, not only did the rule change affect the pace, but it also altered the style of play. The most impactful effect of the shot clock rule was the 40% increase in fan attendance over the next few years. Biasone, Ferris, and Barboni had succeeded: the NBA lived on.

The shot clock outside of the NBA

The two other major basketball guiding organizations, the National College Athletic Association (NCAA) and the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), became interested in implementing the shot clock soon after seeing its success in the 1954-55 NBA season. High school basketball, on the other hand, holds mixed opinions on the matter.

FIBA had encountered similar problems to the NBA in the Olympics. At the 1948 London Olympics, the gold-medal winners, the United States, scored 524 points over eight games, averaging 65.5 points a game. Neither silver (Brazil) nor bronze (Canada) broke 400 points in the seven games they played. 

At the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games, the United States won again, averaging 70.2 points a game with a total of 562 points scored. Bronze-medalist Argentina scored the most points in the tournament, with 600 points or 75 a game.

Intrigued, FIBA observed the new rule’s success in the NBA’s 1954-55 season and opted to implement a 30-second shot clock at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne. The United States won yet another gold medal, but this time they averaged 99.1 points a game, a jump of almost 30 points, for a total of 793 scored. 

Almost every other team in the top 10 finishers scored over 500 points, a mark previously reserved for the most elite squads. In 2000, FIBA reduced the shot clock limit to 24 seconds to match the NBA.

The NCAA, however, took much longer to recognize the significance of the shot clock. Skeptics thought that a shot clock in college basketball would create more turnovers for the younger players because of the lack of skill and experience and would not support their development as players. 

Low-scoring games, though, occurred in this league as well, such as the December 15, 1973 game between Tennessee and Temple, which ended in a dismal score of 11-6. Newspapers recorded that Temple held the ball for over 32 minutes of the 40 minute game. 

Tennessee’s head coach Rod Mears used the incident to advocate for a shot clock, though the league had several more years and instances such as this until it seriously considered the proposition.

Thus, 30 years after the 24-second shot clock was introduced, the NCAA implemented a 45-second shot clock for the 1985-1986 season. Almost 10 years later, the NCAA reduced the shot clock time to 35 seconds for the 1993-94 season. 

As players developed earlier and earlier, the NCAA wished to encourage more shooting and higher-scoring games. so it tested a 30-second shot clock. During the smaller tournaments of the 2014-15 season, such as the National Invitation Tournament (NIT), College Basketball Invitational (CBI) and CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament (CIT), teams played against a 30-second shot clock. 

The results illustrated just how helpful the shot clock can be in terms of regulating scoring. The teams in these tournaments scored an increase of 2.4 points per game higher than the NCAA tournament, adjusted for the normal difference between tournaments. The NCAA subsequently instituted the 30-second shot clock in the following year. 

Unlike FIBA and the NCAA, American high school basketball continues to debate the use of the shot clock. The National Federations of High School Athletics Associations (NFHS) allows for shot clock implementation, yet state high school associations remain inconsistent in instituting it within their leagues.

Proponents argue it will encourage student athletes to develop skills faster so they can be ready to compete on the higher level. Skeptics, on the other hand, think it is unrealistic as only a small percentage of high school athletes move on to a higher level, and the cost of an LED shot clock is oftentimes prohibitive for already-tight school budgets.

Modern engagement with the shot clock

The new sped-up gameplay blossomed in the years after the first shot clock buzzer sounded. Modern NBA games usually consist of field goal attempts in the high 80s, with 45% of those shots scoring. Point totals hover around 110. 

The best teams in basketball are the ones that put up quality shots quickly, like the early-to-mid 2000s Phoenix Suns with point guard Steve Nash and head coach Mike D’Antoni. 

Shot clock violations permeate all levels of basketball that abide by the rule. Defenses base their impact on the quality of shots they allow their opponents, or, better yet, the amount of shot clock violations forced. 

Instead of an above-the-rim defense common among the George Mikans of the pre-shot clock era, modern defenses focus on forcing the opposing team to delay their attack and contesting their shots. Teams have guaranteed time to possess and know what to expect; the only variations are the ones forced by the defense or unforced violations committed by the offense. 

For example, in the 1993 NCAA National Championship game between Michigan and North Carolina, clock management decided the game. Down two points with 20 seconds remaining, Michigan’s Chris Webber rebounded a missed North Carolina shot and took the ball up the court, getting away with a walk in the process. 

As soon as he crossed half-court, a double-team enveloped him and pushed Webber toward the sideline. He could not get a pass off as the clock ticked down to 10 seconds.

Then, Webber committed the unthinkable—he called a timeout with no timeouts remaining. North Carolina went on to win the championship, 77-71.

Though this example utilizes the game clock and not the shot clock, the same principles apply: In the pre-shot clock era, Webber would’ve had more time to strategize and possibly made a shot, and the game could have turned out quite differently. 

Instead, because of the urgency and pace the shot clock creates, teams are looking to the basket or defending it closely, as opposed to holding the ball until the last few seconds. 

Had this game occurred without a shot clock, Webber would have no ball to rebound, and if it existed, Webber would have held the ball until the last few seconds of the game, instead of trying to call a timeout to reevaluate the strategy. The game would have been entirely different and not the thrilling NCAA Tournament that millions tune in to watch. 

As Bob Cousy puts it, “Before the new rule, the last quarter could be deadly. The team in front would hold the ball indefinitely, and the only way you could get it was by fouling somebody. In the meantime, nobody dared take a shot and the whole game slowed up. With the clock, we have constant action. I think it saved the NBA at that time. It allowed the game to breathe and progress.”

Without the three men in a restaurant in Syracuse, the game of basketball would not be the game it is today—watched and played by millions all around the world. For this historical moment, Biasone was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame for his contribution to the shot clock. 

Unfortunately, Barboni and Ferris remain as sidekicks to Biasone’s genius. Descendants of Ferris believe that he should also be inducted into the Hall of Fame. As a former executive of one of the founding leagues, a leader in racial integration, and one of the inventors of the shot clock, the case for his induction is strong. 

Sadly, Ferris left the league after helping the Syracuse Nationals win the NBA Finals in 1955. Some say it was because he wanted to go in a different direction, while others believe he left because of his disagreements with Biasone. 

Regardless, his contributions to the game of basketball are clear: he and his companions saved the NBA.

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